Kaktovik, part 1

Oh Island close to Ice
Eternal wilderness Paradise
Just to feel how the edge of the world
Touches the frozen history pearls
Kaktovik brings you to your senses.

If you, being on the edge of the stressed western civilization, are dropped in a village on Barter Island, an island off Alaska, which lies in the vast Arctic Ocean, start contemplating immediately.

Just a few hours ago we left the hustle and bustle of Fairbanks and Anchorage behind us. Transferred from a comfortable airplane to a small propeller airplane dating from just after the second world war. Flying above the clouds to no-mans land and then touching down on a misty gray gravel landing.

In a dilapidated hangar, where the old doors are rusting away in their disused rails, where filthy old cars stand here and there, and where an old school bus, half sheltered from the wind, just waits. Its cold, a few degrees above zero. The wind whistles around the shed, it’s foggy, whereby the low hanging clouds make it impossible for the sun to break through.

The baggage is hastily dropped out of the plane, and we fall into the hands of Tim, the Manager of the Marsh Creek Inn. We are immediately put at ease by his spontaneous and amicable approach. We are now on an island close to the polar bears (Polars or Nanooks) and hopefully we will see them as soon as possible. It is well known that the polar bears are protected animals, because they are being threatened with extinction and probably, if we are lucky, we will see them once in our life time in the wild.

Tim brings us to the hotel in his Ford truck. We pass through a village with wooden houses on stilts, caves, rubbish sheds, nice looking buildings, neat houses and some more sheds. The gravel roads are bumpy and there is a disorganized accumulation of snowmobiles, machines, boats, cars, old cabinets, prams and toys strewn around the houses and buildings.

Dumped as endless storage, where for nine months of the year many of these leftover products will be covered under a virgin pack of white snow. When the snow does come, the meters thick white tablecloth is spread over the squalid village which in itself will create a sort of blinding icy beauty. We are too early for this, or we would have to wait for a few weeks to see this spectacle.

The first culture shock is the transition, from the paved world full of people in western luxury with their endless possibilities for freedom of movement, to this village. A village that directly surrounds you with the simplicity of the environment. The small-scale community (270 people) embraces you and imposes on you a limited freedom of movement.

The message reads: “Do not venture outside the village on your own! You can come across polar bears and we will not be responsible for your safety.”

The Marsh Creek Inn is an excellent inn with delicious food and a commitment by the manager, Tim, and the cook, Josh, which is way above normal. The room looks neat and tidy. The beds are comfortable. And at mealtimes there is a mixed group of villagers present, the Inupiat Eskimos and guests. The latter are only too happy to consume a hearty meal after the guided tours.

The second culture shock occurs when you are in discussions with the guides or one of the villagers about the life around the Arctic Ocean and the reports on the melting ice. You then discover that we, in the west, have all kinds of theories about these developments, but that we have forgotten to discuss these with the Inupiat people. They are the ones who have survived in the Arctic for more than 10,000 years. They are the experts!

They often have a different opinion, which, unfortunately, is heard by too few.

They are the people, the ones who live there for twelve months of the year and from their past history, are the ones who are at one with nature. They know better than anyone how to maintain and preserve nature. Our aim is to listen to them. Then we may discover the value of their arguments and become convinced that their knowledge and experience really does matter.

We realize that we, with all our Western techniques, do not know how we should tackle the untamed Arctic Ocean. Insurmountable problems can arise from this.

The third culture shock comes over us as we see the unimaginable sustainability of nature in this icy climate. The dead elements don’t come back to life, but are a lasting testament of the life, that they have lived. At the sight of it, they could have just stopped living yesterday. Maybe they have been pretending for a hundred years. The ice has made them so strong, so that they can survive the three months of warmth and thaw fully refreshed.

You will also see this preservation in today’s world. You will find no trace of extinction symptoms, neither in humans nor animals. On the contrary, you will find vibrancy and new life, both in young and as well as the elderly, in people and in animals.

Plants and trees are only found in the form of distant sculptures, which flow via the big rivers into the ocean, after which they will nestle on the elongated gravel bank that lies in front of the island.

We are allowed to view the bears here for six days. Three days with a guide, who brought us to the gravel bank in front of the island with his boat, and three days in a hired car, an old wreck of a Ford truck, that couldn’t be wrecked any more. The guides sail with their boats round the peninsula of the island to the gravel bank.

During the day the polar bears have their domicile on the gravel bank, and come evening they go for a short swim to look for the bone pile. The bone pile is the dumping ground of whale blubber, whale bones and unused whale meat. For the Eskimo’s it is nature’s law to also look after the polar bears by giving them food. Humans and animals as a well-balanced part of the world.

