Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.
~ Edward O. Wilson ~
A Sow and her Cubs Rest on Barter Island, Alaska
The last month has been extremely busy for me, and I have much to blog about, but I decided to go out of sequence in order to share photos and commentary from my recent trip to Kaktovik to view and photograph the beautiful polar bears.
My friend Amanda and I have been planning this trip for many months. It’s a costly excursion, whether you go for the day, as we did, or on a multi-day trip. The day trip is $1399 through Northern Alaska Tour Company here in Fairbanks.
We originally booked our trip for September 15th. Amanda and I reported at 6am as instructed, for a departure at 7am. But low fog was hugging the coast, so we needed to wait until things hopefully cleared up. At 10am, things still hadn’t improved and the trip was cancelled. Matt Atkinson, the General Manager at Warbelow’s Air Ventures, decided to add another fly day on the 16th, although they don’t usually do trips on Tuesday, with the hopes of getting us up to the north slope.
The next morning, we were instructed to report at 6:30am as we had already been briefed. Again, we waited for the morning fog to lift. And again, the trip was cancelled. The remainder of the week was booked solid, but there were a few seats open the following week, so Amanda and I chose the last trip of the season - September 25th.
Third time’s the charm!
Although we were disappointed that we couldn’t travel with the original group of six, we were so thrilled that we were finally going! On our flight north, there were only four of us on board (and the pilot), and we flew in a twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain. The trip usually involves a stop in Deadhorse to refuel, but there was extra fuel on board so we were able to skip that short layover and fly directly to Kaktovik.
When we took off from Fairbanks airport, the sun was shining brightly and visibility was great. The landscape below glowed in the orange light of the morning sun.
We crossed over the White Mountains first. The pilot (Andy Lepkowski) pointed out peaks and rivers below. We saw the mighty Yukon and also the Chandalar River - which is a tributary of the Yukon. We also flew over Arctic Village (pop about 100) which is located on the east fork of the Chandalar River. It was easy to see the airstrip in the middle of so much wilderness.
Next, we crossed the Brooks Range. Things were a bit more turbulent as we flew over these tall mountains. We flew at 12,000 feet - only about 3000 feet above the tallest mountain. But we had terrific visibility, and it was really beautiful to see this impressive mountain range from above.
I’ve crossed the Brooks Range on my several trips up the Dalton Highway (via Atigun Pass), but seeing it from above was truly amazing. It was much wider than I thought, and the peaks just went on and on. The mountains were snow covered and bright white in the sunshine. It looked very cold. And desolate.
I watched Andy push buttons and throw switches, as we began to descend a short time later. I could see fog coming up from below, and soon we were flying in a gray cotton ball. As we continued to descend: 8000, 6000, 4000, 2000, the fog began to thin and bits and pieces of the stark landscape below would come into view. Treeless and flat, the North Slope has only a surface active layer of tundra that thaws each spring. Most of the soil is permanently frozen year-round. On top of this permafrost, water flows to the sea (the Beaufort Sea in Kaktovik) via shallow braided streams, or settles into pools and ponds.
Soon, the village of Kaktovik came into view below. Andy flew over the bone pile, where the discarded bones and scraps from the hunted bowhead whales are taken. The bone pile, especially when fresh scraps are dumped, can be a popular place to view polar bears.
Upon landing, we were met by a van to take us to the Marsh Creek Inn - one of two inns in Kaktovik. Let it be known that the term inn is used loosely here, as the Marsh Creek Inn is comprised of several ATCO units - like so many in remote (and not so remote) Alaska. Remember that it’s a simple life in Kaktovik - so don’t expect frills. Also remember that everything is flown in, so be grateful for what is offered. If you need room service, this isn’t for you. But if you want to view polar bears in their natural habitat, in a friendly and welcoming Inupiat village, at an inn that serves really good food (included in the lodging rate), you’ll get a clean and warm sleeping space at Marsh Creek Inn. (If you’re traveling solo, during peak viewing season, you will most likely be bunking with same-sex strangers and sharing a bathroom at the end of the hall.)
On the way to the inn, our pilot pointed out a few landmarks in the village. The whale shack, located on the beach, is where slabs of whale meat and blubber are taken after a Bowhead whale is killed and cut up into pieces by villagers. Women cut the slabs into bite-size pieces and boil it, so that everyone can have a taste.
Kaktovik is allotted three whales a year by the Whaling Commission, based on the size of their community - which is about 250 residents. When a whale is caught, the news spreads quickly throughout the village, and people hurry to the beach where they wait for the whaling crews to bring it to shore. It is a huge celebration!
While the thought of such an amazing creature being killed may seem sad, you have to remember that Kaktovik has no form of agriculture naturally occurring there, for them to live on. The people live a subsistence lifestyle and hunt whale, caribou, seal, walrus, duck and fish. Getting all three of their allotted whales, is a very big deal as the meat will feed the entire village throughout the winter.
As we continued on our way to the inn, we saw the Barter Island Defense Early Warning (DEW) Line Station off in the distance. The DEW Line or Early Warning Line, was a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada, with additional stations along the North Coast and Aleutian Islands of Alaska, in addition to the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Iceland. It was set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion. The DEW Line was operational from 1957 to the late 1980s and it was the northernmost and most capable of three radar lines in Canada and Alaska. It is now considered a Long Range Radar Site (LRRS); operated and maintained by Arctec Alaska - a government contractor.
We also passed by the Post Office, the Police Station, and private residences. At several homes, there was whale meat on the porch. While not at risk of spoiling (as the temp was below freezing), I would think these piles of meat might be attractive to roaming polar bears. The village has a Polar Bear Patrol (also called Nanook Patrol) to keep these large marine mammals out of the village.
Here are photos from our flight up to Kaktovik:
Upon arrival at Marsh Creek Inn, we were led into the sitting area, where biologists with Fish and Game awaited our arrival. Also present were several folks visiting from Oregon and New Hampshire. We were provided with information about the polar bears, and could ask questions. I asked: Do polar bears also have “delayed implantation” when it comes to reproduction, as other bears do? (I learned about delayed implantation from our friends Chris and Ken Day when we were visiting the brown bears in Katmai, and found it to be quite fascinating!)
The answer is - Yes. Polar bear mating usually occurs out on the pack ice between late March and mid-July. Females will mate with a number of males over the three weeks or so of the breeding season. After mating, delayed implantation takes place. The fertilized ovum divides a few times and then floats free within the uterus for about six months with its development arrested.
Sometime around September the embryo will attach itself to the uterine wall and resume its development. The mother will enter the den in October or November and the cubs are born sometime in December or January while the mother is hibernating. The delayed implantation process insures that the mother bear has enough fat reserves to carry her through the winter and if this is not the case the embryo will not implant but is simply reabsorbed by her body. She will then continue her winter hunting out on the pack ice. What an amazing thing nature is, to ensure healthy offspring are born!