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Life on the edge: Iñupiat communities and polar bears on Alaska's wild North Slope

The severe, serrated North Slope of Alaska lies 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Resilient Iñupiat communities aren’t the only reason to venture to this icy coastline — the ‘rooftop of America’ is the world's best place to see polar bears in the wild.

Published 22 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 22 Oct 2021, 10:02 BST
With webbed paws and insulated fur, polar bears are adept swimmers; in fact their Latin name ...

With webbed paws and insulated fur, polar bears are adept swimmers; in fact their Latin name means ‘sea bear’.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

The poetic collective noun for polar bears is an ‘aurora’, but around the community of Kaktovik they may be more accurately described as an ‘inevitability’. An inevitability of polar bears. Elsewhere in the Arctic, spotting the planet’s largest land predator can be a bit of a lottery, requiring binoculars and considerable luck. Here, on Barter Island, off the north coast of Alaska, neither are required.

I’m heading out into a cold Arctic afternoon with Riley Barnes, a New Yorker ordinarily employed as a stuntman on features as varied as Avengers: Endgame and The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. While between projects, the 27-year-old heard about “wild work” skippering boats and searching for polar bears for Kaktovik Arctic Tours, so decided to swap one uncommon job for another. This meant relocating to the frigid Alaskan coast known as the North Slope. 

We’re not even 10 minutes out of Kaktovik’s rudimentary harbour before we’ve seen a cautious mother with two young cubs, the larger one at the front, a younger, smaller sibling scurrying behind like it’s forgotten its schoolbag. The adult sits down on the brownish sand, immediately sullying her pristine white coat, then, in a moment of uncanny tenderness, lets the youngsters in to suckle.

An hour later, the gentle perfection of this scene is forgotten when we see two males in the water, grappling with each other with the fury of drunk berserkers. “They’re just playing,” says Riley, and I believe him, but if this roughhousing happened to almost any other species, there’d be nothing left afterwards but fleshy spaghetti. 

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Riley says that in the weeks he’s been working here, the number of polar bears has varied from day to day, but he’s never failed to find at least a few. Their residence here over the summer months is partly due to man: Kaktovik’s Native Iñupiat population is permitted to kill three bowhead whales a year. Having done this, they then flense their huge carcasses on the edge of town, before distributing the meat equally among the community; what remains — dragged to nearby sandbars — belongs to the bears. 

These free meals have attracted Ursus maritimus in numbers for generations; so many, in fact, that on the flight here from Fairbanks, in central Alaska, I mistakenly thought I was seeing sheep ambling along the dark shores. With food abundant, the bears appear as placid as specialist serial killers can be, showing little interest in conflict or murder.

For outsiders, including myself, the immersion into Iñupiat culture requires rapid adjustment. Take, for example, the hunting and eating of whales. I want to ask more about that, but it’s hard to frame delicate cultural questions when my overriding thought throughout this boat trip is: ‘Ooh! Polar bears!’. 

Bowhead whales are thought to be the longest-lived mammals on Earth, with a lifespan of up to 250 years. Proof of their resilience came in 2007, when a bowhead caught off this same stretch of Alaskan coast was found to have a fragment of a Victorian harpoon embedded in its neck. The skeletons of bowhead whales lying on nearby sandbars like the wreckage of old ships could conceivably belong to equally venerable specimens. 

Their slaughter can be a hard thing to consider, let alone witness, but following the ban on commercial hunting of bowhead whales (as distinct from subsistence hunting, which is permitted for Native populations under limited conditions) in the early 1970s, the Western Arctic population is thought to have increased tenfold. Now the whales taken from these waters each year account for no more than 0.5% of the population, making it a sustainable catch. None of this would offer much consolation to the whales, of course, but their demise is at least to the benefit of man and bear alike.

While changing my camera’s memory card, I ask Riley if he’s tempted to stay for winter. He shakes his head and explains that even in summer this distant outpost feels too isolating. “And it’s a dry town,” he says, half laughing, although not with his eyes. “I mean no booze at all, man.” 

I mention that Kaktovik’s barren landscape, muddy roads and ramshackle houses aren’t what I’d expected from this great wilderness; that somehow it all feels unbefitting of the magnificence of the bears. Yet, here in a town that’s recorded winter temperatures of -52C, its perhaps understandable that function must always be prioritised over form by its 250 human residents: aesthetics sacrificed to pragmatism. Or, as Riley puts it: “Pretty is the one thing this town ain’t.” However, unappealing as it may look, Kaktovik is probably the most reliable place on Earth to see wild polar bears, without the crowds and commercialism of places like Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada.

But when conditions are ideal, even Kaktovik can be beautiful. 
 

Bruce Inglangasak, relocated here 20 years ago from Northern Canada.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

The skipper 

The next morning, we enjoy its rarest weather: brilliant sunshine with only hints of cirrus clouds appearing like brush strokes on the firmament. Now the bears take on the hues of dawn — pink, then golden — as they come to the shore, their mighty frames mirrored in the still waters of the High Arctic. 

