Polar Bears' Picnic
Alaska’s Arctic Circle is a ‘frontier wilderness’, the expanse of pristine boreal forest and vast tundra is so big, bold and beautiful to explore that you only just scratch the surface of the permafrost. It can only be described in sweeping metaphorical statements - a majestic magnificence of mountains and glittering glaciers humble mankind’s diminutive existence in nature’s masterpiece. Thrilling encounters with polar bears, the most dangerous and endangered land mammals lure me onto the tundra during winter’s onset to drive 500 miles from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean on one of ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ - Dalton Highway, armed with a snow shovel, CB radio, sub-zero sleeping bag, stove and emergency provisions.
Across the mighty Yukon River a signpost heralds arrival in the ‘Arctic Circle’. At milepost 259 at Coldfoot Camp I hunker down in my sleeping bag by the river to watch sunset over the Endicott Mountains. Next day the spruce trees of the boreal forest dwindle, replaced by herds of peaceable woolly muskoxen and grazing caribou by frozen lakes, and shimmering mirages in the tundra’s icy realm. Engulfed by the panoramic enormity of the Brooks Range Mountains, Ice road truckers thunder past whilst my 4WD slides through a white-out at the highest point of the Atigun Pass avalanche zone. Through hail and snow the sun emerged to highlight a seamless ring of snow laden mountains akin to thick cake icing, it’s a visual feast to wander into the midst of it all to be swallowed-up by the infinity of the landscape.
Dalton Highway traces the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, at the end of ‘Haul Road’ a snowy owl is perched atop the final 498 milepost . A muddy mess, an ugly sprawl of oil corporations and industrial heavy plant scars this once pristine landscape for black blood beneath the permafrost. The Arctic Circle teeters on an environmental and ecological knife edge, the clock is ticking and multinational corporations are impatient to exploit the fragile ecosystem. Attention turned to mining the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a divisive topic amongst indigenous communities. In stark contrast above this profit of ugliness the Northern Lights are beautifully hypnotic as rays of vibrant green light dance and undulate in rhythmical waves across the cold night sky, and a shooting star makes it magical to behold.
An arctic fox nonchalantly trots across the horizon as a polar sunrise illuminates the sky with a radiance of warm colours that belie the frigid temperature. Industrial decay is replaced by aerial views of frozen tundra stretching towards Barter Island. 1,100 miles from the geographic North Pole, the village of Kaktovik has 250 indigenous Inupiats, the women wear colourful voluminous skirts and hooded coat’s lavishly trimmed with fur, and polar bears gather on the shoreline awaiting the ‘big freeze’. National Geographic filmed here, and I’m jostling for expensive wildlife guides with pro-photographers and film crews. Making my pennies stretch, the cheapest guide has an asterisk by his name – Eddy*. Instantly liking this stoic man of few words, we pit stop at Eddy’s home for a bag of Werthers Originals, thermos of coffee and the refined accompaniments of porcelain cups, and pillows for the quadbike ride to the boat.
The ghostly white forms of sleeping polar bears are barely discernible through a thick pea soup fog as we sail round the sandbars. Eddy moors the boat, loads his rifle and announces “I’m going to bring you a bear!” I admonish him not to provoke the wildlife. Eddy grabs his coffee, steps off the boat, mischievously winks and shouts “I’ll herd the bears over” as I incredulously watch him stride into the grey ether with the rifle slung over his shoulder. A seemingly inordinate length of time elapses, and I’m concerned for the polar bears’ welfare with an armed, caffeine-fuelled Inupiat in their midst prodding them to wake-up. Relieved no shots have been fired, Eddy emerges out of the fog with an empty cup of coffee in-hand, “the bears aren’t moving, we’ll go to the Bonepile.”
The pungent ‘Bonepile’ is a veritable feast to gorge upon for scavenging arctic foxes and polar bears with bloody faces. The putrefying stench of whale carcasses is as overwhelming as the sight of the massive bones from the Inupiats’ recent subsistence hunt. Nearby a group of polar bears relax with full bellies, mother and cubs play in the sea with buoyant whale blubber, other exuberant cubs frolic in a nursery crèche pool whilst mothers keep a watchful eye. One male laconically floats on his back, rolls over and swims after the boat with hastened pace before losing interest. Further along a female and her curious adolescent cubs pad the shoreline for a closer inspection of us, the mother wades into the sea but at sub-zero water temperature who could blame her cubs’ reluctance to join her. The fog lifts to unveil a sunset of voluminous purple, red and orange clouds over the bears, and the village backdrop shimmers in the icy haze.
Defrosting by a roaring fire in the hotel lounge local talk of the previous night’s ‘hazing’ - gunfire to prevent a polar bear from entering Kaktovik, emphasises the inhabitants close proximity with these powerful predators, local advice for a bear encounter in the village is to literally ‘run for your life’ into the nearest house as no-one locks the doors. Huskies warn of bears of any colour as surprisingly grizzly bears are also on the tundra, Inupiats have noted the negative impacts of climate change on wildlife migratory patterns and vegetation in the Arctic Circle. An abundance of rain falls instead of snow on the tundra, due to this adverse effect on ice levels the polar bears wait longer each year for the ‘big freeze’, and a foreshortened hunting season. A ranger collects fur samples from the barbed wire near the Bonepile, my plane has landed, and with a final lingering look I ponder the fate of the polar bears gathered on the shoreline.
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