We made it out! After two days of waiting, one false drive to the airstrip, countless calls to our airline, making new friends, and juggling hotel and car reservations, we finally departed. The view out the window of the plane reminded us of how lucky we were. The entire North Slope was blanketed in fog, except for a tiny patch of clear skies over Kaktovik.
Getting stuck in Kaktovik is a common problem. Residents rely on commercial flights as a link to the outside world and the rapid increase in tourism has overwhelmed existing flights. I listened to residents' stories of being unable to book last minute flights: family members alone in hospitals in Anchorage for weeks, missed funerals, people stranded for days with broken bones or teeth. But bear tourism also brings money and attention to the bears. Issues of tourism can be complex: there are many problems AND benefits to have visitors to your community, and no simple answers.
Hours before our departure, Jennifer Reed, Public Use Manager for ANWR, invited me to a polar bear orientation for tourists. She attended our talk on Tuesday, and I was excited to reciprocate. Her extensive knowledge of the bears and the community comes from over a decade working in the Refuge. I learned that while not all polar bear populations are at risk, the well-studied Kaktovik bears are declining and becoming less healthy. As sea ice retreats, the bears lose a platform from which to hunt over the shallow and productive continental shelf waters, so hunt from shore. This results in great bear viewing, but less access to food. In the last 10 years, their hunting and denning has shifted dramatically from ice to shore.
After Jen's talk, I walked to see a mother bear and her cubs. I watched the bears from a distance, in awe. It was amazing to see such a special animal in the wild, and hard to convey the size, beauty, and power of Nanook. It was a perfect good bye to the Arctic. I wish the best for the people and white bears of Kaktovik. My visit was an experience of a lifetime and I hope it inspires you to protect the bears and to listen to people's stories, wherever you go.