AD Main Menu

Polar bear memories from Barrow

Earl Finkler
A polar bear checking out a small plane at the Barrow Airport in Alaska's Arctic in 2008. The bear apparently sneaked through airport security. Courtesy Earl Finkler

As February began in Medford, Wis., the 15 below temperature and 35 mph wind chill reminded me of Barrow, where I used to live. But it didn't bother our Greenland Husky Avu. Overnight she decided it would be better to stay outside on our porch, rather than being inside where our older house was occasionally making a loud cracking noise. But the weather also reminded me of polar bears in and around Barrow. I have quite a few memories, thankfully all good memories.

I normally got up around 4:30 a.m. so I could get to KBRW for the morning show. And I liked to walk across an ice-covered, large lagoon as a shortcut.

One morning, the polar bear patrol stopped me before I got on the lagoon. "There's been a polar bear sighting around this area," the driver said to me. "Come on in and we'll give you a ride. Then you can mention the polar bear alert." Fair enough!

Generally, these magnificent bears did not come into Barrow, but every now and then one might come in to check a dumpster, etc.

Later in the morning my wife Chris would get on her sturdy bicycle and ride several miles of back roads out to her job at the former Naval Arctic Research Lab. If there had been any recent reports of polar bear sightings, she would call local wildlife officials before her bike trip.

For her sake, and mine, I asked a local elder, who knew a lot about the bears, during a KBRW interview what I should do if I ran into a polar bear. Should I try to run away?

"No," he said, "You just make yourself as big as possible and get mean, real mean!"

Fortunately, I never had to do that with a bear in front of me, but I would practice by our bathroom mirror -- I got MEAN! I almost scared myself!

One year there was a little more meat and such around Barrow and we began to see polar bears and their cubs going by the dump and other places. You could see them often while driving out of town. But thank goodness, local wildlife officials and hunters advised the public to stay well away from the bears and not get close. I also went out on an evening with Geoff Carroll of the Alaska Fish and Game Department. He had a shotgun with firecrackers in it, which he fired to scare off some bears on the beach and get them back out onto the ice. It seemed to work.

But that year I managed to learn much more about these magnificent animals. I remember seeing one on the edge of a fairly small hole in the ice. He suddenly jumped into the hole, grabbed a bit of seal meat floating there, and came back up on the ice -- much faster than I could imagine.

Chris and I also saw one big bear spreading himself way out on the ice. First I thought that he might be sick. But then an elder told me that was the way the bear could move about on such thin ice –- just spread his weight as much as possible.

Polar bears are truly suited for life on the ice. But even when Chris and I left Barrow in 2008, there was growing concern about the ice moving further and further from shore, because of climate change. Polar bears have been dependent on seals. I hope that ice conditions improve for both the bears and the Inupiat people.

Earl Finkler is a former resident of Barrow and host of the Morning Show on KBRW Barrow -- serving the North Slope. He now lives in Medford, Wis., with his wife Chris and former Barrow Husky "Avu."