North to Alaska: Report from Polar Bear Heaven
Our second expedition into the wild to find polar bears in 2018 took us to the far northeast corner of Alaska into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We arrived by small plane luckily, under a minimum visibility ceiling at the tiny Inuit settlement of Kaktovik which clings tenaciously to Barter Island on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. (Many flights are turned away at the last minute before landing at this time of year due to poor visibility.) Kaktovik is strategically located for travelers who want to find polar bears as it is the only accessible area in Alaska where bears gather seasonally in the late fall to wait for the winter sea ice to form on the Beaufort Sea.
Our expedition was planned to arrive around the time of the first snowfall of the season and we were not disappointed. Though, as in all things, we paid the price of having to endure fierce westerly gale force winds, minus temperatures and rapidly forming sea ice in the protected bays where we concentrated our search for bears. Enhancing the chance of observing migrating bears further were Inuit hunters who harvest several Bowhead whales for subsistence purposes using traditional methods and then butcher the carcasses on the barrier beaches north of Barter Island. This activity, which occurs in September every year, is a magnet for hungry bears, many of whom are sows with “young – of – the – year” cubs.
Our local guide, Fred, was a master at maneuvering his 26 foot sturdy aluminum boat in very shallow water to provide us opportunities to locate, watch and anticipate bear behavior so we could get in position to make photographs. Given the fierce local conditions we spent many hours just watching sleeping bears while they were hunkered down often in clumps of multiple bears, behind a dune or some driftwood to get out of the biting frozen winds. Patience was the key.
It was a privilege to observe these magnificent predators in small groups and determine the subtle interactions amongst these usually solitary hunters. We had found them in a seasonal gathering place while they waited for the winter ice to form so they could disperse to the north onto the sea ice hunting areas of the Arctic Ocean. And with the onset of winter at hand we were also treated to the golden light of the fading Arctic sun for a couple of our late afternoon observations. What an incredible thrill for us and one that just might bring us back again.
We are deeply indebted to master wildlife photographer Bob Waldrop. He graciously connected us to the many logistics necessary to do this expedition having spent decades guiding, observing and cataloging the behavior of the magnificent “King of the North” at Kaktovik. It was terrific to travel with him again.