It is misty almost every morning and the field of vision is rather limited. In the afternoon it clears up a bit. Sometimes it is bright, but September has many gloomy days. A temporary doom marks the farewell of summer only to rise again as the snow falls. The gloominess is cast away by the beauty of the Kaktovik village, as if the village has turned into Snow White.

On our second day we go exploring with the old Ford. Initially, Tim was not too happy about this.

“Too dangerous to go unaccompanied. You do not know where you can drive and the gravel roads can be treacherous. ”

However, we were allowed to use the car. Actually, you can only drive a few miles to the west, a few miles to the east and a few miles to the south. You could also walk, but that is exactly what you should not do. Because, sometimes the polar bears rummage around the village, and to come across a polar bear when you don’t have any protection is not very sensible. You are only allowed to drive Eastwards with an Inupiat guide. This is where the dumping ground of the whale bones can be found and the bears go there regularly.

As usual, Rika was going to drive. However, she could not reach the pedals and the seats were not adjustable, so I had to use the long legs to get this organ moving. It worked after a few gear grinding attempts. We drove westwards.

Just outside the village are dilapidated elongated snow screens. We see the white contours of a polar bear at the edge of the screen, and directly next to that we also see one loping. Rika panics immediately. She has seen a lot of films of ice bear encounters on internet and she knows how aggressively these bears deal with intruders. Cars with smashed windows. A small car was even turned over.

There is a dirt road that goes to the end of the snow screen and I want to take that dirt road to get closer to the bears. Rika yells: Don’t even think about it. We stay where we are (a little bit too far) on the gravel road and look at the mother with two young cubs. The polar bears are, as a result of an over abundance of food given to them by the Inupiat’s, mostly quite lazy during the day. Sleep comes easy. The cubs want to play a little bit longer, but eventually they also lie down. Preferably tucked against their mother or with their heads in her thick soft fur.

After looking for a while at this peaceful scene from out of the car, we finally decide to stand beside the truck and set up our cameras, as close to the car as possible, so that we can flee from any fast bear (according to us) by quickly ducking into the car. If you are standing there for the first time your nerves are totally shot. Polar bears are very aggressive; they hunt people and use violence. We are on their menu. But not with these bears. Every now and then they look in our direction, stand up, and then lie down again and then, finally, the mother feeds her two cubs.

A touching moment between mother and cubs. They have a strong bond with each other. Gradually, we stand further away from the car. It is extremely nerve racking sometimes. Will we be accepted, and will they leave us alone. After three hours we know for sure. Polar bears are quite friendly!

The second day we go out early by boat. It is foggy. The first shocking sight is the bone pile. Through the patches of mist it looks as if prehistoric monsters have just sprung out of the sea and are now getting ready to attack the island. Their broad heads look up proudly. Lifting them up. Here and there tremendous spears are sticking out diagonally in the direction of the village.

“Men of the deep: Attack”. Where once we have been sacrificed for the welfare of humans and animals, our bones will now win the battle for the island.” They look tremendous, but their feet are frozen, nailed into the ground. They will not reach the village

Then, through the mists screen, looms the first blurry outline of a white shadow. It lies somewhat bumpily on the gravel bank against an elegantly smooth shaped tree, the roots of which are defiantly sticking out.

The pale-looking sun lights up his figure. The dreaded polar bear, with his head on a cushion of sand and his right front paw pressed, in a Napoleontic way, over the left paw looks very disarming. Our arrival with the boat, about 40 plus meters from where he is lying doesn’t bother him. He is not going to allow his rest to be disturbed, and his rest is going to last longer than our patience.

After motionless hours, we leave slowly to pursue our next adventurous spot. There we see mother bear with her two cubs. Mother also surrender to the pleasures of a deep rest. But of course, her cubs think differently. They play, explore, romp around and look at us as in a relentless game show. They regularly give mum a poke, just to make sure that she does not forget that she has a pair of special cubs. Mother polar bear ignores this. Throws an occasional intensely sensitive glance at her cubs, just to confirm, once again, her deep bond with them. Goes along with it for a while and then leaves again to the dreamland of the Nanooks.

Sometimes they have had enough of it. They slide over to mother, who graciously tucks them in between her legs. A spectacle that is so endearing, that you’re apt to narrow the 40 meter gap so as to be able to enjoy this scene more intensively. Then, you forget for an instant that these polar bears can be aggressive and that distance remains a necessity.

We can follow a spectacle like this for days.

With many more special events printed in our minds, such as the successful pursuit of a whale, the discovery of an ancient bone pile place, where we can look undisturbed at the vertebrae of the Bowhead Whale, and also find the jaws of a polar bear. Where the first snow falls, which places the polar bears in their natural ambiance

All these experiences are being put on our website Alaskwoodhouse.com. We conclude this first experience with an impressive picture of a polar bear, which stands triumphantly on the tip of the bone pile.

He is confident in the, for him seemingly eternal, wilderness

Warm greetings from Rika and Harry

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