Dinosaur Bear Presents:
North to Alaska Part 2 of 4:
A-way up North
[Continued from Part 1]
So when we last met SB and I were sitting in a rental truck parking lot waiting on a taxi cab. Well, if it wasn’t obvious the taxi cab (or rather taxi SUV) came and whisked us away to our AirBnB where we met our super nice hosts (one was a retired social worker!). From there we went to a combined A&W and KFC for lunch since Tristen had been asking for A&W since he first spotted one like 2,000 miles ago in Canada. After that we picked up some groceries from Safeway and retreated into our basement unit for a day of doing essentially nothing other than watching a lot of Bob’s Burgers. We had plans to go into downtown Fairbanks but decided that we really just wanted to chill for the rest of the day, so chill we did.
The next morning we had to get up super early because we had a date with polar bears in the Arctic Circle. Yep, you read that correctly, polar bears + Arctic Circle. Of course one does not simply walk to the Arctic Circle, it’s quite a ways up there after all. It is possible to drive up there, but really only along the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse and in doing so there is a 50% chance some oil truck will be kind enough to send a gift of gravel to shatter your windshield. Plus, Deadhorse is an oil town (it’s where the pipeline starts); we’re much more interested in someplace even more remote, a place where not even the ice roads go. Enter the bush plane.
Yep, SB and I – along with a family from South Africa of all places – were taking a plane up to Kaktovik to see some wild polar bears. There are no roads to Kaktovik, no roads at all. That said, it was also August 25th – the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service – so this seemed like quite a fitting adventure even if we weren’t anywhere even remotely close to a national park. If you’re wondering where Kaktovik is, I can’t say I blame you. Here it is pinned on a map:
We got an early start after going over some safety stuff and learning the general history of the area we’d be going to. Normally the plane has to first fly to Deadhorse to refuel (Kaktovik has absolutely no facilities, just a dirt runway) and then to Kaktovik. However on this particular day our group had packed light enough and we had a plane with extended fuel tanks, so we were able to head straight for Kaktovik without the detour to Deadhorse. It didn’t take long after boarding the plane to leave Fairbanks behind for the huge open “nothingness” of northern Alaska.
When we first took off it was cloudy and lightly raining, but as we moved further north the clouds started to break up a little bit. If you’re wondering about all that water, aside from the rivers, it has to do with the permafrost. The ground never thaws here so when it rains the water has no place to go until it eventually freezes itself and continues the water cycle.
Along the way we got a bit of story time about various things we were passing. We also learned – after landing but I’ll go ahead and share it now – that our pilot, Eric, was from Marion, IN, went to ISU, and is a medical pilot as his full time job. Wow, small world.
From there we continued on deeper into the tundra of the North Slope before making a wide arc to land in Kaktovik. For a bit the pilot wasn’t sure we’d be able to land – and would have had to go wait a bit at Deadhorse (about 115 miles west in Prudhoe Bay) due to deteriorated weather conditions – namely really strong cross winds and low visibility. However, he decided to give it an attempt and made it in. Other than being a bit shaky I honestly didn’t think it was that bad of a landing considering it was on an island of mud in the Arctic Ocean. Valentino immediately recognized his home (he is from the Barter Island area).
Also, when we first landed I thought there were big snow clumps in the surrounding area. Turns out those snow clumps – huge snow clumps – were bears. Yes, polar bears are GINORMOUS. However, they were a good ways off and our polar bear adventures had only just begun.
So, if you’re wondering why there is even a runway at Kaktovik, that’s a good question. The answer, or at least a hint towards the answer can be found as soon as you land in the form a big ole’ abandoned hanger.
Now, the area of Barter Island has been used as a fishing and trading center (thus the name) for the Inupiat and Inuit people since time immemorial. However, in the 1950s the U.S. Government came rolling along and decided that this would make a good spot for part of the Distance Early Warning Line – a series of radar stations along the arctic region of North America designed to detect any incoming Soviet Bombers or missiles. The system operated from 1957 to 1985 and by 1993 most stations were deactivated and largely abandoned (though some were rolled into the newer and still active North Warning System). Thus was the fate of Kaktovik, to be essentially abandoned; however in 1971 the area had incorporated into the City of Kaktovik which kept it alive after the military left. The result was that due to Kaktovik’s extreme isolation the native Inupiat Eskimo people made up the bulk of the town’s population and still do, additionally, a few military buildings – such as the aircraft hangar (and runway) seen above – were also left behind (as were a bunch of toxic drums that the military didn’t cleanup for nearly 50 years, but that’s another story). So, that’s why there is a runway in literally the middle of nowhere, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s just a runway at this point as the hanger is empty and everything else is long gone. Our pilot told us if anything goes wrong they have to fly in parts from Deadhorse or in a worst-case scenario a whole new plane from Fairbanks.
