Polar Bears

Changing polar bear habitat.  Subsistence whaling.  Defining the "arctic."  The entertaining sport of birder-watching.  These are among the topics addressed in my recent social media commentaries about a bear-viewing trip to Kaktovik, an Inupiaq community off the northern coast of Alaska.  

Here are the text and photos as posted on the Northern Passages Facebook Page.

Introduction (Sept. 11)

Just got back to Anchorage from Kaktovik, an Inupiaq community on Barter Island, which is in the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean) off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  We had touched down in Kaktovik from Fairbanks shortly after noon on Wednesday, intending to leave in late afternoon Friday.  However, the air service advised that the deteriorating weather conditions made an earlier departure advisable, so we left at mid-day, about 48 hours after we arrived.

More posts will follow about this brief trip, which was all about polar bear viewing.  Here is a teaser for what is to come: a photo of a mother bear with her cub.  Too cute!

The Yukon River Defines My Sense of the "Arctic" (Sept. 12)

In geographical terms, the "arctic" is defined by the Arctic Circle, a line of latitude that circles the globe at 66°33′45.9″ north of the Equator.

At the Arctic Circle, the sun remains in the sky for 24 continuous hours on the June and December solstices. Above that latitude, there are progressively more hours -- and days, weeks and months -- of daylight during the summer and darkness in the winter.

In psychological terms, however, for me the defining element of the "arctic" is the Yukon River. Beginning at its source in British Columbia, the Yukon flows in a roughly westward direction for about 2,000 miles through Canada's Yukon Territory and then across Alaska until it empties into the Bering Sea at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Crossing the Yukon River flying north or south is to my mind the defining moment of any arctic adventure.

When President Obama visited Kotzebue recently, he made history by being the first sitting President to travel north of the Arctic Circle. He was also north of the Yukon River, so his record as the first President to visit the arctic is secure in my book.

Here is a photo of the Yukon from the plane yesterday as we returned from the polar bear viewing trip to Kaktovik.

Birder Watching (Sept. 12)

"Stop!" she cried! "Pull over!"

Kyle slammed on the brakes of the Cool Bus, the recommissioned yellow school bus in which he and the six others of us were traveling the half dozen miles of road in and around Kaktovik, a village on Barter Island off the northern coast of Alaska.

"What do you see?" he asked. "A bear?"

"No," she replied, "it's a gull."

Which pretty much sums up the divide between birders and non-birders on arctic adventures.

We were looking for polar bears and had also been privileged with some good bird watching: a great view of a hovering snowy owl as well as sightings of huge flocks of snow geese, several white-fronted geese, a red-throated loon, numerous teals, mergansers and other ducks, snow buntings, a harrier, a gyrfalcon, a rough-legged hawk and various other species, including glaucous gulls, that either overwinter in the arctic or were soon to depart for their seasonal migration to warmer climes. We even spotted a couple of sandhill cranes, who are lagging behind their fellow travelers already showing up in Fairbanks and Anchorage as they fly south.

But, seriously, pulling over for a gull?

Just kidding -- I was happy to stop. Birder-watching (not to be confused with bird-watching) has become one of my favorite hobbies.

Btw, the gull in the photo below has some megafauna behind it that I thought was at least equally as interesting.

Bears and Whales (Sept. 13)

While in Kaktovik this week, I had the opportunity to spend some time with two biologists working on contract for the USFWS. Susie Miller is an expert on polar bears and Gay Sheffield studies whales.

These fields are closely related. Just as brown (grizzly) bears congregate at salmon streams during the spawning season, polar bears have been showing up for the past few decades at Kaktovik in hopes of sharing in the bounty of muktuk (whale skin and blubber) that they can scavenge from the village's subsistence hunt of bowhead whales.

The whaling crews had started launching two days before we arrived this week, but had to suspend operations due to the howling storm that arrived shortly thereafter (which also precluded our original plan of going out with Robert Thompson to look for coastal bears from his boat). If and when the village has harvested one of the three whales allocated for subsistence each year, the bears will show up in greater numbers. As it was, USFWS estimated there were about two dozen of the animals in the vicinity of Kaktovik, at least half of which we were able to observe.

Susie and Gay explained the operative theory that bears have been attracted to Kaktovik in the fall, and the possibility of scoring some muktuk, because the sea ice is much farther off shore at this time of year than it used to be. Most of the Beaufort bears are far out on the pack ice, but a significant population, especially mothers and cubs, lingers near land until the ice comes closer.

There is another issue that may loom as an ecosystem problem over time. Unlike the shallower, richer Chukchi Sea to the west, the Beaufort drops steeply off from the continental shelf. With the ice pack increasingly far offshore, the bears may find themselves over water that is too deep to support the seals that are their primary diet.

Speaking of mothers and cubs, I am attaching two photos to this post. One is of a sow and two cubs who had hunkered down to shelter from the gale force winds.

The other is of the sow and single cub that I shared in a Madonna-and-child pose the other day. We had the opportunity to watch this pair for about an hour, including observing the mother scoop out a little patch of dirt to recline into and then proceed to nurse her cub, which is captured in this intimate photo.

Bonus Shots

Here are some additional photos just because.