September 2014: Alaska is hands down one of my favorite places on Earth. Its wilderness and wildlife are just simply unparalleled. I have been to Alaska multiple times and I will keep returning. On this particular trip I chose to visit the Alaskan Arctic, which is the most remote part of the State and the most expensive to get to. But compared to going to the Canadian Arctic, it is still much cheaper. Kaktovik in my opinion is the best polar bear watching destination in the world in terms of the cost, wildness and ability to get close to the bears from a good vantage point.

About Kaktovic Village

Kaktovik is a small Inupiat Eskimo village sits is located in northern Alaska on an island called Barter Island on the Arctic Ocean. The village is small with only a few hundred people and the only way to reach Kaktovik is by a small twin engine plane. Kaktovik is completely surrounded by Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) wilderness. ANWR is home to abundant wildlife such as polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves and huge herds of caribou. Additionally, the Arctic Ocean around Kaktovik flourishes with marine life such as Beluga and Bowhead Whales as well as Greenland Sharks. These animals are ancient and have long life spans. Greenland sharks can live up to 500 years old and Bowhead whales, the longest living mammal, can live up to 200 years old.

The Inupiat people of Kaktovik traditionally hunt and depend on the meat of Bowhead Whales and continue to a small number of them and only for subsistence purposes. There is a strict limit to the number of whales that can be hunted every year and the hunt is a large community event where everyone takes part and shares in the bounty. The meat and blubber allocated to each family will last the entire year and is rich in protein and energy.

The village of Kaktovik sits right on the migration route of polar bears that launch on to the sea ice of the Arctic every winter in order to hunt. This and the Inupiat hunting of Bowhead whales brings polar bears into the Kaktovik region. The small of the whale carcass especially attracts the bears and the carcass is left on an island away from town for the bears to scavenge.  The Inupiat have learned to co-exist with Polar Bears and carry guns for protection. These days the Inupiat have also turned the bears into a means to attract tourists. Kaktovik is also a great launching point for expeditions into ANWR.

Location of Kaktovic

I visited Kaktovic with my friend Evan as part of a larger Alaska trip that included Fairbanks and Kodiak island. Kaktovic is an expensive place to visit and most visitors arrive on pricey package all inclusive tours. I organized the trip independantly and did so on a backpackers budget. Kaktovic has very limnited options for accomodation and the only hotel in the village is extremely expensive. I wanted to camp or stay with a local for much cheaper, so I joined the kaktovic Facebook group and called around town asking for assistance. I called the only church in town and asked if my friend and I could sleep in the church or camp in front of it. The pastor was very helpful and informed me that sleeping in the church was not possible and that camping would be too dangerous due to polar bears. He instead called one of his friends at the hotel and asked if we could stay in a small wooden cabin that is used as a storage area for the hotel. The catch was it is very rustic and does not have any heat. The hotel agreed and instead of paying 400$/night we paid 50$/night to stay in a rustic storage cabin with a few cots to sleep on. We brought our own sleeping bags and food and we were set. Then while in kaktovic we would arrange our own boat trip to visit the polar bears via one of the local boat owners. 

Flight into Kaktovic

We started out in Fairbanks, Alaska. From Fairbanks we flew ERA Aviation, a small local Alaskan bush plane service to Kaktovik via Dead Horse (Prudhoe Bay). In this part of Alaska there are no roads and few towns and airports, and the weather is notoriously bad and foggy. No flight is guaranteed, and flights are commonly delayed or cancelled. When we flew into Kaktovik, the cloud ceiling was low, and we barely made it into the airport. The Kaktovik airport is as basic as it gets. The runway is made of gravel, there is one hangar and no air traffic control. A middle-aged woman working the kitchen in the Waldo Arms Hotel, is the air traffic controller and coordinates the weather information for Kaktovik to incoming pilots.  There were approx. 10 other passengers on our small twin prop engine plane, and all were Inupiat. I was entertained on the flight by one man’s story of hunting whales and fending off hungry polar bears by shooting his rifle into the air.

Flight into Kaktovic

Our ERA Aviation Plane at the Kaktovic Airport

Our Airport Pick Up at Kaktovic Airport

Wreckage of a plane at the airport

Once in kaktovic we were picked up by a small truck and driven to the village a mile or so away. Walking to the village from the airport would be suicide because of polar bears. It is easy to see why because from the airport you can see wandering polar bears on a strip of land near by feeding on whale bones.

Kaktovic, a small village of just a few hundred people, isn’t exactly the postcard image of prosperity. It is a small gloomy village with rustic wooden delipatated houses, and cargo trailers. Most houses are on stilts because of the mud and unstable tundra that the ground consists of. The village is litterred with broken snowmobiles, discarded whale bones and wooden sledges. It doesn’t take long to walk the length of the village and to find yourself on the outskirts within easy reach of polar bears. Evan and I walked down to the Arctic Ocean passing the small village graveyard and more random bones while always glancing up and down the shoreline for the presence of polar bears that if nearby would absolutely attack us. Polar bears are one of the only predators that include humans as a natiral prey source. In the challenging environment of the Arctic, a polar bear will not trun doen an easy human meal.

kaktovic Village/Discarded Whale Bones

Kaktovic Village Scene

Kaktovic House/Polar Bear Skins Hanging Outside

Old Gloomy Graveyard

In Kaktovic everything is imported and the cost for basic food stuff is very high and limited. As a result, the people rely on hunting wild animals for a primary source of food. A few whales are allowed to be hunted every year and only via traditional methods with a manual harpoon. In addition to whale, the people hunt seals, and bear. In winter, wooden sledges pulled from snowmobiles are used to transport hunting gear and meat. 

