This is the final post of the three posts I planned about my trip to Alaska in June. Each post covers one of my main targets when visiting the area. I will also talk a bit about what I saw and how I spent some of my time there. This post covers polar bears.
That is correct - polar bears. I will be honest with you. I had zero plans of seeing a polar bear on this trip. It just was not something I considered an option. Okay, I knew it was a remote option. On the other hand, one of the guides had not seen a polar bear on any of her trips to Alaska. Why would I think I would see one? Then I found out one was being seen in the area. That is when it became a target. Still, my hopes were low.
The week prior to my arrival in Utqiagvik, a polar bear was being seen out on the pack ice near town. The ice was slowly melting during our time there. The ice was overstaying its welcome and was the primary reason for our travel issues. The wind blowing across the ice was causing thick fog to form over town. Our flight getting into Utqiagvik was cancelled. Our flight departing Utqiagvik was cancelled. Both times, we were lucky to get a flight the following day. While flight cancellations seem to be a way of life there, it still throws everything into chaos. Plan for delays. The only good news about a cancellation is that you still have a place to stay for the night. If no one makes it in, then no one new is checking into the hotel. Cancellations bring opportunities.
A cancellation also means another day of eating in Utqiagvik. Bring your highest limit credit card and bring your appetite. You get a lot of food, but it comes at a cost. It is also very mediocre. You will not be impressed. I had a grilled ham and cheese for a lot of meals. It comes with fries. That is $15, by the way. The reason I settled for grilled ham and cheese? It was reasonably portioned. The standard meal in Utqiagvik seemed large enough for 2-3 people. That is coming from me, and I like to eat. The sandwich came from Sam & Lee's. There was a sushi place (Osaka), but the bento box was a ton of food. Formerly known as Arctic Pizza, Mario's offered good food. Ordering a calzone there basically got you a 14 inch pizza folded in half. I only made that mistake once. Their chicken caesar salad was much more reasonable and good. The Subway had closed. I, personally, was thankful for that. That pretty much covers it. We had reservations for 8 PM one night for the Top of the World restaurant. When we showed, they explained that they closed at 8. We left and did not go back. We also ate a few of our meals out of the grocery store. They had hot breakfast sandwiches and donuts - again, they were expensive, but they were decent.
The grocery was right next to the Inupiat Heritage Center. The place is worth a visit when you cannot get out to shoot. It is a lot of hunting though. The Inupiat people have long been hunters. The museum talks about hunting birds, hunting bears, and hunting seals. Mostly it talks about hunting Bowhead Whales and the history of the hunt. They are, rightly, proud of their traditions. The museum also showcases traditional clothing and gear used over time as well as showcasing the various feasts and celebrations of their culture. Here is a little bit of what I captured there. You should be able to click on the pictures to make them bigger.
The museum also features a number of crafts; some of which are available for sale. If you walk around to the back of it, you can see where local craftsman are making them by hand. Greg, one of the participants on the trip, bought an amazing little boat.
I have mentioned the group a few times. Maybe a group photo is in order.
This pic was taken not far from where I saw my first polar bear. We had just called it a morning and were headed back into town. The lighting was not good. It was cloudy. We had heard conflicting reports on the polar bear being seen near town. We were told it was still being seen out on the ice near the gas station. We were told it had come into town and had been shot. Unsure of what to believe, we headed over to the shore and started driving north. The other truck was following us but split off to head back to the hotel. Jamie was my guide this day, and she was determined. It was almost as if she knew we would find one. So, we kept driving. On this road, you eventually reach the summer fishing camp. This is as far as you can go without having a local with you. From there, the road heads to the beach, and then you take the beach out to Point Barrow. Not far from this fishing camp, I saw Jamie glance to her right. The ice pack was out the left, and we had all been scanning it for a bear. I looked to where I thought Jamie had glanced and looked right at the rear end of a polar bear. I sat there in awe for what felt like a long time and then asked Jamie if she was going to stop for the polar bear. She had not actually looked at it and was busily scanning the ice again. Shortly after my question, chaos erupted in the truck. We stopped and quickly took shots out the window. We got out and took shots. We frantically radioed the other truck. No reply. We radioed repeatedly. We piled back in the truck and drove halfway back to town before Greg got ahold of Brian on his phone. We u-turned and headed back. We could not find the bear. We eventually found it, but it was too late. We had spooked it. It popped up out of nowhere, quickly loped to the shore, and started wandering out onto the ice. By the time the others got there, it was far out on the ice. I had mixed feelings. I was elated to see one. It was hard to celebrate when the others were disappointed to have missed out.
