Bruce Inglangasak originally is from Aklavik. While gabbing politics on the boat we came to talk about his hometown and all for sudden Bruce goes. I know you. You were in town with a Canoe when I worked for the barge company. Sure enough, all the way back in 1996, when I paddled down the Mackenzie River I went to Aklavik. The North is a small place.
Bruce has moved to Kaktovik about a decade ago, as he has many relatives in town. He has very interesting outlooks on the affairs in Kaktovik, and the possible future of Tourism here. Mainly he wishes, that more local people get involved. But “ southern laws” make it increasingly difficult for them. He openly talked about his experiences to get his guiding license and how he had to fly 3 times down south to Anchorage for background checks. At 57 years of age, Bruce has a lifetime of experience in the northland, yet he has to take a guiding course, with questions which have no relevance up here. The decision makers have far less wilderness experience than Bruce himself. He half jokes: I wish those people who make these tests would have to live on the land only for a month and prove me that they can do that. That means a lot more up here than some silly questions.
Bruce is walking an interesting line of traditional knowledge and modern lifestyle. While guiding us on his boat, it is pretty apparent how well he can read the bears. He simply knows, its intuition, nurtured by living on and off the land here. But Bruce is also one of the rare cases, who have embraced modern society. Its hard to not notice him doing business over his I-phone, being quick in returning calls and updating his facebook page. His daughter takes part in the Youth Ambassador Program. The political talks sure heat up a notch, as soon as you mention the words Fish and Wildlife officers. Simply put, Bruce likes them leave town immediately. He thinks that the local people are very well capable of dealing with their own survival and their own way of dealing with Polar Bears, as they have for generations. Sure there are more bears in and around town as before, but other changes had happened in the past and “ his people “ managed just fine.
Of course I can´t help it to notice some parallels to Churchill, where Manitoba Conservation plays a very active role in the so called “ Bear management “. And those practices are for sure not all agreed on by those local residents neither, like a problem bear, who recently had got entangled with a local ( newly local should be added ) resident at night, thus labeled as a problem bear and now subsequently being send to spend the rest of his days in captivity in the Winnipeg Zoo. Not everybody is in favor of that neither, for various reasons.
Things in Kaktovik are much more “ raw and untamed “ at this point. It’s the real deal, when it comes to Polar Bear watching. I keep on coming back to my first day observation: “ Kaktovik is Churchill on Steroids “. The Polar Bear Opportunities are simply amazing . While the bears have become accustomed to the noise of an ATV meaning danger, as they take off like a bullet as soon as they hear one, as that is what the local Polar Bear Patrol drives. But being out in the boats is like entering a whole other world. Bruce, Ketil or Robert quietly maneuver to a spot on the numerous beaches of the outside lagoons. And it usually does not take very long, till the action begins. At any given time you see more than 20 bears. Some only little specs on the horizon, others napping in groups and yet other being interested in whoever pulled up to shore. They casually wander over, often sit down in a pose what Bruce calls “ that is an invitation to play “. They are curious, fearless and interested. With no engagement of play and interaction following, the bears, after a few minutes loose interest and wander off again. All guides I have been out with point out what not to do, like sudden movements. Never mind going to shore, a total nono.
Bruce maintains a very set standpoint on management of problem bears who wander in town and get into food. They need to be shot, for the safety of humans, visitors and residents alike. Different standpoints are much more visible and close together in this small town and not as easily overlooked as in southern societies. He does not believe in Government money needing to be spend to relocate bears, nor outside Government needing to get involved in the first place. Kaktovik is raw, untamed, real life Alaska. For some people it might be the most desolate place on earth, for others one of the most beautiful and powerful place they have ever visited.
This morning I shared the boat with a photographer form Greece, staying for 20 days. Shooting away with high powered lenses, he mentioned: “ Oh I have taken 25.000 pictures “. Good thing I do not have to sort through those….
Close encounters with the King of the Arctic can be guaranteed in Kaktovik, but they can come in different forms than expected before the trip. I am glad the back door is bolted and barricaded shut for the night. I am not going for a walk at night time. Each night shots can be heard, in an effort to keep the bears out of town and from getting into freezers full of whale meat. But neither would have ever imagined to witness, never mind photograph from close range, a mother nursing her two cubs, a powerful image that will stay with me for along time to come. Light, circumstances and company were perfect. Simply a grand adventure.