Friday, October 23, 2009

Polar Bears - Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


Sorry again for another belated post. Been busy since arriving back home in Virginia. As promised, this post contains images from a trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The goal was to see polar bears in the wild. Things could not have gone better with my day and a half there. After leaving Denali, drove north and flew from Fairbanks to Barter Island (on the north end of the ANWR and 120 miles from the North Pole) and met with a local Inupiat Guide Robert Thompson. Robert came recommended and his Arctic knowledge and philosophy on life were profound.

The flight over the Brooks Range was amazing. I was thankful for good weather. I was the only passenger on the prop plane and was surrounded by supplies for the community.

Kaktovik was the name of the Inupiat town that I flew into. The town population is close to 300 folks. The town is one of the most remote communities in Alaska, with the closest road being 170 miles away. If you enlarge the Google Earth image below, to the left of the push pin is the location of the town site and ice landing strip.


The push pin is the location of where a bone yard was located. A photo of the bone yard is below. If all goes well, the community is able to harvest two subsistence Bowhead whales a year. After harvesting the whale, the remains are transported to this bone yard location. The longer hooked shaped items are whale skulls of prior harvested whales.

After arrival, in a few hours, the polar bears began to arrive to the bone yard site. The bears are attracted to the remaining meat/blubber as you can see from the images below.


The bears came relatively close to our viewing location. Robert was armed in the event we had any problems. I was amazed at how much larger these bears are than Grizzlies/Brown bears. An adult male averages between 700-1,500 lbs.




On the second day, we went out in a jon boat and cruised the island spit shore across from the push pin in the map above. We saw a number of bears. In the two days I counted 20. Some of the bears were curious and approached the shore as we went by.



The bears were quite playful and entertaining to watch.




While we were out in the boat, Robert commented that due to the calm winds that it might be a good day for the community to harvest a subsistence whale. Lo and behold, shore activity indicated that something may be coming in. We left the water and went to the traditional whale processing site. When the whale arrived the entire community came out to view and help. The whale is brought into the beach with a dozer. The young man in the first photo wasn't going to wait for the equipment to do the job.


A tradition is to allow all the young folks of the community to mount the whale and have their picture taken.

Cutting up the whale is a lengthy process. The whale is divided amongst the community according to traditional rules.




Needless to say this portion of my Alaska season was special. Swear I am the luckiest guy in the world to have been able to experience what I did this summer.

Blue Skies.

21 comments:

Juan C. Aguero said...

Wao Ken,!! tremendous documented!

Anonymous said...

Great pics and great story. I am glad you made it back safe and sound. I have been following your blog and have it set up as an RSS Feed in my browser. Great work!

Jim Rosen

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

My goodness Ken, what an experience this must have been. You have certainly had a fantastic summer with a perfect ending.

Those polar bears are huge and I love the pics of them playing around like that. They almost look cute and cuddly. :)Note the 'almost'. :)

These people sure do make the most out of the wales but I thought that they used the bones for various things too, like utensils?

This is a magnificent post and I thank you for sharing it.

Coy said...

I certainly agree, you are the luckiest man alive! Terrific shots of the polar bears and what an experience documenting the whale butchering!

Some may disagree with the harvest of whales but in this instance I believe it is important to allow the native people to continue their ancient tradition as long as the whale herd is not adversely affected.

Your Alaskan summer has certainly been wonderful. I have enjoyed your post of a place I may never visit immensely.

Barbara said...

Wow...have I mentioned I am jealous? The bears were totally cool, and with the whale added in, I am sure it was an unforgettable experience.

Awesome pics!

Elaine said...

Gorgeous photos! What a special ending you had to your summr. I have truly enjoyed following your adventures in Alaska. You captured so many wonderful photos and were able to get extraordinary photos of wildlife that are very difficul to get.

HBFG said...

Thank you for sharing your time in Alaska with us. I love to visit your blog not just because your photographs are so outstanding, there is also always something to learn from.

Even though it is hard to see those pictures where the locals are harvesting that whale...
I understand that those people need to be able to follow their traditions and that it is essential for them.
I believe they (unlike others) just "take what they really need".

Thanks again for sharing and have a great time back home!
:))

Montanagirl said...

Really enjoyed this post. Absolutely stunning photography. What a great end to a wonderful summer!

Twisted Fencepost said...

And we are the luckiest readers, because you are sharing your pictures with us!
Love these photos and the narration you wrote to go with it!

Uncommon Depth said...

Awesome! It is my dream to one day see the polar bears in person.

Marfa (formula for a life) said...

Oh my gosh, what awesome photos! You are so lucky indeed! One of my dreams is to go on an expedition to the Arctic Circle and you have done it. I LOVE your photos.

Brad Myers said...

Ken I am glad to hear you made it home safely.

The images are beautiful, you are a very lucky man and an amazing photographer. You just spent the summer of a lifetime and I thank you for sharing it with us.

Willard said...

A tremendously interesting story with world class photos to illustrate it.

Like many others, I have certainly enjoyed the photos you captured during your summer in the north country.

Jose's World said...

Not accolades to add after all that have been said. Congratulation!

Andor Marton said...

Ken, this is a fantastic post. It worthed well waiting for it. The playing bears are so sweet, you wouldn't think that they could be predators too.
If I remember well - Kaktovik is the place where the karibus give birth and grow up their youngsters. It was an amazing place with thousands of karibus.

HANNIBAL said...

Incredible photos with an adventure filled story! If only we all could tag along, understand different cultures, taste a lifestyle we could only be amazed by. Thanks for sharing the experience!

Philip said...

WOW! Ken this is a Fantastic shot but it looks a litlle cold for me there 10/10

Bill said...

Hello Ken. It's Bill here. We met in Denali during the last days of the visitor season. I see that your polar bear trip was over-the-top extraordinary! Your shots are amazing. The whale harvest sure was a bonus. Congratulations and I hope we have a chance to spend time shooting together again soon!

Christina said...

Really enjoyed reading about your trip! such amazing photos! Must have been a wonderful experience to see these polar bears up close!

Ivar Ivrig said...

OMG!!!
I am in deep envy. If I only could experience half of what you are. I hope that you have time to just be there, enjoy and sense everything around you, not using your camera all the time :-)

gidje said...

What a great post. The polar bear pix are beautiful and amazing. Hope all is well! B-