Kaktovik’s life on the edge

THERE IS A PLACE, UNDISTURBED AND TRUE, that survives despite the challenges of a remote and raw existence in the Arctic. Most days of the year, the predominantly Inupiat population practices a traditional subsistence life without much notice or intrusion from the outside world. Butchered rations from bowhead whales dry in the sun atop patches of grass, with family names written on cardboard scraps for distribution. Dogs bark at the ends of outstretched chains, sheltered from the elements by the makeshift kennels they’re tethered to. Weathered fishermen clad in caribou-skin parkas work the waters of the Beaufort Sea in seaworthy vessels, while dilapidated boats return to the earth, rusting metal and rotting wood, permanently moored to the landscape.

The location of Kaktovik, a Native village with less than 300 residents situated on Barter Island and encompassing a single-square mile, can be isolating and dire—after all, it’s the only inhabited area within the 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Winter temperatures can dip to 50 degrees below zero, and preparations for those months last all spring, summer, and fall with hunting, fishing, gathering, and preserving to ensure survival. As early as mid-October, the ice grows too thick for boat travel, and flights to and from places like Deadhorse, Yukon, and Fairbanks become unreliable because of weather. Even in the fall, getting “weathered in” or out of Kaktovik is a real thing for visitors. And fall does bring visitor—a growing phenomenon due to the allure of the other denizens of the region—polar bears.

A mom and her two cubs scavenge for scraps at the bone pile on Barter Island.

OVER THE LAST DECADE, the bone pile has drawn bears and tourists alike, but very few of the people living in the community have received any of the tourist dollars coming into the city—even though the growing interest impacts their privacy and way of life. Recently, the bone pile moved to private land, where commercial tours can no longer go, and officials at ANWR began a study to manage the interests of residents and businesses and to form a plan to handle conflicts and safety.

Intimidating, imposing, and weighing up to 1,500 pounds, these marine mammals dominate the food chain in the Arctic.

And yet, the only proposed change seems to be to lift the freeze on new boat guide permits, allowing more commercial boat operators a part of the action, with no preference given to those who live in Kaktovik. A web-based
reservation system is in place to ensure the stated goal that visitation numbers remain the same and do not grow beyond the current capabilities of overnight lodging and airplane seat availability. Allowing more boats to accommodate the same number of visitors each fall doesn’t seem to address the growing demand of people wanting to see polar bears in Kaktovik or the community concerns regarding the impact versus benefit ratio where locals rarely profit from the influx of visitors.

Kaktovik resident and Alaska Native Inupiat Bruce
Inglangasak runs Kaktovik Arctic Tours, frequently battling local resistance against tourism.

AS THE DEBATE CONTINUES, the bears remain indifferent, kings of the Arctic, in full view of those lucky enough to visit a place called Kaktovik while it’s still possible to do so. Because at the end of the day, the ability to view polar bears in their natural habitat is a key factor in creating the advocates necessary for their survival—if it can be done without endangering the traditions and way of life of the Inupiat who live among them.

A sow nurses her cubs on the ice in front of guests, allowing photographers to capture a tender and intimate moment of normally elusive animal behavior.

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