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, offthe 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.
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 offthis 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.
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