James Tazruk spotted the polar bear 40 miles outside his hometown of Point Lay, high above the Arctic Circle. It was all alone, he said.
"We were out (looking) for caribou or anything. Wolverine. Whatever we could find, and we run into that bear," said Tazruk, who as an Inupiaq subsistence hunter is generally allowed under federal law to take polar bears. It was last Monday and he was hunting with a partner from the village.
Tazruk fired his rifle from 100 yards. A kill. It wasn't until he rolled the bear over that he saw it was a nursing sow. "Got a cub somewhere," Tazruk remembers thinking. The hunters followed the animal's tracks to a den about 1,500 feet away.
Inside was Kali.
Later named by the people of Point Lay, the clumsy, 18-pound cub is the latest polar bear orphan whisked from Alaska's Chukchi Sea coast to Anchorage. For now, the bear is eating and napping at the Alaska Zoo while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service searches for a permanent home.
The big changes and long trips began when Tazruk entered the bear's three-chambered den
"I'm not going to hurt you. I'm going to take you home," he told it. "Just don't bite me."
Biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service estimate the cub is 3 to 4 months old. Tazruk, who described the hunt in a phone interview Tuesday, said he scooped it in his arm like a puppy. He began the long ride back to Point Lay on his snowmachine, holding the bear close.
About 15 miles into the trip, Tazruk and his partner, Paul Stone, stopped at a cabin and grabbed a pair of ski pants, he said. They tied the legs together to form a pouch, and he cradled the bear cub in his lap against the handlebars.
"Every time I hit a bump, he would wake up," Tazruk said.
The cub spent the night at the village police hall. The North Slope Borough arranged to have the animal flown to Barrow the next day, arriving just after noon.
"He was in a large dog kennel with a little water dish in it," said Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a wildlife veterinarian and research biologist for the borough.
Wearing gloves and wrapping the cub in a towel, the borough wildlife team gave the bear a quick physical. Kali was offered seal blubber and muktuk, she said, and began eating a mix of distilled water, Pedialyte, dog-milk substitute and half-and-half for fat.
The biologists first used a syringe, then a baby bottle for feedings.
"Me and him actually got along really well, so he wouldn't charge me at the end," Stimmelmayr said.
Tazruk said he had hoped to name the cub Coca-Cola, a favorite drink. He was apparently overruled by others in the village, who chose a name pronounced "cully," which is an Inupiat name for Point Lay, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The bear was flown to Anchorage later that day. The Alaska Zoo posted videos of the animal tugging at a blanket in its kennel, and fussily eating from a bottle.
It will likely remain under observation at the zoo for at least a month as the Fish and Wildlife Service determines which zoo to send it to longterm, said agency spokesman Bruce Woods. Various zoos will be considered, he said.
"Before he goes on another long trip, we're going to make sure he's recovered from everything he's been through up to this point," Woods said.
Curator Shannon Jensen said the Alaska Zoo isn't ready to accommodate any more polar bears, and even after a planned expansion would likely not keep a male bear.
The cub will gradually be allowed to spend time outdoors in yards attached to a den, she said. If it reacts well to crowds of volunteers, it may be made viewable to the public.
In the meantime, Jensen said the cub is being housed far from Ahpun -- also orphaned when her mother was killed near Point Lay -- and Lyutyik, the zoo's other adult polar bears.
"They'll never see him. They'll never know he was even here," the curator said.
An estimated 2,000 polar bears roam the Chukchi and Bering sea region that Alaska shares with Russia. (Bears in the Beaufort Sea along the Alaska and Canada coasts are considered a separate population, though the range overlaps with the Chukchi poplation.) Between 2004 and 2008, Alaskans harvested an average of 37 of the Chukchi/Bering sea animals each year, Woods said. A treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation is aimed at reducing those numbers through quotas that have not yet been implemented, he said.
Hunters may not knowingly kill a female polar bear with cubs, Woods said. The Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the Monday kill outside of Point Lay.
Tazruk said he never saw the cub.
Over a lifetime of hunting, the sow on Monday was his ninth polar bear kill, he said. All the others were male.
"It was just very unfortunate that it had to be a mamma," he said.
Tazruk said he gave meat, often prepared by boiling, from the sow to village elders. He typically trades the fur to Alaska Native artists to make pants, mittens and mukluks, he said.
"It was unfortunate. I was saddened," Tazruk said. "I did the right thing by bringing the bear back."
Video of the bear cub at the zoo here.