Polar Bear Viewing in Kaktovik Alaska

Sebastian Schnülle · September 28, 2013 · 1 Comment

Test Feature 2

After the glacier season came to an end, I had hardly time to unpack my bags. The next adventure was calling, a Polar Bear Viewing Trip to Kaktovik Alaska. It all started with visiting Karine and Kelsey in Churchill last fall, and now I am hooked. Not that I have not been hooked to adventures in the north before, but the Polar Bears are a new element.

Although I had heard the name Kaktovik before, I could not even really pinpoint it on an Alaska map. Due North of Fairbanks pretty much, on the North Slope. On the way up, flying with Era Aviation, we did a pitstop landing in Fort Yukon. No passengers were getting on or off, but a lot of mail was unloaded. Another flight hour further north we landed on Barter Island, the other Name for Kaktovik.

Close to 3oo people make this place there home. There are 2 hotels in town the more modern Marsh Creek in, run by the village corporation and the more old style Waldo´s Arms. At first when the school bus, which picked us handful travelers up at the airport stopped at the assortment of buildings and road equipment, I thought: " what are we doing at this mechanic shop? " Only a small weathered sign indicated that this Atco Trailer Assortment was actually Waldo´s Inn.

I LOVE this place. Its the real deal. You can not rent a room. Instead individual beds are rented out. Perfect way to meet new people. Kim a professional photographer who had lived in Juneau had to put up with my snoring. He now calls Oregon his home. Most people here have some sort of an assignment, working with a filmcrew, or for a newspaper or teach photo workshops. A perfect environment to learn more about taking pictures.

But the best about Waldo´s are the hosts. Walt and Merlin who have lived here for decades, Walt has plenty of stories, over breakfast he recounted his tale of crashing his plane in the Brooks Range and living on a small ledge for 6 days with what ever provisions happen to be on the plane before being rescued by helicopter. They have a great crew helping them, specially in the kitchen and there is 24hr nonstop food for us guests. It feels like a Yukon Quest Checkpoint with a constant stream of people coming and going and a constant supply of food. Only that here I can stay for several days and not only pitstop for 4 hrs.

There are several boat guides in town. Although Waldo´s also organizes trips through town by school bus, the best way to see the great whites is via boat. Bruce, Robert and Ketil are all very knowledgeable about the area. Matter of fact Ketil just walked in ..... soooo time to get dressed and grab the camera.

O.K. some 1200 pictures later I am back at Waldos and of course a dinner later too by now. Taking pictures of Polar Bears up here is out right easy. I like the fact to be on the boat, being able to have the camera low with the bear against the horizon.  Normally there is less activity during the daytime, as the bears tend to hang low and nap, but there is so many of them, that there is always some kind of action going on. Yesterday I counted over 40 bears I could see from the rooftop of the boat. Today I counted around 35 of them. Most of them hang out on a set of sandbanks and island right in front of town. The lagoons are shallow, often barely deep enough for the boats to make it through, even with raised up engines sputtering being half out of the water.

But at night, Kaktovik turns into a different place. Although the whale hunt is about 2 weeks ago, a lot of local residents, and there is not that many of them, about 300, keep the whale meat in freezers or shacks around their places. And that sure lures the bears in. So all night a few local residents are on Polar Bear patrol. Some in pickup trucks and some on ATVs. Of course their first measure is to chase the bears away, but that is not always successful. In my short 3 days here, I now have come across more than one dead Polar Bear.  Oh, I can hear the big outcry now, and it indeed opens up an interesting chapter.  What to southern farmers do with animals which steal their food? But not even looking that far away. While Tourism Alaska advertises with great pictures of nature and wildlife, and that being ALIVE, the same animals are hunted, many as subsistence, but also quite a few for commerce through hunting outfits. But the one side does not see that much of the other side. But in the Arctic, both sides, are very close together. Very much in your face, hard to turn a blind eye on. Most likely the same mother with 2 cubs I first saw when arriving in town, I saw three days later skinned in a driveway a few houses over. I can only imagine the controversy among the local residents, where some are trying to make a living inviting camera trigger happy visitors like myself, whereas a member of their extended family shoots the same animals.

It is going to be very interesting to see what will happen in the future. Polar Bears in these numbers have not been around Kaktovik historically. Which turn will this event take? Preserve the bears, create an industry, tourism that is? But with that will have to come a change in habits locally, so that the bears are not getting habituated to getting into the residents food supplies. Can you really blame the bears for trying to sneak into town at night, lured by the smell of fresh whale meat? Or will the Bears be decimated in such large numbers that they stop coming? Or will visitors be too offended by seeing the dead bears. Even among the current visitors here at Waldos right now, ranging from local Alaskans from Haines, to writers for the London's Globe and mail, to a National Geographic Film Crew, there are some very interesting discussions around the dinner table. Meeting  I am sure glad, that I am here more than the usual 1 or 2 night, matter of fact there is even daily charters coming in, who allow people a few hours in town. Staying here a bit longer, still not anywhere long enough to get a good understanding, is giving me the opportunity to look a bit behind the scenes, something I like doing.  Being new to Polar Bear Viewing, and only having one trip to Churchill as a comparison, this sure is another world. Much less commercial. Feels more raw. In a good way. No big hotels ( yet ). I like the bear viewing via boat a lot. But also in a bad way, as I for sure did not come across dead Polar Bears in Churchill. But than... I vividly remember the air lifting scenario in Churchill, staged as a media event. Bottom line is.... where ever man and beast clash, there is some interesting conflicts. And this holds true even in one of the most remote villages of Alaska. As always in life, I like to look at the bright side and feel privileged to be here and to get some great photographs. Enjoy them in the gallery below.

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