Riley’s boss, Bruce Inglangasak, relocated here 20 years ago from Northern Canada, although in Iñupiat terms, crossing the modern border meant little. The 64-year-old wears an authoritative moustache and an ill-fitting hunter’s jacket, and accepts compliments or thanks with an almost imperceptible nod. I can’t describe his hair to you because over the three days I’m with him, he’s never without a thermal hat. Bruce’s hands are large and worn and he knows certain things like the backs of them — things like the safe distance to be from polar bears and when to start the engine should their attention linger on his boat.

A member of the Iñupiat community, his manner is at once terse and illuminating. For example, when I ask whether or not he feels American or even Canadian, he exhales as though doing an impression of a horse before replying: “I feel like an Iñupiat because I lived that life — I still live it today. I hunt and I fish and I support my family.”

In the early days of working with the bears, he was asked to help Sir David Attenborough’s legendary cold-climate cameraman, Doug Allan, film them for the BBC. “It was fun — when we first started, we used to walk around here with them,” says the skipper while we’re at anchor just 15 metres or so from a pair of sleeping bears. I give him a hopeful look that asks: ‘Could we possibly do that today?’ But a small landslide of his eyebrows tells me that, no, we absolutely cannot.

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When Bruce speaks, he does so with the slow rhythm of a strolling bear, almost as though he resents having to form the words at all. “There are all kinds of rules and regulations now,” he sighs. “I had to take all the training, go through all the paperwork. That took a while.”

In 2018, authorities also started insisting that Iñupiat hunters sink any 
whale remains in the ocean, making it harder for the bears to reach them and discourage their presence. Now he often sees them diving for scraps, their colossal white derrieres bobbing on the surface like drifting polystyrene. Centuries of habituation mean they haven’t gone elsewhere — yet. In fact, the number of interactions with the townsfolk has risen; bears are frequently found wandering around Kaktovik. As a result, visitors aren’t allowed to walk around at night. Many locals have large, mean-looking dogs, which here, at 70 degrees north, maintain their winter coats and surliness all year long. Many effectively act as bear alarms. 

Kaktovik is probably the most reliable place on Earth to see wild polar bears.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

During my time in town, a local shoots a polar bear for allegedly trying to kill his hound. Bruce explains with righteous profanity that he and others in the community think this is an outrage. Nonetheless, it’s ruled justified self-defence and the man is only given a warning. It’s another one of those moments that underlines just how serrated this edge of America can feel, how to people from the nation’s Lower 48 states — or further afield like me — life up here is distant and ultimately unknowable, even when it’s right in front of us.

Of course, there’s plenty here that does have universal appeal. The North Slope lies 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle, far beyond the treeline and fewer than 1,400 miles from the North Pole. Its latitudes are so extreme that to see it on a map is to wonder if the air is thinner up here. It may not be, but it’s often more colourful — Bruce tells me that in the darker months the Northern Lights are spotted so often that he hardly pays attention. The polar night lasts for 66 days and we’re so far north that it can snow at any time of the year, including during the 66 summer days when the sun doesn’t yield.

No road reaches Kaktovik, leaving it at the mercy of the vagaries of Alaskan light aircraft. Delays and cancellations are frequent, but it’s a highly localised service. When it’s finally time for me to depart, the pilot realises someone is missing from the passenger list, so one of the workers from the airstrip jumps in a truck, drives to her home and picks her up. When the lady climbs into the plane, she apologies as though she’d momentarily delayed a bus.

Before leaving, Bruce explains that schedules aren’t the only thing subject to change round these parts. When he first moved to the area, he counted 90 polar bears at the bone pile, but following a freak storm in 2005, numbers started declining dramatically. “The ice wasn’t very thick, we had 100mph winds for a week and, well, this ocean got pretty messed up,” he tells me on the final morning. “The next year, we counted 60 bears. Now I think we’re hovering around 40 or 50.” I’ve only half-asked my question as to what might be causing this decline when his answer lands on the deck like a hammer: “Climate change.”

Bruce doesn’t seem particularly scientific in his approach, but his kind of experience must surely count for something. Having spent two decades observing Kaktovik’s sea ice, he’s certain that increased winds, warmer temperatures and thinner ice are making things harder for the bears. And in that light, he says, sinking the whale carcasses seems like an especially unnecessary move.
 

Homes in Kaktovik, on Barter Island are typically built in a rudimentary fashion.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

The edge of America 

A 35-minute flight west, Prudhoe Bay is the source of much of the North Slope’s traffic, as well as its wealth. It’s been that way since the late 1960s, but if Kaktovik ain’t pretty, then Prudhoe — North America’s largest oil field — is a carbuncle in the permafrost. Sometimes polar bears wander nearby, and I can think of few images more jarring than a modern symbol of nature’s fragility coming face to face with this vast gouge of unclean industry, the bears’ white fur metaphorically and perhaps even literally spattered with corporations’ black oil.

