Where the Polar Bears Roam

Winter weather getting you down? Well, at least you don’t live in Kaktovik.

Polar Bears in KaktovikLife in Kaktovik, Alaska, can definitely be harsh. The town, which sits along the Beaufort Sea on Barter Island, remains fairly isolated from the rest of the world. The livelihoods of its 200+ residents are dependent upon the hunting of wild caribou and whales, the latter of which is heavily regulated. The temperature drops into the negative 20s in the winter, and oh, there’s also the polar bears.

Due to the effects of climate change, polar bears that once roamed the icy expanses of the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have increasingly started showing up in town. It’s now not uncommon to see them nonchalantly strolling down the streets.

While some of the locals have cashed in on the phenomenon and now offer “polar bear tours” to everyone from journalists and scientists to curious tourists, others are terrified of having a nasty run-in with one of the gigantic critters. The average adult male polar bear can weigh anywhere between 770 and 1540 pounds. They also tend to get pretty grumpy whenever a pesky human comes between them and a meal.

The town is legally allowed to harvest three bowhead whales every year. Until the bears started showing up, many residents left large chunks of meat outside their homes to age. That’s no longer an option. The bears have also discovered the spot where local butchers dump the bones, blubber, and other scraps from the whales. They’ve since turned it into their own personal buffet. The current record for most bears spotted in a single day in Kaktovik: 80.

To help prevent the hungry critters from becoming full-time residents, Kaktovik now has its own polar bear patrol. The squad typically goes in search of the bears every evening and attempts to chase them away with trucks (and the occasional warning shot from a shotgun). Despite their efforts, this hasn’t prevented a few of the bears from breaking into area homes. One resident found two cubs raiding his cellar in the autumn of 2013 and, well, his home is now decorated with their hides.