During a rainstorm in southwest Alaska's Katmai National Park a few years ago, I was tucked under a roof with a California photographer. As the rain poured down, we talked about a place where you could photograph polar bears. It was in Alaska, not in the better known polar bear spotting location of Churchill, Manitoba.
It was in that rainstorm I learned there were people who could take you to a native village and the Inupiatq guides would take you out to the bears. Well, the seed was planted and my next bear adventure was about to take shape. Partners in crime need cohorts and mine is Bob Fitzsimmons, who started as my scuba diving buddy and was also a retired supply first sergeant in the Army - a perfect fellow to have on a trip.
Skipping all the boring details of how to pay for the trip without any money, an adventure was in the works. My wife, Lisa, knows I am a lost cause when it comes to photographing bears, so she just waits until we get closer to leaving and asks for the contact numbers. This time after showing her a guide's website, she noticed an image called "Mirror Mirror" which showed a polar bear looking at its reflection in the calm waters of the lagoon near Kaktovik. She simply said, "If you could get a photo like that, the trip would be worth it." I assured her the image was very good and very tough to get and I couldn't guarantee that result.
I managed to get the name of a guide named Robert Thompson, who was well known in environmental circles in protecting the integrity of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. His home is located in the village of Kaktovik, the only town in the refuge.
As with any trip to Alaska, two greatest fears are how to get in and get out. If you can get in to your location - great. Then worry about getting out and making arrangements because you can be weathered in for days, even in major jet airports.
With cargo aboard the ERA plane now known as Ravn Air, yes, the same one that's on the Discovery Channel in Flying Wild Alaska. We set down on the gravel runway in Kaktovik, a village of 239 people above the Arctic Circle. The village is located on Barter Island which was a major trade center for the Inupiaq Eskimo and Inuit people. The island has a large pond of fresh water in the center of the island which still provides water for the village.
The area is frequented by polar bears, who come ashore in the fall and wait for the pack ice to form, enabling them to hunt seal throughout the winter. The village is isolated and the villagers are subsistence hunters who are allotted three Bowhead Whales each year for meat. The whaling tradition is followed using harpoons and black powder charges. The whales are normally taken around Labor Day.
The village residents butcher the whales and the bones are pushed to a pile where bears feed on the remnants of the whales throughout the winter.
As the Aurora Borealis streams overhead, bears roam the village searching for food scraps. The borough has tried to solve this problem with "bear patrols", a 24-hour service of local residents who ride 4-wheelers and drive trucks throughout the village trying to scare the bears back into the lagoons with blanks, beanbags and gun shots.
House doors are all left open in the village so walking residents can make a quick escape from a wandering bear.
At the Marsh Creek Inn, tales of the previous night's bear sightings are mixed with hot meals for the guests and villagers.
In the 1950s Barter Island's isolation was altered with the addition of a runway and a Distant Early Warning Line station. At that time, the village was incorporated and named Kaktovik which means "Seining Place" from the Eskimo language.