Polar Bear Photography; Kaktovik Alaska

Jan 2, 2009
Real Name
The polar bear photos that I've posted here in the cafe were all shot near the Inupiat Eskimo village of Qaaktugvik(aka Kaktovik), Alaska. I've had several inquiries about my experience there so thought I'd just make a post. My sole purpose for going there was to photograph polar bears. However, as one might expect, it ended up being a much richer experience than just the wildlife. So in addition to discussing logistics of a trip for the bears I'll include some information about the village.

Kaktovik is home to roughly 300 people and is located at 70 degrees north on the Beaufort Sea coast. It is surrounded by the much publicized Arctic National Wildlife Refuge(ANWR) and is only accessible by sea or air in summer/fall and by air or snow machine/dog sled in winter/spring. Kaktovik is also the location of a Dew Line radar station designated by the USAF as Barter Island. That is also the name that the FAA uses for the airport. Barter Island can be reached by commercial flights from Fairbanks.

Due to the remoteness of the village, the people of Kaktovik rely heavily on subsistence harvesting of animals from both land and sea. ANWR was established in large part to protect the spring/summer calving grounds of the largest caribou herd in the world which migrates up from Canada. The herd consists of over 100,000 animals. The Inupiat people retain rights to harvest caribou for subsistence and indeed the heard provides the bulk of their red meat for the year. They also shoot geese, net arctic char in the salt water lagoon, and, most famously, in the fall they hunt bow head whales in the Beaufort Sea. They are permitted three whales per year in accordance with US and international laws/agreements. Wandering the streets leaves no doubt that Kaktovik is a whaling community. The tools of the trade and whale bones are everywhere.

Kaktovik is on a small island surrounded by a shallow saltwater lagoon which is also a river estuary. Due to the low salinity of the water in the lagoon and to the geography this is one of the first places along the coast that the ocean freezes. That combined with the fact that the whale carcasses provide scavenging opportunities, polar bears gather around Kaktovik in significant numbers to await the formation of the ice pack. When the ice comes in they head out to sea in search of seals. But from mid-September to mid-October, weather permitting, there are awesome opportunities to see and photography polar bears.

I already mentioned that Kaktovik can be reached by commercial flights to Barter Island Airport. The mail truck(bus) that meets the plane will give you a free ride to town. It's only half a mile but DO NOT WALK. The village dumps what remains of the whale carcasses at the end of the runway and there are always bears around.

Accommodations in Kaktovik are not your typical hotel room nor B/B. There are a couple of places to stay that are typical construction camp facilities where you pay for "three hots and a cot". The meals aren't bad but you're paying for a bed, not a room. Unless you're with a big enough party to fill a room you may find yourself sharing space with strangers. They do respect gender boundaries if they have enough space. The current going rate is about $300 per day. The most modern place is Marsh Creek Inn. I can't remember the name of the other place(where I spent a couple of nights) but it is a true Alaska bush experience. Below is the link for Marsh Creek. On their website there is a list of guides/outfitters for bear trips. They're all by boat.

Marsh Creek Inn > Home

Another photographer and I kind of winged it on our trip. We had prearranged accommodations and a guide lined up for two days of a six day trip. It worked out OK for us but I'd recommend booking in advance. I would personally recommend using either Kaktovik Tours or Kaktovik Arctic Tours. I'd only use Akook if no one else is available(nice guy but better photographer than guide).

Here are a few shots for a flavor of the place.

1) The old City hall/police station has been replaced by a modern metal sided building.
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2) Old side of Main Street
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3) The newer side of Main Street
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4) A fixall shop.
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5) Future sled dogs.
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6) One of the whaling boats. They take this boat 10-15 miles(17-25km) offshore with four people on board. Note the sides built up with plywood.
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7) Whale baileen is laying around like so much scrap wood. Some will be used to produce decorative art to sell for extra cash. Baileen used to be known as "whale bone" and in the days before plastic was used for such things as making umbrellas and those puffy ladies dresses of the Victorian era.
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8) Whale blubber from a recent kill. Almost every home had a pile of blubber and meat laying out front awaiting processing/storage. With temperatures below freezing there is little concern of spoilage. Bears coming into town is the biggest issue.
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9) The "bone pile" where the whale carcasses are dumped near the airport. You can see the fresh carcasses from the season.
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10) And finally, the object of my desire. In the past few years polar bears have gone from the bane of existence in Kaktovik to an economic boom in photography/eco-tourism. It is a very short season but provides a nice bit of income to the village.
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11) That's me with our guide, Vebjorn. He works with his dad at Kaktovik Tours.

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12) On our way to the boat.

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