A bit of the landscape and then some bear shots!
Did I mention that cancellations bring opportunities? Truth be told, we were a bit stuck. We did not have a vehicle. The rental period was over, and we would have had to come up with money for the rental - and then hope we had decent light for shooting. No vehicle meant no birding. The hotel is not that exciting, and we were pretty much trapped there. The hotel and a few shots from inside/my room.
So, what was this opportunity? Well, Brian had been in contact earlier that week with a local that was offering to take people out to the point. The polar bear were still feeding on the remnants of last year's whale carcass. We had not heard back from him, but we were able to get a hold of him that day. He could fit three of us in his truck. I quickly volunteered. I did not want to miss out.
It was $150 per person to ride out to the point. Point Barrow is the furthest point north in the US. World wide, there is only a little over 2% of land that is further north than Point Barrow. Regardless of how the trip went, it was going to be a unique experience. In the end, it was a down-right adventure. As far as trucks go, I am not sure they guy's truck even quite reached average condition for Utqiagvik. It made odd noises. To get in the back, you had to reach around inside and open the half-door from the inside. There would be no quick entrance. Every dash light (this is not exaggeration) was on. I am not really judging or making fun of the truck. It just sets the tone for my state of mind later. The truck is barely running, and we are about to head to an area with questionable cell service and bears. Walking out is not really an option. This is what was going through my head shortly after heading out. You see, we got out to the fishing camp and then continued north. Not far up the road, the road went away, and you were suddenly on the beach. The beach is very loose, small pebble rock. We got stuck. When the door was opened, you could smell how hot the transmission had gotten. Casey looked at me and asked if I was concerned. I was. Luckily, the guide and Brian knew what to do. They let most of the air out of the tires. With the lowered tires and the truck in 4-low, we were suddenly moving, again. Keeping the truck in a lower gear helped keep the transmission cool. We bogged back down a few times, but we made it through.
After what felt like a very long drive, we reached the point. We hopped out of the truck and started scanning. We could see nothing but heavy fog and ice in every direction. The fog was thick, which was also a bit unnerving. You do not get a sense of how foggy it was, but here is a phone pic of the area.
We were probably out here an hour with no luck. It was cold and windy. Oddly, we had a Red-breasted Merganser fly in from out over the ice. Other flybys included Arctic Terns (the same group of 4 flew by repeatedly), some Common Eider, and Herring and Glaucous Gulls. Brian thought he might have had a Glaucous-winged, but I did not get a good look at it before it disappeared in the fog.
After about an hour, I looked up beach, and I could see a polar bear. Our guide must have already spotted it; as he was walking back to the truck. We drove down the beach towards the whale carcass and hopped out. Dumbly, I had left the camera out in the truck; so, it was quite warm. It took a few minutes for the camera to cool down enough that all my images were not blurry. Pro-tip, leave the camera in the back of the truck.
Here is where things got dicey, again. I am not questioning our guide. I am just saying that I later learned that we were his first group he has taken out. This bear is about a 100 yards out. We are maybe 30 foot from the truck. I am not going to do the math, but I think the bear could be us to the truck before we could all get into the truck; especially with the way the back door worked. Our guide also did not like us leaving the doors open and insisted we shut them. Quick re-entry was not an option. He did have a rifle with him that he could fire into the ground near the bear to scare it off. He has done that before when he has been out there with them. So, maybe the "what time does a bear get to the truck if it leaves the ice at 30 mph" math problem is not that important... maybe.
