travel: Where po­lar bears and peo­ple co­ex­ist

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Rachel Walker

fair­banks, alaska» Clouds roiled on the hori­zon, sat­u­rated and spit­ting as six of us waited in the ster­ile an­te­room of the North­ern Alaska Tour Com­pany’s avi­a­tion of­fice in Fair­banks. A gi­ant map of the state hung on the wall, and my gaze re­turned to it re­peat­edly. There we were, land­locked in Alaska’s cen­ter. Fur­ther north, be­yond the mas­sive Yukon River val­ley, was Dead­horse, an oil town at the mouth of Prud­hoe Bay. East of Dead­horse, cleav­ing to the land­mass be­low it and perched on the blue Beau­fort Sea, was our des­ti­na­tion: Kak­tovik, the only oc­cu­pied vil­lage in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. Here, po­lar bears con­verge ev­ery fall, wait­ing for sea ice to form so they can head out and live adrift through­out the win­ter.

Along with five friends, I was wait­ing for clear­ance to board a plane to Kak­tovik and see po­lar bears up close. Ours was a day trip and tours on sub­se­quent days were full, which meant that if we couldn’t fly out of Fair­banks, we wouldn’t get to Kak­tovik. Au­tumn in Alaska is a volatile time of year, weather-wise. It can be sunny one day, snowy

the next. In the­ory, that’s part of the ex­cite­ment. But wait­ing for our flight clear­ance, I was curs­ing the rain gods.

Listed as “threat­ened” un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act, po­lar bears have be­come a po­tent sym­bol of the im­pact of cli­mate change. This is be­cause they rely on sea ice for their sur­vival — they need it to hunt seals, their pri­mary prey — and cli­mate change has con­trib­uted to the ice’s record low lev­els. A NASA re­searcher es­ti­mates that since 1979, more than 600,000 square miles of win­ter sea ice has melted away. Ad­di­tion­ally, the ice that re­mains thinned by 65 per­cent be­tween 1975 and 2012. As it has di­min­ished, mor­tal­ity among young and old po­lar bears has in­creased, and fed­eral sci­en­tists have doc­u­mented an over­all pop­u­la­tion de­cline over the past 20 years.

Po­lar bears tra­di­tion­ally con­gre­gate in and around Kak­tovik, an Inu­piat vil­lage of about 250 residents, while await­ing fall sea-ice for­ma­tion. The bears are at­tracted to the vil­lage in part be­cause of its an­nual bow­head whale hunt, al­lowed un­der na­tive treaties. Residents may har­vest up to three whales each year. Vil­lagers rely on whale meat to sub­sist through the harsh win­ter, and they leave the blub­ber and other ined­i­ble (to humans) whale parts to sa­ti­ate the hun­gry bru­ins. Coun­ter­in­tu­itive as it may seem, the sys­tem has been work­ing well for decades. Feed the preda­tors and co­ex­ist. It’s only in re­cent years that a tourism in­dus­try has cropped up around the prac­tice.

Just when I was beginning to won­der whether our trip would be can­celed be­cause of the quixotic Fair­banks weather, the rain stopped and tour com­pany man­ager Matt Atkin­son rushed my group to the tar­mac. We hus­tled into the Piper Navajo Chief­tain pi­loted by Heather Zulka­nycz, buck­led up, tax­ied to the run­way and, af­ter get­ting clear­ance from air-traf­fic con­trol, took to the sky.

Within min­utes, civ­i­liza­tion gave way to a lush and broad wilder­ness snaked with rivers. From cruis­ing al­ti­tude, the muted col­ors of fall cre­ated a mo­saic that mes­mer­ized me un­til clouds de­scended and oblit­er­ated the view. Af­ter an hour of fly­ing through fog, the gray broke to re­veal an end­less panorama of some of the steep­est, most rugged moun­tains I’d ever seen. The Brooks Range.

