Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A visit from Mom

At the beginning of June, my mom came to spend a week with us. I had a lot of fun showing her around the Fairbanks area. We saw FOUR moose in a week! I think that is a record. We enjoyed panning for gold, taking a riverboat cruise, visiting muskox and reindeer, and visiting Denali National Park. Unfortunately, it was cloudy the day we went to the park, so Denali was not visible. Despite the mountain not being visible, the park did not disappoint. We still had some amazing views of the surrounding mountains. And did I mention we saw some moose?

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Polar Bear Tour on Barter Island

We have had a crazy, busy summer. So busy, in fact, that I have not been able to keep up with blogging the trips we've done and the visitors we've had. Keep an eye out for those posts. They are coming, I promise. For now, I wanted to get up a post about our polar bear tour. Many of you have asked for pictures, and I always say "Give the people what they want." So people, here you go.

At the end of August, we made our way up to Kaktovic on Barter Island to see polar bears. When we were planning this trip, all the research indicated that a visit at the end of August would mean plenty of bears. Well, not this year. We saw one polar bear. Just one. On our return trip during our layover at the Deadhorse airport, we talked to a tour guide who has been bringing tours up to Kaktovic to see the polar bears for years. He told us he always goes at the end of August because there are between 20 and 40 bears during that time. He was genuinely shocked when I told him that there was ONE bear. There were two issues leading to the lack of bears. The first problem was that the villagers hadn't caught a whale yet this season. The bears come when the whales are caught. No whale equals no bears. The residents we spoke to said they can't remember the last time it took this long to catch a whale. The second problem is the sea ice. More of it is around the region earlier than normal this year, which means the bears remain on the ice in order to hunt seals. The lack of a whale, combined with the bears still being able to hunt seals from the ice, meant that they had no reason to come to the bone yard to eat.

Although this year proved to be different and we only saw one polar bear, it was still an amazing experience. We had a woman on our tour who had done polar bear tours in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway, and had never seen a bear. We count ourselves very lucky that we saw at least one bear. 

The trip started out a bit rough. This was our plane; it seated 9 passengers. As you can see, there are no overhead bins. All our luggage had to be checked. Oh and the oxygen masks? Those were located by our elbows. During the safety brief we were told that "the survival gear was in the nose of the plane." Ummm, what? Despite the small plane, we experienced very little turbulence during the flight.

This dirt? It's the runway/tarmac in Kaktovic. The bus loads up the food, supplies, mail bags, and any passengers that need a ride into town.

This was our hotel, The Marsh Creek Inn. The room was clean and comfortable. Three meals were included in the price of the room. The meals were delicious. Tim, the manager, was very accommodating of my gluten-free diet. 

The back of the hotel. 

After riding the yellow school bus to our hotel, we had a few hours to get settled before heading off on our boat ride to find the bears. We were on the water for less than 5 minutes when we spotted a polar bear swimming in the water towards the whale bone pile. This pile has bones that are over 30 years old! The polar bears gather here to eat. We watched the bear eat for awhile. Then he got into the water and swam to a nearby island, where he strutted his stuff for us. Apparently exhausted from showing off, he settled down to groom and take a nap. Husband has named this bear Nigel, just FYI.

Part of the whale bone pile

Bear foot!


Look how close we were! 

Listen to that wind. It was so cold!

After we determined that the bear was going to nap for awhile, we went off in search of sea ice. It was pretty cool to see all the ice floes in the water. 

The next morning dawned clear and bright. We were shocked to discover we were surrounded by mountains! The first day was so cloudy that these mountains of the Brooks Range were not visible at all. What a beautiful setting for a village! We spent a couple hours on the boat, looking for the polar bear, but we couldn't find him. Instead we enjoyed seeing the beautiful ocean, mountains, and sea ice as we traveled out on the water.

We had to cut our boat ride a little short because the plane showed up an hour earlier than scheduled. I guess that is how things work in Kaktovic. I asked a local how they plan for planes and he said "We make sure we are ready to go the night before because you are never quite sure if and when the plane will show up." Getting on the plane was the craziest experience. We dropped our luggage by the tail and got on the plane. No security line. No ID check. No boarding pass. Once all the luggage was loaded, the pilot came aboard and took roll call from a piece of paper on a clipboard. After everyone was accounted for, we were off. We headed from Kaktovic to Deadhorse. The flight was short so we kept to a low altitude. The flight path followed the coast line. It was a beautiful flight. We were able to see the sea ice below for most of the flight. When we got to Deadhorse, we were issued boarding passes, but still no security lines. It was the weirdest thing. But hey, I got to keep my shoes on so I was happy. 

 This is the Kaktovik airport. Notice that there is no building or control tower. Also, there is no asphalt, just dirt and gravel. 

Things to know if you go:

Flights: Ravn air is the only carrier that flies to Kaktovik. Your standard size carry-on bags will be too big for the plane so they will have to be checked. Be prepared to give your weight at check in. Also, if you have a purse or backpack, they will weigh those as well. Our flight out of Fairbanks was delayed about 40 minutes. Our flight out of Kaktovik was an hour early. Our flight out of Deadhorse was delayed 2 hours. It seems that Ravn flies on its own schedule, regardless of what is published. I know that weather can be a factor in the small northern villages. Just be prepared to adjust your plans based on when the plane decides to show up or take off. Tip: Try to get a return trip with a layover in Deadhorse. There isn't much in Deadhorse, but the flight along the coast was amazing.

Hotels: We stayed at Marsh Creek Inn and had a fantastic experience. We booked in February and at the time I was told we got the last available room with its own bathroom. Some rooms share a hallway bathroom. Our room had two twin beds, a desk, a chair, a wardrobe, a bookshelf, and a TV. We didn't even turn on the TV so I can't comment on the channel selection but I did notice a satellite dish outside. As I noted earlier, three meals are included in your room price. The meals were served cafeteria style. They were delicious. Tim had no problem accommodating my diet restrictions. He made my food separate and I didn't have any reactions to the food. Our evening tour got us back after dinner hours were over, but Tim had made us all plates and kept them warm for us so they were waiting when we got back.

Polar Bear Tour Operator: We used Kaktovik Tours. They offer a total of 6 hours on the boat (or in a van if the ocean has frozen over). The tours are from 4pm-8pm and then 8am-10am. The boat is small and could accommodate maybe 6 people. We had three people on our tour: me, Husband, and our newfound friend, a retired teacher from Florida. The small group was perfect.