The Bears of Kaktovik

View the largest land predator at eye level.

[by Kevin McCarthy]


I STAND IN THE BACK OF A SMALL BOAT, with four others, watching a mother polar bear and cubs come down the barrier island beach towards us. Five of us crowd in the open aft area of the boat. We idle about ten feet offshore, assuring we are safe, and just as important, not harassing the bears. My friend from Colorado stands next to me. I met the other three guests only yesterday. We come from various corners of the U.S. and one from Mexico. All of us share a passion for Alaska wildlife. The small, outboard-powered boat, will take us to the barrier beach numerous times over the next three days

8:00 a.m. We meet our tour organizer and leader, Matthew Studebaker, and the rest of our group for breakfast at the hotel in Fairbanks. A morning flight takes us to Barter Island, 384 miles to the north, and to the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. After a brief tour of the village we settle into the Marsh Creek Inn, one of two “hotels” in Kaktovik. As we enter the Arctic entry of the inn, one of my traveling companions comments that the hotel is certainly not palatial. Perhaps not, but it is a welcome sanctuary for us during our days in Kaktovik.

3:00 p.m. We meet our boat captain, Katil Retan, a resident of Kaktovik and a citizen of Norway. He pilots his skiff across the bay, a still, glassy body of water sheltered from the rough Beaufort Sea, and within ten minutes, we arrive at a remote barrier beach. Twenty bears lounge, wrestle, play and chuff at the air as our boat idles on the water. Bears being bears—their natural curiosity drives them to check us out, and we watch a mother and her two cubs draw closer to us at a slow lumber down the beach.

10:00 p.m. Safe and warm in our small room, we fall asleep to the drone of ATVs patrolling the village for polar bears on the dirt roads outside our windows. These aren’t the first polar bears I’ve seen in the wild, as I’ve been photographing them for years, in Canada and in the high Norwegian arctic archipelago of Svalbard. But the bears of Kaktovik are special. I’ve never been this close to them or been able to photograph them at eye level.


7:30 a.m. A breakfast of scrambled eggs and reindeer sausage, served cafeteria style, is unlike any I’ve ever had in the Lower 48. The meal itself is indicative of the remote location and the fundamental simplicity of life here, one based not on luxury or comfort, but on necessity and survival.

9:00 – 11:00 a.m. Katil slowly and carefully eases the boat onto the sand bar. He “beaches” the boat, and in almost reverent silence, we watch a mother and two cubs approach another mother and two cubs coming from the opposite direction. The two mothers roar at each other and appear ready to battle. The event, while dramatic, ends quickly. The posturing ceases; something we can’t see is settled between them. The groups separate, and the cubs continue their non-stop playing. We marvel at their seemingly endless energy.

3:00 – 6:00 p.m. The clear weather ends. We cross a now choppy bay. A blanket of snow covers the ground and sheets of snow sweep our boat in the ever-increasing wind. We stay outside on the aft deck as long as possible before being forced into the small heated cabin to warm up. Katil entertains us with stories of running a dog team in the famed Alaska Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Through the windows, we watch a mother with cubs stand on her hind legs to scan for males in the area, who would be a threat to her cubs. Like the rest of the cubs on Kaktovik, these two were born in January and are now ten-month old yearlings.


The bears are all fat and healthy. They don’t need food since they’ve been feeding for months on Inupiat leftovers—the bones of bowhead whales remaining from the village’s earlier subsistence hunt. After dividing the whale into portions for each family, the Inupiat haul the bones to the end of the airport’s runway. They’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, resulting in a sizable “bone pile,” a reliable place to observe polar bears feeding.


7:30 a.m. The blizzard rages outside, and despite the perilous conditions, we manage to take off and land in Fairbanks, which is calm and clear, tropical in comparison to Kaktovik.


Kaktovik Polar Bears from Denis Jensen on Vimeo.

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