Alaska News

On polar bear patrol in Kaktovik, big bear makes for tense moment

Ruby Kaleak was at her part-time job on Kaktovik's roving "polar bear patrol" Friday when a whispery call came over the VHF radio.

"Qanitchaq, nanuq," was all she could hear: arctic entryway, polar bear.

"They didn't say where or who," Kaleak said. "I thought that one of the young boys in town was pulling a prank."

Kaleak and her co-worker hopped in the Ford pickup they use when on patrol. Among their other equipment is a 12-gauge shotgun with beanbag and firecracker slugs to haze polar bears away from people in the Inupiat village of 300.

They found a house near the lagoon that they suspected the call might have come from. It was about 11 p.m. and dark.

"We parked and looked all over for bears," Kaleak said. "I myself was about to jump out of the truck and go check inside the arctic entryway."

Just then, she saw a shadow. From inside the entryway, the head of a polar bear popped up. Its body filled the doorframe.


"I was shocked. It was humongous," Kaleak said. "Just the neck and head was half the size of me, and I'm 5 (feet) 2 (inches )."

It had broken into 81-year-old Betty Brower's entryway and was gobbling a drum of seal oil, said Brower's granddaughter, Flora Rexford.

Brower, who was home alone at the time, had crawled underneath a large window and crept over to the VHF radio to make the call, Rexford said.

Kaleak and her co-worker shooed the bear away from the house. It took off toward the lagoon before trying once more to get inside the house.

Four days later, Kaleak said she wishes she had taken a picture. The polar bear was one of the biggest she's seen.

"My mind was going in circles at the time," she said.

Brower is just fine, though the bear ate some of her seal oil.

"She was on my mind the whole time," Kaleak said. "She's an elder. I look up to her. All of I could think of is man, I wonder how she felt."

It wasn't Brower's first close encounter with a polar bear this year. In August, a polar bear tried to nose its way inside her canvas tent at fish camp outside of town.

As ice recedes on the Beaufort Sea, biologists say, polar bears are coming to Kaktovik more and more to dine on piles of whale bones left by hunters, but another dynamic is at play this fall.

This year, Kaktovik whalers caught three bowheads in quick succession, Rexford said. The leftovers that polar bears would gnaw on were concentrated into one quick feast rather than stretched out over weeks.

"We caught three whales in three days," she said. "I think the bears ran out of food to eat at the bone pile. There is nothing for them to eat out there."

This year, a mother and two cubs have frequented town, along with the big bear that broke into the arctic entryway, Kaleak said.

With polar bears in town, one of the jobs of the patrol -- run by the North Slope Borough -- is to encourage residents to keep their food secured.

Kaleak shoots the nonlethal rounds at bears that are getting too close to people. She's never had to fire a deadly slug at a polar bear threatening a human.

The bears seem unafraid of vehicles but when she jumps out of the truck they scatter.

"I tell them, Yep, you better run!' " Kaleak said.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.