Back to the matter at hand. We had a bear. It was big. It was exciting. If you are decent at math, it was a bit frightening. It moved around us and then it moved out onto the ice. I thought it was all over as soon as it had started.
It had just begun, though. There was a second bear.
The first bear moved out and toward the second bear, and that turned the second bear away for a bit. Having accomplished that, the first bear started moving back toward us. It was making a casual loop toward the whale carcass. If you were paying attention while shooting, you would notice that it was doing to us what we do to the ducks. It was meandering and acting like it was not paying attention, but it was watching, and it was circling closer. If you look at the eye, you can see the white of the eye in the corner. He is giving us the sly "side-eye".
I took a ton of pictures of the bear just walking across the ice. The quality is fairly poor. The fog was thick and rolling through in waves. I was surprised how well the images cleaned up, but the final product is still a bit rough.
The bear finally got to the carcass and started picking through it. Here, you get a better perspective of the shooting conditions. They are fairly bleak.
Now, we are trying to shoot and keep an eye on a second bear - maybe a third popping up somewhere? You just do not know. The first bear (while it did not inspire calm, peaceful, cute Coca Cola polar bear feelings) was nothing compared to the second bear. Everything about the posture and the way it looked at us said, to me, "you look tasty." It followed in shortly after the first bear and took much the same route. It just stopped and stared at us longer. It licked its lips a lot. The guide was uneasy too and loaded the rifle and got on top of the truck to watch. This bear inspired a bit of fear. This was not a "I am good at math" fear. It was a "it thinks you are food" fear. I could feel it well up a little, and I would swallow it back down. I stayed close to the truck; the back corner, where I could get behind it more quickly. False sense of security there. I kept shooting - nervously.
Anyway, as I am writing this blog, obviously everything worked out okay. The bear came in to the carcass. The fog cleared a little bit on its trek across the ice, and I got a bit clearer pictures. When it got to the carcass, we expected a fight. Instead, the second bear licked the fur of the first a bit and then they both started foraging around the carcass. There was one last moment where the second bear started to move toward us.
We are probably 50-60 yards from the carcass, and that is way too close. We should have got in the truck and moved back. The guide said that if the bear moved to the this side of the bone pile, we needed to get into the truck immediately. I think I took a step or two backwards. The bear looked at us. Considered for a minute, and then it turned around and walked off into the fog.
On the way back to town, the truck buzzed inside with the excitement of the day. I did not even realize it was midnight until we got back. I was so awake. I stayed up a little while longer; talking to a local about the 24 hours of light and what it is like living there. Around 1 AM, I headed back up to my room and got some sleep before I started my long, this time successful, trip home.
Polar bears were not the only animals we saw this trip. They were just the most exciting. We had a pair of caribou, also known as reindeer. Another first for me was Arctic Fox. I am not sure if it was lost or just having fun, but it was running around crazily, one morning. It never quite seemed sure what direction it was going. Closer shots would have been great. We also had a single Arctic Ground-Squirrel. I had seen them around Denali before. Our smallest mammals of the trip were the several lemming we saw scurrying about the tundra. I have no idea what species they were. They were brown and quick. If you are going to get a pic of one, you will need to be faster than me. I got a mostly out-of-focus shot of one. The head is in focus. The problem is that the lemming was running away from us; so, it is a mostly blurry butt with a sharp outline of fur on the far end.
And that pretty much wraps things up. I was fortunate to have a good group of people to photograph with and a great pair of guides. I do not know that I will ever make it back. I would like to think I will. I am pretty sure it will not be next year, though. Three weeks later, and I am still a bit off on my sleep schedule. At this rate, it might take a year just to get back to normal.
I hope you enjoyed these posts as much as I enjoyed reliving the trip. As always...
Thanks for reading,