Currently 47 degrees, clear skies, Fairbanks, AK. Sitting in darkness in a stranger’s living room waiting for the aurora to show. Watching planes takeoff from the airport below.
What’d We Do?
This morning we woke up early and headed to the Fairbanks airport to board a plane headed for the arctic circle. Today we traveled to the arctic ocean to view and photograph polar bears off the coast of Kaktovik.
We arrived at the east side of the airport and immediately weighed our bags to make sure they hit the 10 lb limit. We were traveling on a small nine-passenger aircraft and the airline required a strict weight limit. We removed our cameras and water bottles from the bags, as we would be carrying them onboard separately, so our bags consisted of a few batteries, memory cards and some heavy telephoto lenses to capture the bears with. My bag checked in at ~9.6 lbs and Kir’s at ~10 lbs even.
Next the tour company gave us a quick orientation of what to expect on our trip. There was some required reading about bear safety and regulations, and a quick primer on the aircraft. The plane was a nine-person twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain where every seat is both an aisle and window seat, perfect for flight-seeing on the way to the arctic. They warned that with these small planes it could get quite drafty from the back door, so they threw a couple blankets on board.
We exited the building and walked out onto the tarmac, threw our bags in the storage compartment on the left wing and climbed up into the plane. There were six people in our group, and one passenger flying only as far as Deadhorse. We taxied out and quickly were in the air. I sat directly in front of the back door we loaded in through and felt a bit of the draft, but the other passenger in the back was wrapped in a blanket for the whole ride.
As we took off we had a great view of the Alaska range of mountains and quickly turned to fly above the city of Fairbanks. The city ends pretty quickly and we were soon surrounded by barren lands dotted with ponds of water. Apparently these little pools of water form when the top layer of permafrost under the ground surface melts and freezes over time.
We flew for a while and eventually crossed the Yukon river that flows from British Columbia all the way down to the Bering Sea. The river stays frozen for more than half the year and is only crossed by the Dalton highway bridge and the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline that occupie the same bridge.
Soon after we crossed 66°33′ north latitude meaning that we were officially in the arctic circle. The imaginary line that circles the globe to create the arctic circle signifies that on the winter solstice no sun can be seen at noon above this point.
After a little more flying the Brooks Range of mountains came into view. These mountains span from the Canadian border all the way to the westernmost edge of Alaska and reach heights of up to 9,000 feet. They’re nowhere near as high as Mt. Denali in the Alaska Range, but these mountains feature beautifully jagged peaks and look completely untouched. I know there’s opportunities to hike in the Brooks Range by chartering a flight up to Gates of the Arctic National Park, but you’d be completely alone with no one to see for hundreds of miles.
As soon as the mountains stopped, the arctic coastal plain began with it’s desert-like features occasionally cut by a stream or lake. The emptiness of this part of Alaska is astounding, no real vegetation to note, it looks like a cracked and scorched desert, brown in color.
After about 2 hours of flying we reached Deadhorse which acts as the supply airport for the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. Since we’d be flying directly back to Fairbanks on the return trip from Kaktovik, the pilot needed to refuel to ensure a full tank of roundtrip fuel. This also allowed a much needed stretch of the legs and bathroom break. Inside a small building on the airfield at Deadhorse was a well-kept lobby where two guys killed time and messed with the tourists. They were more than accommodating though even offering up their wi-fi password as we instagrammed photos from the flight. We noted a menu on the wall where oilfield workers could order food service. On the menu? Mostly chicken wings, hamburgers and other junk food, a caesar salad was the healthiest option. All prices were north of $15.
Kirsten was excited to see the Prudhoe Bay base of the Carlile trucking company that’s been featured on several seasons of Ice Road Truckers. A little know fact about us is that in the summer of 2008 while I was interning in New Jersey and living with Kir and her parents, we spent nearly every night watching episodes of that show. Maybe it was the heat that made us lazy, or maybe it was the feeling that something exciting *might* actually happen, but somehow we watched every episode.
We boarded the plane again and headed an hour east to Kaktovik, following the coast of the arctic ocean the entire way. After passing some oilfields, we soon crossed into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which you may remember from the “drill, baby, drill” chants of the 2008 election season. Debates still rage about whether to drill in ANWR but currently it’s off-limits, and should stay undisturbed. Migrating caribou and musk ox depend on the land near the shore, and off the coast, polar bears, purpoises, whales and walruses feed and fight to survive.
We noted miles of chunked sea ice all along the coast and the pilot noted that this ice was persisting near shore all summer, but the majority of the ice was still hundreds of miles north in the ocean.
The small town of Kaktovik came into view and we landed on a small airstrip at the edge of town. A classic DC-6 propeller plane sat spining outside of a cold war era hanger, the pilot noted the rare occurrence we could see such a scene. Cargo planes such as this are used to supply the town as winter fast approaches. The hanger and a radar station nearby was built by the government in cold war times in preparation for defense against the Soviet Union.
Kaktovik is a Inupiaq town on Barter Island which sits at the top of Alaska, east towards the Canadian border. It’s population sits somewhere around 260 with about 60 children enrolled in it’s only school. The pilot wrapped the plane’s engines in what looked to be big blankets and had us crawl into a van. We picked up a guy who was working in town to open a bed and breakfast, although I’m not sure what kind of market there is for something like that in a town this far north.
We headed the few minutes across town to the Marsh Creek Inn where we had lunch. The inn has a long hallway of guest rooms on the right and a small cafeteria on the left that serves a lunch buffet. We were warned to not line up until exactly noon or the manager would scold us. All of the food has to be transported into town on either plane or barge so we weren’t sure what to expect, but were surprised at the quality and cleanliness of the place. Today’s menu was hot ham & cheese sandwiches, chicken nuggets, mac & cheese, a fresh salad and various desserts. Kir noted there was an ala carte menu on the wall that listed a $17 hamburger…that’s the price you pay for food at the top of the world.
