As reported in recent posts about the trip to Alaska in May 2021, Alex and I also visited Utqiaġvik, called Barrow at that time, in the early 2000s. I think the first trip was in 2005 but am positive that visit was in August. The conditions in August allowed having a brief encounter with polar bears at Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States.
Our first visit lasted less than one day. We flew in on an Alaska Airlines flight from Fairbanks, AK in the morning and returned to Fairbanks the same day. I’d booked a half-day tour of the city that included a drive to Point Barrow about seven miles north of the town.
In 2005, we nearly didn’t make it to Barrow at all. Wiley Post/Will Rogers Memorial Airport (BRW) has facilities only for non-precision instrument approaches. Low clouds and fog gave the Alaska Airlines pilots fits. After two missed approaches, they announced that if they couldn’t land on the next try, we were going back to Fairbanks.
Point Barrow is about 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle at the end of a very narrow strip of land that separates the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (Elson Lagoon), two of the five seas that comprise the Arctic Ocean.
In May 2021, we couldn’t reach the point because of snow. The road ends just past the radar station.
At the end of the road in spring 2021 it was difficult to tell the difference between earth and sky and land and water.
In August 2005, we drove all the way. There is no road, but the tour van had no problem driving on the gravely surface. The point is at the end of a very narrow, low-lying spit of land. In some places the land is so narrow it seems like you could stand on the shore of the Chukchi Sea and hit the Beaufort Sea with a rock.
In 2005, the guide thought there was a chance to see polar bears on the way to the point. In summer, polar bears usually stay close to the retreating pack ice although some can become stranded on land.
The Inupiat people hunt bowhead whales pursuant to quotas set by the International Whaling Commission. In May, the hunts occur several miles from town at the edge of the shore-fast ice. In summer, the ice has retreated enough to allow landing bowheads on the beach past the radar station where they are butchered. The few parts of a whale the Inupiat don’t use are left in a dump that polar bears often scavenge.
The photos from 2005 were scanned or photographed from the original prints. My apologies for the quality.
We spotted a couple of polar bears at the dump as we approached. I think there was more than one but don’t have any photos of them on the land.
The bears also spotted the vehicle and headed for the sea. Once the bears were in the water we drove closer, got out of the van, and watched them swim out towards a large ice floe.
Their paw prints in the gravel were easy to follow although they don’t show well in my photos. To get an idea of the size, compare the size and depth of the paw prints to the tire tracks of pick-up trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles that had driven in the area.
Polar bears are the largest land carnivore — males weigh 350–700 kg (770–1,540 lb). They are excellent swimmers that are capable of swimming hundreds of miles and for days at a time. I don’t know how they navigate over such long distances. Polar bears are born on land but are technically classified as marine mammals.
We got out of the van once the bears were about 50 yards (46 m) off shore.
The bears looked right at home in the water in spite of the frigid temperature. We watched for a bit and then continued to the point. They were nowhere to be seen on the way back.
So that was our look at polar bears in 2005. In May 2021, we saw none as the bears would likely spend most of their time at the edge of the shore-fast sea ice about 10 miles (16 km) from town. That is where they hunt ringed and bearded seals and scavenge areas where the Inupiat haul out and butcher their bowhead harvest.
Although in 2005 we visited Barrow in August, the weather was cold and and a lot of ice was still present. The air temperature was in the 30s or 40s Fahrenheit ( about 3 – 6 degrees C). The water temperature was 34 degrees F (1 degree C).
We were fortunate to see polar bears and visit Point Barrow on an eight-hour stay in Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska. It was a very cool (pun intended) experience. Those enormous bears looked supremely powerful on land and cute and playful in the water. Seeing them in 2005 was worth the flight from Fairbanks and served as part of the reason for returning to Utqiaġvik in 2021.
Would you consider making a trip to places as remote as Utqiaġvik and Point Barrow? I wouldn’t blame you if the answer was “no.” 😊