'There's a nanuq outside!': Kaktovik woman chases polar bear from tent

Coffee warmed on the smokehouse stove as Marie Rexford, 51, began pulling on her socks to start the day.

Members of a North Slope whaling family, Rexford and her 81-year-old mother had spent the night at a fish camp outside the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. One sock on, one sock off, something made Marie look over her shoulder.

That's when she saw the outline of a paw pressed against the thick canvas tent, said Marie's daughter, Flora Rexford, recounting the scene. A polar bear was trying to shove and nose its way inside.

"There's a nanuq outside!" Marie cried. She reached for the rifle her son had brought to the windy shoreside camp the night before.

The Thursday morning encounter on Barter Island is the latest in what federal researchers say will be a growing number of meetings between polar bears and people in Alaska. As Arctic sea ice recedes, more bears are moving to the mainland looking for food, said biologists for the U.S. Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife Service.

The bears prefer to hunt from the ice far from shore this time of year, said state Fish and Game biologist Geoff Carroll. Yet the Kaktovik bear is the second North Slope encounter he has heard of this week, he said. Carroll arrived to work at his Barrow office Monday to find a phone message from a camp manager at a former radar site who reported firing two shots at an aggressive bear before the animal fled.

"Historically, the availability of sea ice throughout the year has served to keep bears and humans separated," said James Wilder, a polar bear biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.


Open-water periods are increasing and sea ice loss accelerating, he said. "For the last 20 years it's been predicted that one of the symptoms of that is going to be increased human-bear conflicts."

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not track bear and human encounters in villages unless they end in an injury, Wilder said. In southerly parts of the bears' habitat where such records are kept, including Hudson Bay in Canada, the conflicts are increasing.

Flora Rexford said it's unusual to see bears on Barter Island this early in the year. The animals normally arrive later to feed on the carcasses of bowhead whales landed by Inupiaq hunters.

"There's like five or six already that are here," she said.

No matter the season, Kaktovik residents are among the most skilled on the North Slope at co-existing with polar bears, Carroll said. Local guides have made a fledgling business of taking tourists to see the animals by boat. Close encounters are sometimes captured on film.

"Polar bears have learned from many years of experience that (Kaktovik) is the place to chow down and get fat for the winter," the state biologist said, calling the village the "polar bear capital" of the North Slope. "They'll have 30 or 40 bears around there at a time."

The bear outside Marie Rexford's tent on Thursday was 8- to 10-feet long, Flora said.

After ducking down to make sure the animal wasn't about to step through the wall and land on top of her, Marie bolted out the door, she said.

With permission, Marie and her mother, Betty Brower, had been using a fish camp belonging to another Kaktovik family, Flora said. The site is a 5- to 10-minute drive by four-wheeler from the village and on the other side of Barter Island from the famous bowhead boneyard.

Marie, who is about 5 feet tall, stalked around the tent.

"Where are you, bear?!" she shouted.

Startled, the animal began to walk toward the ocean.

"You better get out of here. If you come back, I'm going to shoot you," Marie told the bear, according to her daughter. The more Marie talked the faster the bear moved.

"She has kind of a scary voice," the younger Rexford said in a phone interview.

Marie later saw that the bear had taken a bite out of an arctic char she laid out the night before for lunch.

Flora Rexford teaches the Inupiaq language to elementary through high school students at the Kaktovik school. She posted a picture Thursday on Facebook (see below) showing the paw print and nose print that the polar bear left on the fish camp canvas.

Her mother wasn't available to tell the story of the bear encounter herself. As of Tuesday, Marie had returned to the camp for more fish. Bears or not.

"She'd rather be out on the land than in the town," Flora said.

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email