Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Polar Bears and the Whale Graveyard

My experience in Barrow draws near conclusion. We travel now beyond the native wildlife of northern Alaska, beyond the incredibly expensive groceries, and beyond the whaling traditions in Barrow. What remains is merely a matter of machismo...climbing the tallest peak, driving the fastest car, that sort of thing. The goal was to go as far north in the US as is humanely possible.

So what happens north of Barrow, already the northernmost city in the US? A fascinating part of the world deserves an equally fascinating end...and believe me, it does.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Seen above is the city of Barrow and a bit further in the distance is literally the northernmost point of the US, Point Barrow. It is here where we are met with an incredible confluence of tradition and gritty survival. It is here, at Point Barrow, where the polar bear enters our story.

A symbol of our changing planet and environmental conservation elsewhere, the polar bear is both a fascination as well as a nuisance in Barrow. Though spending 99.99% of their time out at sea or foraging along the coasts, occasionally a bear will wander into town. A series of precautions have been taken as a result. In Barrow, it is illegal to lock your cars or doors of your home. Apparently the fear of theft is trumped by fear of bears. If you see a bear in town, the first thing you are supposed to do is hop into the nearest car or home, hence the unlocked door policy. There is also a Bear Patrol which drives around town regularly. Their job is simple: either scare the bear out of town or kill it if its presence is a threat to anyone's life. Though rare, there are stories of polar bears breaking into homes and attacking and sometimes killing humans. There was even a story of a bear that walked into the lobby of a local hotel. In Barrow, the presence and threat of polar bears is very real.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The changing climate in Barrow has undoubtedly had an impact on the polar bear. Sea ice is often too far from shore or too thin to support their weight. As a result, their eating habits have changed and they are spending more of their time foraging onshore. Remember those huge whales that were recently butchered? And remember when I said that almost all of the whale is harvested and eaten? What are the useless parts for a human are an absolute treasure for a bear. The purpose of Point Barrow thus becomes two-fold: a place to keep the remains of the whales which have been butchered as well as a place far enough from town to keep the hungry polar bears away.

My first thought when I arrived at Point Barrow was something really deep and thoughtful along the lines of "Holy Lord that smell is going to make me vomit". I approached the pile of whale remains from downwind. As I walked closer and began examining the pile, it reminded me of the Elephant Graveyard from the Lion King: a dark and unpleasant place of death. The pile was quite large, maybe 30 yards to a side. Amongst it were jawbones, chunks of baleen, ribs, spinal cords, and even the occasional caribou skull. It was a morbid, yet totally fascinating place. It was clear why the bears liked it here. Everything was coated with a frozen glaze of blood. This pile could sustain a dozen bears at its peak.

I wanted more than anything to see a polar bear out there, despite my infamous history with large, angry bears. Apparently today was not my day: there wasn't a bear in sight. What was left was the occasional polar bear footprint, which was terrifyingly huge (polar bears are the largest land mammals in North America). Maybe it was for the best that we forego introductions...there was still the opposite side the planet left to see...


  1. I think you should can the optics career and become a writer....