Local Ketil Reitan takes visitors to sandbars in search of polar bears. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Because climate change is threatening polar bears’ sea ice habitat, they can be found in increasing numbers in and around Kaktovik. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Though Northern Alaska Tour Company offers commission on most of its excursions, the Polar Bear Expedition is an exception due to the nature of the flight and the boat ride. Kathy Hedges, marketing coordinator for the company, recommends that agents add a booking fee to this experience.
“Look out your window,” said Matt Gallagher, our pilot, as our destination came into view.
We had been flying over the low plains of the Arctic tundra. But instead of swampy, barren flatlands, I spotted specks of white.
“It looks like there are some polar bears on the runway,” Gallagher said.
My excitement suddenly overcame my air sickness, moving me to straighten up and squint out the window. At last, we had reached Kaktovik, Alaska, a remote town on the northeast corner of Barter Island protected by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Kaktovik is home to some 250 people, mostly members of the Inupiat tribe. About as north as it gets in the U.S., Kaktovik is only accessible by plane — or by sea in the case of polar bears. There are about 26,000 polar bears left in the world, and this year, 71 of them were spotted in and around Kaktovik on a single day.
These bears are part of the southern Beaufort Sea (SB) group, one of the world’s 19 subpopulations of polar bears. As their habitat — the sea ice off the Alaskan coast — continues to disappear, they’re increasingly left stranded.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth, and last year was the hottest year on record for the third year in a row. Because of climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, sea ice is thawing earlier, receding into far-off open waters and freezing later in the year.
This bodes poorly for polar bears, which depend on sea ice to hunt ice seals, their main source of nourishment. Because of affected sea ice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. And matters haven’t improved: According to FWS, the area of the Arctic covered by sea ice was the lowest on record in October and November 2016 since recordkeeping began in 1979.
A recent article in The New York Times called Kaktovik’s bears “climate refugees.” In their quest to find alternative food and shelter, the bears have discovered the Inupiat’s September tradition of subsistence hunting — and their habit of discarding bowhead whale carcasses in a bone pile just outside of town.
“It’s natural for polar bears to opportunistically eat beach-cast whales, walrus and seals,” said Jennifer Reed, public use manager for ANWR. “Now that generations of bears are returning to Kaktovik, it’s clear there is some fidelity that can be attributed to the presence of the food subsidy in the area.”
The percentage of radio-collared adult females from the SB subpopulation coming onshore has tripled over 15 years, according to a recent study published by Todd C. Atwood, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Atwood also writes that these bears are arriving earlier, staying longer and leaving later — all trends directly related to decreasing sea ice.
More Polar Bears, More Tourists
According to Reed, polar bear viewing at ANWR quintupled between 2011 and 2014 and has leveled off in the last few years.
“In 2015 and 2016, the volume of people encountered by the polar bears present in any given season was approximately 2,500,” she said.
Tour operator Northern Alaska Tour Company, which began running tours from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Kaktovik in 2014, has increased tours from three or four times per week to every day during peak season, which runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 25, says Kathy Hedges, the company’s marketing coordinator.
Some travelers choose Kaktovik for polar bear viewing rather than a place like Churchill, Manitoba, which folks here told me felt “too manicured” in comparison.
While that might sound like an unfair description of the so-called “polar bear capital of the world,” a journey to Kaktovik is more rustic and adventurous by any measure. The town has no real tourism infrastructure, and it’s remote — meaning that a visit here comes with a price tag and some bragging rights.
Northern Alaska Tour Company’s day trips to Kaktovik run $1,800 per person, which includes a basic lunch, a small-group boat ride to observe the bears and a roundtrip flight from Fairbanks to Kaktovik — with a single stop to refuel and check weather at Deadhorse Airport, a one-story building that serves as the gateway to Prudhoe Bay and Alaska’s oil industry. The irony of our stop at Deadhorse — and of the fuel required to reach Kaktovik — was not lost on me.
I hoped that my visit would help the polar bears as well as the village — a sparse, windswept setup with only a few dirt roads and a couple of canned-goods stores. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit the role that curiosity played in my visit. I wanted to see how people and bears manage to coexist on this remote, food-scarce island above the Arctic Circle.
After a cafeteria meal of fried foods at Marsh Creek Inn, a few travel companions and I met with Ketil Reitan, a Norwegian Iditarod racer who married a local Kaktovik woman about two decades ago. Reitan welcomed us onto his seven-person boat, which features a small, heated cabin and an outdoor area.
Within five minutes, we arrived at a sandbar occupied by a female polar bear and her cubs.
Because Reitan dutifully abides by rules set forth for human interaction with the bears, he ensured that we maintained a healthy distance, heroically resisting my friends’ perverse pleas to inch a little closer to the animals.
But even to my nearsighted eye, we were quite close — especially considering that polar bears are carnivorous and mothers are extremely protective. It didn’t take long, though, to be seduced by cuteness: Half of one cub’s face was brown, like his feet, from gamboling on the sandbar. His brother had catapulted into the water, only to emerge resembling a porcupine — blob-like, with wet fur settling into pointed clumps.
Their mother idled in the sand while observing the latter cub, who followed his explosive jump with a leisurely float on a piece of driftwood. The dynamic seemed no different than that of human vacationers. But Kaktovik is no Cancun of the Arctic.
The bears here look well-fed, but the village is far from an all-inclusive resort. Locals are only allowed to harvest three whales, a number that won’t increase with more bear visitors. Like drunken tourists, the bears are known to come on land at night and have to be chased off by a polar bear patrol.
To a passerby like me, though, the bears are the opposite of pests. On our boat, we were spellbound by their every move, speaking in hushed voices when not photographing the scene.
Noticing my furrowed brow and stubby wide-angle lens, Reitan beckoned me over.
As though he was Arctic Mary Poppins with a fur-lined carpet bag, he reached into some cranny of his boat and produced the largest telephoto lens I’d ever seen.
“I bought it on Amazon,” he said, offering it to me nonchalantly.
After about 20 minutes, Reitan suggested we sail away. Giving him the side-eye, I evaluated his motives with suspicion but joined my boat mates in reluctant compliance.
Within minutes, however, we neared two male polar bears submerged in the water.
Unlike females, which hover at around 450 pounds, males can reach 1,500 pounds. Pure adrenaline prevented my clicking fingers from freezing when a mother with three cubs appeared on the sandbar behind the males.
Mother bears are known to protect their cubs at all costs, even risking their own lives to do so. I grew nervous.
The males suddenly sprang into action, showing off their teeth and vigor in a play fight; the mother continued forward like no one was there. But quick creeping glances from both parties suggested that they were sizing each other up. My tension eased as the mother and her tribe marched out of sight.
The calm didn’t last for too long. There was an anxious commotion on our boat as we realized that one of the males was now gazing in our direction. He seemed to stare directly at me.
So there we were — the polar bear and the tourist — face to face. Both of us were just visitors here, but the difference was obvious. Only one of us had the luxury of going home.