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Julia O'Malley: A polar bear postcard from Kaktovik

Julia O'Malley
A whale carcass in Kaktovik, AK was a big draw for hungry polar bears September 12, 2013.
Flora Rexford
A whale carcass in Kaktovik, AK was a big draw for hungry polar bears September 12, 2013.
Photo by Flora Rexford
A whale carcass in Kaktovik, AK was a big draw for hungry polar bears September 12, 2013.
Photo by Flora Rexford
Polar bears feeding on a whale carcass.
Flora M. Rexford

In the village of Kaktovik, 600 miles north of Anchorage on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, villagers hauled in a whale Thursday. It was a bowhead. The third and last whale of the season.

After it was killed, they towed it to shore. Then the children climbed on it and a biologist took measurements and samples. After that, they rinsed it with seawater and began to butcher with "big, huge knives," Flora Rexford, a 27-year-old teacher in the village, told me Friday morning by telephone.

That's when the polar bears waiting on a barrier island not far off shore, slid into the water.

"Once they start cutting, the bears start coming across," she said.

Polar bears are commonplace in Kaktovik, an Inupiat village of 250. They're a little like moose in Anchorage. Rexford was born and raised in the village so she's used to them. But to outsiders, seeing bears up close is still a rare and exotic sight. Tourists fly thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars for bear-viewing trips from the village.

The last few years, better Internet service and the rise of social media have given villagers tools to share their lives with the world. The world is interested. Rexford posted a video of a herd of bears scavenging whale bones on a foggy Kaktovik beach late Thursday night. It had been shared on Facebook more than 2,100 0 times by Saturday, thanks in part to a re-post by Alaska Dispatch.

"I was, like, 'Whoa, this is a lot more (shares) than it usually gets,' " Rexford said.

During whaling season, polar bears become so common that they're a public-safety issue and a nuisance, she told me. They amble through the streets at night, following the scent of newly-butchered whale. An armed community polar bear patrol cruises town.

"You don't want your kids out playing. You want to make sure you know where they are," she said. "You don't especially want them walking around at night."

After the villagers removed the flesh from the one side of the whale Thursday, they took the slabs of meat up to a whale shack in the village, Rexford said.

"Women cut it into bite-sized pieces and cook it up," she said.

That way everyone can get a taste. They save other parts for distribution at Thanksgiving, Christmas and a feast that will kick off the spring whaling season next year, she said.

Once one side of the animal was removed Thursday, the men turned the carcass and began carving the meat from the other side. By then the bears were prowling around, she said. Villagers distracted them by throwing scraps and shot cracker shells that make noise and bright light, Rexford said.

"You just got to keep your eye out. Everybody knows that the bears are coming," she said. "You just have to keep them away from the people cutting the whale."

Whalers split up meat with their whaling crews. Crewmen took it home and distributed it to their families. Meanwhile, the women cooked whale for a community feast.

"For the most part, it's just boiled," Rexford said. "They'll do the skin and blubber, they'll do the heart and tongue and kidneys.

Once most of the meat was gone off the carcass, women harvested scraps from the backbone for fermenting , Rexford said.

"I was one of the last women cutting for my bucket and the bears were out there swimming around," she said.

That was a little spooky, she said.

"There was one year, it was dark and one bear just came running to the carcass and it was drooling. That was a really close call."

After the women were done, the skull and the spine became property of the bears. Twenty or thirty of them came out Thursday to chew on the bones.

"We weren't sure how much it was altogether," she said. "They would come in like waves, with mothers and cubs."

Villagers came by truck and four-wheeler to watch. Rexford made her video. Some people got pretty close to the bears, but the animals didn't seem to notice.

"They are so hungry," she said. "You can hear the growling."

A few villagers on four-wheelers lined closest to the carcass, revving their engines when the bears got too close, she said.

"It was really intense to watch," she said.

Rexford got home late with her share of whale. She was too tired to start processing it. Usually she ferments and boils and then sends some to people in other villages. It's been near freezing at night in Kaktovik. She put her whale out on the porch. Then she went to sleep. The meat was unharmed Friday morning, she said, but her dreams were full of bears.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


Julia O'Malley
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