The visual grip of seeing wild polar bears in their natural habitat is what first attracted me to the little village of Kaktovik, Alaska.
That it is located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an added bonus; the people like Robert Thompson are the icing on the cake. The village of 200-plus people sits on Barter Island. It was known for years as a place to trade as hunters moved along the coast of the Beaufort Sea.
There is something special about the little town, which also hosts about 30 polar bears throughout the year.
According to local resident and guide Thompson, “the bears have come ashore now more than in past years because the ocean does not freeze over like it used to.”
The bears feed on the seals when the ocean is frozen. Without the layer of ice, the bears and their cubs have to scavenge for what they can find. The bears venture into town where there are plenty of prize meals waiting for them. Because the village is a hunting/gathering culture, scraps of food and hides from recent hunts of caribou, moose and duck are found around the town.
The population still depends on the three bowhead whales they take every fall. To be a member of a whaling crew is a high honor for members of the village. To be the first crew to take a 30-foot bowhead is noteworthy as a flag will fly over the captain of the crew’s house. The whale is brought ashore where it is butchered and the entire village feasts of the fresh meat. Some is put away for special occasions throughout the year. This tradition has been practiced for hundreds of years and is ingrained in the native culture.
This annual ritual produced a bone pile that stands 20 feet high and contains the bones of previous hunts. This was the focal point for townspeople and visitors.
This year’s whale bones were not placed on the usual spot, but were hauled to a different location on the coast because the residents felt the bones were drawing bears right into town. So in response, they moved the bones farther away to deter bears from roaming around the village. While the dynamics have changed for the bears, venturing into town is still an option as they search for food.
This little piece of the Arctic is now undergoing constant pressure from the oil companies that want to explore in the pristine wilderness, where a caribou herd moves in the spring to calve and many birds rely on the refuge for nesting and breeding.