An amazing opportunity came my way in September to travel to Kaktovik, Alaska and photograph the polar bears on Barter Island. Kaktovik sits on the northern coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge along the Beaufort Sea. Most days it was in the 20° range with a wind chill factor taking it well below zero. This is fall in Kaktovik, some snow days, some sun days, but always cold wind on your face, blowing through and breaking the barrier of layers of wool clothing, giving me a chill down my back to remind me I'm in the Arctic. Although this was the end of September, which allowed us to cruise the open waters and observe the polar bears and their cubs, winter was approaching fast and by mid November the sea will be ice, and snow will cover the town of Kaktovik.
Getting to Kaktovik can be challenging. Fog and weather issues, along with a scant selection of commercial flights, most stopping in Deadhorse, can make landing in Kaktovik on your scheduled day and time almost impossible. My flight from Fairbanks to Kaktovik had mechanical failure mid-flight, and we had to turn back to Fairbanks. Our group was fortunate enough to find a private charter, which would fly us out later that day from Fairbanks to Kaktovik. When I heard our pilot's name was "Timber" I knew he'd blast through any bad weather conditions and touch us down on time in Kaktovik. A private charter from Fairbanks directly to Kaktovik is the only way to travel, and Everts Air landed us down safely, leaving us an hour to view our first polar bears before the darkness rolled in for the night.
The hotel on Barter Island, the Waldo Arms, was one of the most hospitable accommodations I've enjoyed. Hot meals were always waiting after returning from the boat, where I spent hours photographing the polar bears in freezing weather. The staff enjoyed giving guests the scoop on the town, the polar bears and the weather and I would not hesitate to stay there again. Getting to know some of the other guests proved interesting, as Amy Robach from Good Morning America, along with her news team, were preparing a story about global warming and the effects on the polar bears. The next day, National Geographic arrived to continue their story on the bears of Alaska, most likely named "The Grizzly Gauntlet" and airing the first quarter of 2018.
The Iñupiat, the Alaskan native people of Kaktovik are allowed to take three whales each whale season, which runs August through mid September. I arrived after the last whale of the season had been caught and harvested, and the remaining carcass and bones had been put out on the bone pile for the polar bears to enjoy. I was expecting to photograph creamy white colored polar bears, but what I found were oily and dirty brown polar bears. They were eating off the bone pile, getting greasy from the whale meat, and then rolling around in the sand. I also learned that polar bear skin is black, which helps them absorb energy from the sun, and their outer layer of fur is clear. This outer layer of fur creates luminescence as the rays of the sun bounce off the clear fur. If the polar bear is in the snow, it will appear more white, and when it's on a sandy beach, it reflects the color of it's surroundings. Watching the polar bears eat off the bone pile and observing the cubs running and jumping off the bones, like it was a playground, was an amusing and fascinating sight to photograph.
As a Colorado wildlife photographer, this was an adventure I wasn't going to turn down. I've photographed wild animals all over the world, and the polar bears have been one of my favorites. They're playful, full of energy, and very animated. You can view all of my fine art photos for sale at https://www.juliphotography.com/fine-art Starting November 10, 2017 through December 4th, I'll be taking custom orders of any of my photographs for holiday delivery and offering two limited edition, one size only, fine art pieces selected from my polar bear collection. To place a custom order on wood, metal, canvas or acrylic, or a print for framing or holiday cards, contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-818-0066. Mention this blog, and you'll receive 10% off any custom order.