So, since we had gotten there early our van wasn’t there just yet which meant we got to take in that freezing pleasant arctic wind for a while. Eventually our van did show up, and our driver – Nathan, an Inupiat native – was actually on his first day of the job. He took us into the bustling city core of Kaktovik.
After a brief drive through “downtown” we came to the Marsh Creek Inn – Kaktovik’s only accommodation for outsiders – where we were going to have lunch. Now Marsh Creek is an interesting place. It’s technically an “Inn” but you rent beds, not rooms, and said rooms are exactly the same as a college dorm room layout wise. Further, Marsh Creek also serves as the town’s only “restaurant” in that they have a buffet at least once per day that brings in a “crowd” of fishermen, roughnecks, and various other types that find themselves deep in the Arctic Circle. But don’t expect any booze with your lunch, a six pack of Bud Light runs about $40 up here, yes, $40 for six Bud Light (so you can imagine the price of other beers) – and also, a lot of the towns don’t allow alcohol period due to all the problems it causes in such an isolated environment.
However, since we were early (no refueling trip) lunch wasn’t ready, so we headed back out with Nathan for a tour of the town and also to head out to whale bone pile. The whale bone pile is just that, a pile of whale bones. Because Kaktovik’s population is predominately native people, they are allowed to hunt 3 whales per season (and with 2 seasons, 6 whales per year). When they bring the whales in they harvest almost everything excluding some of the bones, which get piled up a decent clip outside of town. As you can imagine, when the polar bears are in the area they love the bone pile. The pile itself is actually just beyond the far end of the runway, so we headed out that direction.
Once out near the bone pile we spotted a momma polar bear and her two cubs!
Momma took off towards an island (the one that used to be covered in toxic drums) and her two cubs actually rode on her back. It was adorable.
From there we went and checked out the bone pile and saw a few polar bears picking around it. Since the fall season was about a week away it meant that the current bones were from the spring season (or older) and thus there wasn’t much meat left at this point, but there were still bears doing their best to find some. If you have a keen eye you can spot one of them in the photo below.
After that it was close enough to lunch time that we headed back into town and got a brief “Tour de’ Kaktovik” courtesy of Nathan and even stopped through one of the town’s two stores (when I say store think of something more akin to a gas station than a store) as well as the town’s new sign.
After making our way back to the Marsh Creek Inn we all had lunch – which turned out to be really good. The head cook was from Hawaii and was super cool. Once we all had full bellies we converted over into Arctic Ocean mode by putting on our heavier clothes and then Nathan took us down to the shoreline where boarded our board and met our captain Katil and his son Martin.
Katil is from Norway, and his son Martin is half-Norwegian half-Inupiat. In addition to their nautical endeavors, both Katil and Martin have competed in the Iditarod (Katil multiple times).
Once underway in their new (to them) boat we headed out of the “bay” area and towards some of the barrier islands. If you’re wondering why polar bears are there, it’s because they are waiting on the sea ice to move in closer to land. Polar bears can easily swim 30 or more miles, and have been known to swim over 200 (yes 200) miles! However, due to the fact that increased global temperatures are melting the ice, it’s taking the ice longer and longer to move in and even when it does move in, it’s further away. So, while polar bears previously spent huge amounts of time on the ice shelf, they are now spending more time on land. They’ve historically come to the Barter Island area and have had a symbiotic relationship with the Inupiat and Inuit peoples (the bears have spiritual significance for them) that worked out pretty well until the Russians, Canadians, and Murkans showed up (it was arguably just as bad for the natives as it was the polar bears). So, coupled with melting ice due to climate change and non-native human behaviors, polar bears are sadly in a bad spot. But, not to be too negative, the local population on Barter Island is doing well all things considered, and it was this population that we were there to see.
It is no surprise that Valentino was the first to spot some polar bears!
As we got closer we realized that it was a momma and her cub just chilling out next to the water.