After lunch we took a short tour of Kaktovik, mostly headed out to a new airstrip that’s currently under construction. The current airstrip sits only about 6 inches above sealevel and floods easily. The state of Alaska has financed a new strip on the other end of town which is about 30 ft above sea level. Due to the permafrost ground, a layer of styrofoam insulation is laid on the ground and gravel is poured on top to make the runway, and prevent it from sinking.
We made our way back across town and boarded a small boat with twin outboard motors and a small indoor cabin with benches for warming up. The boat was captained by a young guy whose Norwegian father led a sled dog team across Alaska until he met a woman in Kaktoik and settled there.
The boat headed out into the ocean around Barter Island, and our first stop was a nearby strip of land where whale bones are placed after a whale harvest. The Alaskan natives that inhabit the town go whaling every year as legally allowed for their subsistence lifestyle. The whaling is regulated, however, and it’s regulated by strike, not by whale. That means that for each time they strike a whale with a harpoon, whether or not they can kill and harvest the whale it counts against their total number of allowable strikes. The reasoning is that a harpooned whale that escapes may by injured and perish in the wild.
At the bone yard we saw four polar bears gnawing on the whale bones. Three of the bears were a mother and two cubs, and another sat alone at the opposite end of the island. Polar bears are huge animals, even compared with other types of bears, and they are pretty majestic up close.
Kirsten and I prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime trip to see the polar bears in the wild, and we made sure we had the photographic equipment to make it worthwhile. Kirsten shot with a 70-200mm telephoto lens aided by a 2x teleconverter that turned it into a 140-400mm lens. I rented a 150-600mm lens, and my camera has a crop sensor with a magnification of 1.6x, so my lens was effectively a 240-960mm lens…pretty crazy range. Trying to shoot with that type of range on a moving boat was pretty well impossible. There was a lot of shooting and hoping something came out in focus with a decent composition. I attempted to shoot some video, but I think that may have been fruitless with the movement of the waves. Keeping an eye on a viewfinder extended between 600-960mm while rocking not the waves and holding on when a swell came in was rather dizzying…and doing that for three hours still has me feeling it about nine hours later.
We then cruised over to another barrier island and spotted another mother and cub who lazed around in the middle of the land. Another huge bear appeared in the distance, circled around the bears, sniffed a lot and eventually walked off. We weren’t sure if we were about to see something as the cub cowered behind it’s mother, but the mother seemed pretty nonchalant and the big bear just backed off. A few other bears could be seen in the distance, and more on another island nearby. None of these bears were particularly active.
We ended up back at the boneyard where all four bears stayed put. The large solitary bear walked to the edge of the island and started pulling fish out of the ocean with it’s claws. It eventually walked further out onto a small strip of land, then exited into the water and disappeared off the coast. The three other bears meanwhile had started walking towards the mainland, but a villager on an ATV scared the bears back to the middle of the island. As the climate changes, the bears find it harder to survive in their natural habitat and push inland in search of food. That keeps the town on high alert and they often set off noises and gunshots to scare the bears away. Eventually these three bears also walked into the sea and disappeared from view.
At this point the wind started to whip up and the sea got very choppy. The boat turned towards the town and we headed in. The waves made docking near the airstrip impossible so we headed towards where the boat captain’s father kept his sleddogs. We could hear the dogs being trained in the distance as they were run in formation strapped to an ATV for their summer practice. The father plans to run his dogs in the next Iditarod race.
We climbed off the boat and Kir pretty much kissed the land (not a huge fan of boats, but a really good sport throughout the whole day). They led us to see their dogs as they started attaching them to their kennels. We pet and played with the dogs for a few minutes and then boarded a van and headed back to the airstrip.
We boarded the plane and put on our headsets. The headsets gave us communication from the pilot who guided us through the flight, but we could also hear communication from air traffic control throughout the arctic. Immediately we heard messages from Air Force One as Obama was visiting the arctic today. We actually visited the arctic on a historical day as it was the first time a sitting president has visited the arctic while in office. Air Force One must not be used to landing on remote airstrips as they asked for coordinates to make their landing in Kotzebue. The pilot joked that arctic pilots are used to finding their own runways.
On the way back we again flew over the Brooks Range and marveled at it’s peaks as we flew at 10,000 ft over it’s 9k peaks.
Upon returning to Fairbanks we headed downtown to a greek restaurant for a nice dinner to celebrate our crazy day. After driving through Fairbanks we concluded it wasn’t as terrible as other people had described, but after spending a little time downtown we thought maybe it just looked a little tired.
We headed back to our airbnb after dinner and finished watching a movie we started last night. I started watching “Groundhog Day” on VHS but turned it off to concentrate on this blog. The aurora forecasts for tonight were good, but after sitting in this dark living room for several hours, I’m convinced the aurora is just too weak to see tonight. It’s now 1:30am and I don’t think it’s going to show tonight.
What We Ate
A great meal for a 5-year old: chicken nuggets and mac n’ cheese above the arctic circle, steak and baked lasagna downtown tonight.
What We Learned
There’s no real industry in Kaktovik although they do have a native corporation setup while the government settled land claims to build the trans-Alaska pipeline. The community survives on subsistence hunting and we’re not sure what else.
Wildlife We Saw
3 foxes played in the road in nearly the same spot we found 3 moose last night, only about 1/2 mile from the house we’re currently staying in.