Eye to Eye with Polar Bears
The polar bear is standing quietly and sniffing the air, looking mean, ruthless, and directly at you! At almost eight feet tall and weighing about 850 pounds, this female polar bear is among the largest land carnivores. (The males can weigh more than 1,500 lbs.) This is a sight few will ever see unless they’re in one of the most remote reaches of the United States, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. One of the most pristine remaining locations on Earth, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located above the Arctic Circle in the northeastern corner of Alaska.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your viewpoint, there is an area of approximately 1.5 million acres within the reserve that is believed to be rich in oil. Whether there is enough oil for 2 years or 3 months consumption and whether there should be drilling in this section (called 1002) is an ongoing debate. Part of the debate hinges around the impact on the polar bear and caribou populations. The area is an extremely important locale for denning females who birth their cubs here, and for the porcupine caribou herds that summer on the costal plains in 1002. Currently, permission for drilling has been denied.
Because it is so remote, tourism is not big in this wildlife refuge but guided trips are available. Warbelows Air Ventures provides flights from Fairbanks to the Village of Katovik, an Inupiat village in the reserve. The trips, which take place in September and early October, include a night in the village, guides, and a guarantee you’ll see polar bears.
Other companies such as Alaskan Alpine Treks and Alaska Discovery provide 1- to 2-week trips in June and early July that include rafting and hiking around the beautiful Brooks Range. The trip provides the opportunity to see wolves, caribou, moose, bears, arctic fox, Dall sheep, and even muskoxen. If you go in the summer, consider trying to time your trip to catch the migration of the Porcupine caribou herd, when the animals number in the thousands. You’ll also experience perpetual daylight, itself an extraordinary experience. Your only concern will be dealing with mosquitoes that some locals contend are large enough to saddle and ride. The trip is a photographer’s dream. If you like fishing, Arctic char and grayling are waiting for you.
You’ll be flying in a bush plane from Fairbanks to reach the wildlife refuge. Before you depart, take a few days to enjoy this town. There are a number of galleries offering good Eskimo art and lots of opportunities to learn about native culture. If you’re there in the winter and get to see the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis (see ), you come home with once-in-a-lifetime photos. Don’t miss the University of Alaska Museum of the North, where you can explore more than 2,000 years of Alaskan art through ancient and modern stone and bone sculptures, paintings, and photographs.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ( 907/456-0250; www.arctic.fws.gov).
Tours: Warbelows Air Venture Inc. ( 800/478-0812; www.warbelows.com). Alaska Discovery ( 800/586-1911; www.alaskadiscovery.com). Alaska Alpine Treks ( 770/952-4549; www.alaskanalpinetreks.com).
When to Go: Sept to early Oct for polar bear viewing.
Fairbanks.$$$ The Westmark Fairbanks Hotel, 813 Noble St. ( 800/544-0970 or 907/456-7722; www.westmarkhotels.com). $$ Minnie Street Bed & Breakfast Inn, 345 Minnie St. ( 888/456-1849 or 907/456-1802; www.minniestreetbandb.com).