We re­fu­eled in Dead­horse and then flew another hour to Kak­tovik, land­ing on the long, sandy strip that con­sti­tutes the Barter Is­land run­way (I tried not to no­tice the ocean waves lap­ping at its edges.) Then Heather herded us into a wait­ing van and drove into town, a re­mark­ably iso­lated out­post with build­ings con­structed of aban­doned ship­ping con­tain­ers.

Kak­tovik is a town with only a few dirt roads and very few cars. Lo­cals drive four-wheel­ers. We saw a post of­fice and a fire station, but no gro­cery store. We ate a quick lunch at a cafe­te­ria-like restau­rant and then met up with Ve­jborn Rei­tan, our lo­cal guide, and set out to see the bears.

The first ones we saw were on the beach, en route from the airstrip to town. They were gath­ered around large chunks of blub­ber, refuse from a re­cently har­vested whale. Three bears, their muz­zles red with blood, ig­nored us as we slowed down to take a good look.

We were mere feet from one of the big­gest, fiercest an­i­mals in the world, and they were as obliv­i­ous to us as cows graz­ing in a field. Ve­jborn promised that we’d see a lot more, and we quickly re­al­ized he was right. They were ev­ery­where. Some loafed in the fresh air, oth­ers gnawed on large blocks of blub­ber. We saw very lit­tle sep­a­ra­tion of peo­ple and bears; there were no fences sep­a­rat­ing wildlife ar­eas from res­i­den­tial ones.

Ve­jborn ush­ered us onto a fish­ing boat and we set out on the ocean. Though high winds kept us close to shore, we saw even more bears. They were huge, with paws the size of a child’s head, clearly vis­i­ble through binoc­u­lars. But ... they were also cute. Even bears with bloody muz­zles that had been gorg­ing them­selves on whale leftovers looked sweet and in­no­cent and cud­dly — easy to say with white­caps and a boat’s hull be­tween us. Add in the cubs, which were adorable, and my group of six was smit­ten.

Our five-hour tour was more vis­ual than it was ed­u­ca­tional. At least that was my ini­tial re­ac­tion — as an am­a­teur nat­u­ral­ist, I’ve been on more than my share of na­ture tours. I ex­pected an im­pas­sioned lec­ture from our guide on bear bi­ol­ogy and cli­mate change, and I thought I’d end the day armed with enough facts to feel like I could ac­tu­ally do some­thing to help po­lar bears. (I re­al­ize the irony in this ex­pec­ta­tion; sim­ply get­ting to Kak­tovik burned sig­nif­i­cant amounts of fos­sil fuel, a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change.) But my time in Kak­tovik left a much greater im­pres­sion than a guide’s mem­o­rized spiel could have.

As I stepped off the boat and onto the rocky shore, heart beat­ing with the thrill of shar­ing the air, the world, re­ally, with wild po­lar bears, I un­der­stood in a vis­ceral way the com­plex­ity of that world.

My life couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent than those of the friendly residents of Kak­tovik who waved as they passed us in 4x4s. Their weather is wind and rain, their skies gray and damp. And yet, de­spite their iso­la­tion, they are a vi­brant com­mu­nity with tra­di­tions and a cul­ture they’re not will­ing to ex­ploit to ap­pease the thou­sands of global tourists who flock to their vil­lage each fall.

Dur­ing my brief stay, I ate the tasti­est chicken soup of my life, com­plete with talons in the broth. I ex­pe­ri­enced the thrill of fly­ing in a bush plane with an un­flap­pable pi­lot. I spent a day in the life in a re­mote Alaskan vil­lage perched on what felt like the end of the Earth and saw the an­i­mal that has come to sym­bol­ize one of the great­est man-made threats of all time.

Two po­lar bears en­gage in play-fight­ing in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Ri­tu­al­ized play-fight­ing oc­curs be­tween sub-adult males to re­fine their hunt­ing skills. Jes­sica Matthews, The Wash­ing­ton Post

Jes­sica Matthews, The Wash­ing­ton Post

A po­lar bear takes a dip in the Beau­fort Sea, lo­cated on the north­ern coast of Alaska. Protected marine mam­mals and po­lar bears spend much of their lives in and around water.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.