Wooden sledge

One Inupiat man that Evan and I met, invited us to his house to show us his stock of whale meat-mukt tuk. He had an entire freezer full that with multiple giant 10-pound chunks of meat, which he claimed will last him for a year until the next hunting season. Since the whale is bland, he an assortment of spices and sauces that he adds to the meat but on the most part he mentioned he eats it raw. He kindly gave us a pound of meat that we carried with us for the rest of our trip in Alaska and ate during our rustic trip to Kodiak Island.

Inupiat man preparing whale meat-muktuk

Our Accomodation

We stayed in a small wooden extension of the Waldo Arms Hotel, which was the only hotel available during our stay. Waldo rms was less a hotel and more a rustic explorers hut. If the hotel was in San Diego, my hometown, the building likely would have been condemned. It was an old wooden decrepit building that did have a cozy rustic charm to it. it also was one of the only restaurants in town serving fast food attracting locals. The local church pastor was able to convince the owner of the hotel to allow us to stay in the storage shed in a few basic beds. For 50$ each we had a bed, and we would be able to shower in the shared bathrooms available to other guests. Our room was freezing and there were some interesting old artifacts in storage there such as an old wooden video games, which we used to prepare our camping food. It became obvious quickly that the manager of the hotel was not very pleased that we were freeloading off of the hotel, eating our own food and not spending money in the expensive hotel restaurant. So, to try and make peace with management, we would purchase some hamburgers every once in a while, which drastically improved how we were treated. Alcohol is not allowed in Kaktovik because of the widespread substance abuse problems that have plagued the Inupiat community, so we were very discreet with our wine and whisky that we only consumed in the privacy of our shack accommodation.

Waldo Arms Hotel

Our Sleeping Accomodation for 50 dollars per night

Observing Polar Bears in the Wild

Polar bears live and wander all around town and can be easily seen in the distance from town so it isn’t hard to find them. To see them, you have to hire one of the local boat owners with a skiff usually about 12 feet long to take you out to the islands around Kaktovik where Polar bears frequent. I arranged a boat trip with a Norwegian man that lived in town. The cost of the boat is not cheap. it cost 250USD/person for 3 hours. As much as I tried there was no wiggle room on the price because as the Norwegian man said, fuel is expensive. Evan, I and the Norwegian man set off in pursuit of the bears in thick fog that limited our visibility. Before we knew it, we were spotting dozens of bears all around us. There were huge male bears that must have weighed 1500 pounds and there were mother bears with cubs that wrestled with each other. At times the bears seemed more like playful cute yellow lab dogs than dangerous animals.  One bear was swimming in the water and as we passed by only a few feet, it started to frantically swim towards us. Bear watching in Kaktovik exceeded my wildest expectations.

The boat we hired to take us to the polar bears. The back was open and there is no closed interior

Me photographing a polar bear

The biggest bear I have ever seen

The bears loved to swi and would swim towards us

Mother bear sleeps ignoring her cub who is craving her attention by playing with a stick.

Two bears fighting

A bear walking the shores of the Arctic Ocean

Swimming bear curiosly watching us 

Mother and cub

Angry male Bear

Dead Boat Motor and Floating Ashore to a Gang of Polar Bears

At one point we were 20 feet from shore and a group of 4 polar bears were sitting patiently watching us. Evan and I were busy taking photos when our motor went silent. The wind was blowing hard from the opposite direction and now our little boat was drifting to shore, and the polar bears knew it. The bears started to get excited and were sitting were getting in their ready to pounce mode as we started to float closer to them. There was nowhere in our boat to hide, and our only option would be to use the captain’s rifle either to scare them away or kill them, but chances are one if not all of us would be mauled or worse before immobilizing them with them with a bullet. Of course, killing them was also not what any of us would prefer. We were in their home after all.

The Norwegian captain was frantic and was trying to rapidly repair the motor as we continued to float dangerously close to shore. The captain yelled at me to start the engine but and I was trying to find the ignition while he yelled louder. Luckily somehow in the chaos of the moment, we motor started and we were off to safety of deeper water.  Maybe it was because of the close call but the captain called our trip short because of the strong wind. Instead, of continuing the trip in risky conditions, he agreed to finish the other 2 hours the following day, which we did.

Bears anxiously waiting for us to arrive on shore in our drifting boat

Difficulty in Leaving Kaktovik

On our last day, Evan and I were at the Waldo Arms restaurant eating cheeseburgers and the weather was extra foggy and gloomy. The ceilings were low and border line too low for any plane to safely land in Kaktovik.  The pilots of the inbound plane were on the ground at Deadhorse when they radioed the cook at Waldo Arms, also the airport weather dispatcher to ask her for a current report. Evan and I were ease dropping and concerned about getting out of Kaktovik. The cook mentioned over the radio that conditions were poor and one of the pilots responded that isn’t good. Evan and I knew that the pilots might delay or cancel the flight based on the cook’s response, so Evan quickly jumped up and declared to the cook that he is an airline pilot and that he is 100% confident that the weather conditions are suitable for landing. Evan and I both knew this was a stretch. He then asked to speak to the pilots on the radio. The cook agreed and Evan was able to successfully convince the pilots that they could land in Kaktovik. While Evan and I waited at the airport outside next to the gravel runway, we heard the plane above, although we couldn’t see it in the thick fog. We heard the pilots mention on the radio that they had made two missed approached due to low ceilings and that they would try one more time and abort if unsuccessful and return to Deadhorse. Luckily for us, they were able to land, and we were able to leave Kaktovik and continue our trip to meet my brother, Jesse in Kodiak Island on the other side of Alaska.

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