On the Edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
KAKTOVIK, ALASKA– Over last weekend the whirlwind pace continued. On Friday afternoon I threw my cold-weather gear into a bag and caught a small commercial flight to Kaktovik, about 120 miles east of Deadhorse. Kaktovik is a very remote town of about 300 people, including many folks of the Iñupiat culture. The town sits on the coast of the Arctic Ocean at the northern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Kaktovik is very different than Deadhorse – it has the character of a small town, rather than an oil extraction base. It is quiet, with two general stores and close-set houses separated by deep snowdrifts.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been capturing polar bears in late winter in northern Alaska for decades, and their research provides much of the current science regarding polar bears. The USGS crew that performs captures often stages out of different towns in the Arctic, including Kaktovik, to access different regions.
On Friday, a USGS scientist picked me up at the airstrip when I landed in Kaktovik. We returned to the bunkhouse where the crew was staying and I jumped in to help to prepare platters of cheese and sausage, a pot of chili, and lots of coffee. We brought the food down to the community center and participated in a community meeting. A scientist from USGS and me had the opportunity to meet residents and discuss research activities based in their town, activities which involve an animal many folks there know intimately – the polar bear.
The USGS crew had already been capturing polar bears for several weeks. The next morning the temperature was -20 degrees (Fahrenheit) with light wind, and I went out with them. We had 4 people – a pilot and 3 researchers – in the helicopter. We departed Kaktovik and flew north over the ocean. We saw a lot of tracks but no polar bears until the afternoon. The USGS scientist used a dart gun to inject the polar bear with a drug that immobilizes the animal and puts them under anesthesia. Once the animal was down, we landed, unloaded our gear, and gathered samples from the bear – we weighed it, measured its length, girth, and skull size, and took samples such as fur and blood for later analyses.