After momma decided that we were no threat (or that she could eat us if need be) she decided to take a nap. As for the cub, well he (she?) decided that napping was too boring and so he started playing with some sticks. I imagine when you are a polar bear your toys are limited to the things you are killing and sticks most of the time.
Eventually even the stick seemed to lose its magic and the cub got a little bored with momma’s napping.
But the thing about naps (and especially momma naps) is that they tend to suck you in. And thus after wearing itself out on the stick Olympics, the “little” cub got some seepie time as well.
We then sailed away from the sleepy duo for a bit and checked out some other polar bears.
There were probably around 35 bears in the area that day (though some said as many as 50) and at one point we were able to see about 19 at once from our boat. A lot of them were in nap-nap mode. I learned that polar bears sort of “burrow” themselves down into the sand/gravel/mud to make beds for themselves. It explains why Valentino always burrows. After moseying around for a bit we passed back by the momma and her cub again – and the cub had decided that sleep could wait in favor of more stick time.
Though stick time also seemed to lead to stick frustration:
The good news is that despite the relatively barren landscape, there were plenty of sticks to choose from.
However, this second round of sticks must have gotten tiring, because soon enough the cub was snuggled back up with mom – this time for a long nap.
In fact many of the polar bears were napping as we passed them by; some of them using each other as makeshift gigantic pillows.
However, not everyone was sleeping (though that big ole’ yawn seems to suggest that sleeping might be on the agenda):
This pair was being silly and kept sticking their tongues out:
After a bit I think they started pondering what we tasted like.
But since I’m typing this I think they decided that going after a boat wasn’t worth the effort.
Speaking of nomin’ stuff, I thought we were going to see a polar bear battle because there were two that obviously did not like each other and one even charged the other:
However the alpha polar bear seemed to assert its authoritah and so the other one ran away without much issue. [Note to self: polar bears run over 25mph yet frequently weigh up to 1,500lbs – you will lose]
From there we had some polar bear e-peen victory displays.
And then after all that ruckus: more seepies.
At this point we’d been out for a few hours so we started heading back to Kaktovik, which brought us close enough to the bone pile to smell the god awful stench.
We also cruised by the old abandoned vessel I’d seen earlier. I thought it looked kind of cool in the arctic “wasteland.”
After that we docked (the dock being a 4×6 laying on the shore – not even joking) and headed back to Marsh Creek to get our pilot before going back out to the runway.
In total we saw at least 30 polar bears and there were many more in the area that we couldn’t see. We saw three “little” cubs (born in January) and then some not-so-“little” cubs which were nearing the age of mom kicking them out of the house. We also got to meet some of Valentino’s family – who all remembered him (plus they write each other letters) – including his mom, dad, some siblings, some aunts, and some cousins. Speaking of his dad, turns out Valentino’s dad is like a 2,000lb monstrosity (alpha-alpha-macho-king polar bears can sometimes reach over 2,000lbs – the largest ever known coming in at 2,209lbs) and is also the polar bear king of Barter Island. It was kind of funny, Nathan was telling us about this humongous polar bear that they sometimes saw, and then we were fortunate enough to spot him and OMG he was at least a ton and probably over 11ft long. Valentino has hardy genes.
After we got back to the runway (I say runway, not airport) we had a smooth takeoff and soon enough were up and away. Pigsten had to burn some energy from all the coffee he had drunk to stay warm (plus he was excited about an arctic circle/arctic ocean rock he picked up).
The way “home” to Fairbanks was pretty smooth for the most part.
However at one point we had to fly through a storm which got pretty jerky. Turns out that a big portion of northern Alaska is a radio “dead zone” so planes have to stick to their pre-approved flight path (barring certain doom) for safety reasons because you can’t contact anyone to say you are going off course. So like arctic cowboys we rode straight into the storm like a boss.
Obviously we made it just fine and a bit later we were landing in Fairbanks and taxing to our plane’s home next to 50 billion other little planes.
From there we had a bit of debriefing with everyone and even got certificates saying we’d been to the Arctic Circle! It was way cool. In fact the whole experience was amazing and was easily one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life. If you’re wondering how much this little trip cost, the answer was a lot. But the more important question is not how much, but instead, was it worth it? And the answer to that question is undoubtedly, wholly, totally, unquestionably: yes. I got to see wild polar bears in the Arctic Circle.
After wrapping up our goodbyes we called a cab and headed back to our AirBnB because the next day we had to get up early again to make our train to the next stage of the adventure! But, as you can probably guess, that is a tale for Part 3. 😉