Our plane touches down briefly in Prudhoe Bay, where it’s another another 25-minute flight north west to Utqiagvik. Known as Barrow from 1901 until 2016, it’s the northernmost city on the mainland of the Americas, making it a tourist attraction in its own right, although the majority of its 4,500 residents (around 60% of whom are Native Alaskan) are involved either directly or indirectly with the oil industry. 

I take a walk around town in the Arctic gloaming, willing the sky clear for a chance later to see the aurora borealis. Until then, a low, frigid sun hangs impotently above the horizon, providing enough light to make a pilgrimage to the coast, close to the confluence of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Standing next to a set of whale jawbones, planted in the black sand to make a macabre gate, the air feels insidiously cold. Ahead, the water is remarkably calm, appearing heavy like double cream as it slides off into an infinite mist. I listen intently, trying to catch the report of one of those ancient bowheads, but the only thing I can really hear is my own teeth chattering, so I retreat to the warmth of the Latitude 71 BnB, where generous owners Myron and Susan McCumber revive me with a mug of hot chocolate.

The following morning, I head to the excellent Iñupiat Heritage Center, a cultural museum and learning hub festooned with native artifacts and lore. In here, close to the whaling exhibit, I meet guide Dorothy Levitt. “It should be snowing by now,” she says, glancing out of the window grimly. “Instead, we’ve got all this rain. That’s affected our hunting season — there’s less traffic on the tundra because it’s so wet.”

Dorothy is quick to acknowledge that the oil industry has altered the way of life up here, but she believes climate change will have an even bigger impact. She’s spent her whole life in the northernmost reaches of the 49th state and explains that despite the challenges, there’s no shortage of people willing to come up when accommodation is available. Whether they can endure it or not is another thing.

“We’ve had teachers arrive in August, go into a sort of culture shock and get on the next plane back south,” Dorothy says, smiling. “Lots don’t last until Christmas, but it really depends on how you react to the environment.” 

How about the darkness? I’m Scottish and, even at those comparatively generous latitudes, coping with parsimonious winter daylight is a challenge for most, and impossible for some. “I don’t think the darkness really bothers us too much here because we grew up with it,” says Dorothy with a dismissive wave of her hand. “We tell our new friends: don’t think about the remoteness too much, and don’t seclude yourself. You gotta stay involved.”

This applies to the whaling celebrations, too. Dorothy is Iñupiat but she also has some Scottish and English heritage. Both sets of forebears were lured here by commercial whaling in the early 1900s, and while the limited hunting that takes place today serves a different purpose, it does still happen — to considerable fanfare — every spring and autumn. Summers are reserved for hunting walruses and seals. I’ve never previously heard of people eating walrus: an animal with a hide so thick as to be almost polar bear-proof. How does it taste? At this question Dorothy wrinkles her nose: “Well, OK if you boil it for long enough.” 

The Heritage Center has detailed exhibits looking at the minutiae of what it all means spiritually and economically to the Iñupiat. In another room, Native Alaskans make handicrafts and scrimshaw from walrus tusks. Outside, lengths of baleen call to mind pampas grass as they flutter in the Alaskan breeze. All the remnants of these great creatures would seem more gruesome to me if they weren’t being put to use, weren’t so vital to the Iñupiat.

“When the spring whale is caught, we have a big celebration, including the blanket toss,” continues Dorothy as we start to say goodbye. I’d heard this custom was originally devised to help spot whales in the distance (with no significant hills around, a scout would be launched into the sky, a few feet of additional height improving their vantage point). Dorothy starts laughing before I’ve finished asking her if this is true. “I dunno about that,” she chuckles. “I think somebody was pulling your leg — that bit is really just for fun.”  

Essentials
 

Getting there & around
British Airways and its partner airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, offer the most efficient route to Fairbanks, with a single stop in Seattle. From Fairbanks, local tour operators organise charters to the North Slope. These light aircraft face weather-related delays so flexibility is built into itineraries.

Average flight time: 15.5h.

When to go
It’s best to visit between May and September, which sees highs of 8C and lows of -9C. Outside of this, flights become less certain and the weather colder (dipping below -20C from December to March). However, leaving it later increases the chances of seeing the Northern Lights. By winter, most of the bears will be out on the sea ice. 

Where to stay
Latitude 71 BnB, Utqiagvik. From £303 per night. 
Marsh Creek Inn, Kaktovik. Price on request. 
Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, Fairbanks. From £77. 

More info
Kaktovik Arctic Tours
Iñupiat Heritage Center
Explore Fairbanks

How to do it
Gondwana Eco Tours has seven days at the North Slope, bookended by nights in Fairbanks, from £6,100 per person based on two people sharing. Includes accommodation, meals, transfers, internal flights and polar bear guides in Kaktovik. Excludes international flights. 

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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