Our Newest Polar Bear Adventure—A Rare Opportunity for Close-Up Photos at Eye Level
Day 1: Fairbanks, Alaska
Our polar bear photography adventure begins in Fairbanks, Alaska’s thriving capital of the Interior. Fairbanks, less than 120 miles from the Arctic Circle, retains its frontier flavor with pioneer saloons, paddlewheelers
on the Chena River and mining camps on the edge of town. Fairbanks is home to the main campus of the University of Alaska, a global research leader on Arctic concerns, including polar bears. Meet your traveling companions at a welcome dinner this evening.
Day 2: Exploring Fairbanks—Alaskan Homestead Visit / Creamer's Field
This day is a terrific introduction to Alaska and the Arctic beyond before heading nearly 400 miles farther north to reach our destination tomorrow.
We’ll spend this morning at the homestead of three-time Iditarod finisher Lisbet Norris and bear biologist and bear conflict specialist Nils Pedersen. Visit their working sled dog kennel and their off-grid home, then take a guided half-mile walk through the boreal forest surrounding their property. See a dog sledding demonstration, spend time with sled dog puppies, and meet wildlife service dogs Rio and Soledad, an ancient breed of Scandinavian spitz with a unique ability to shepherd bears that are helping aid important polar and grizzly bear conservation work in the Arctic.
After a wilderness lunch featuring locally grown organic produce and meats, we head to the University of Alaska's Museum of the North for an overview of Alaska's natural history, wildlife and diverse Native cultures. This acclaimed educational enterprise is Alaska's only research and teaching museum, with a collection of 1.4 million artifacts and specimens that represent millions of years of biological diversity and thousands of years of cultural traditions in the circumpolar North. Exhibit highlights include ancient ivory carvings, the state's largest public display of gold and a 36,000-year-old mummified steppe bison. In the late afternoon, we’ll head out with our cameras onto the vast landscape surrounding Fairbanks, including a visit to the 2,200 acres of fields, woods and wetlands at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Fall is Alaska's peak birding season, and as we catch the morphing afternoon light we'll seize opportunities to photograph stately birds like sandhill cranes and large swans.
Day 3: Private Flight to Kaktovik—Polar Bear Viewing
Transfer to the airport this morning for our private chartered direct flight to Kaktovik. Because we have arranged a chartered aircraft for our small group of just eight guests. The 2-hour journey over the Arctic Circle offers a stunning aerial overview of northern Alaska’s varied geography, from the vast Yukon River basin and boreal forest to the icebound Brooks Range and barren North Slope. Below us sprawls the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19-million-acre preserve that's home to caribou, muskoxen, Dall sheep, wolves, migratory waterfowl, black and grizzly bears, and, of course, the polar bears we have come to see. As glaciated peaks give way to coastal plain, we land on Barter Island on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. From the airstrip, it's a short drive into the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. This isolated outpost occupying one square mile in the high Arctic is home to about 250 residents who have long relied on a traditional lifestyle of subsistence hunting and fishing.
Befitting its austere setting, many of Kaktovik's rustic residences and small businesses are fashioned out of old shipping containers. Just a few dirt roads lace the town, and most locals drive 4-wheeler ATVs rather than cars. We check in to our simple motel and have lunch, then head out on our first polar bear excursion aboard small boats operated by local residents. Though each boat has the capacity to hold six guests, we put just four on each to ensure your comfort, plus plenty of room for your camera equipment.
We spend three hours cruising the coastline in search of bears this afternoon. Your Expedition Leader, who is both an expert Arctic naturalist and an accomplished nature photographer specializing in Alaska’s legendary wildlife, is on hand to interpret all we experience. While the Southern Beaufort polar bears historically spend most of their time on drifting pack ice, many females come ashore to dig dens in snowdrifts, and more bears are spending time on land as they wait for coastal sea ice to form. We return to town for dinner followed by time to review and edit our photos, with our Expedition Leader on hand for advice. And, as darkness starts to return to the night sky by late summer, we may have a chance late tonight to look for the northern lights.
Days 4 & 5: Polar Bear Photography in Kaktovik
Over the next two days
we are immersed in the world of the polar bear. Each morning, following breakfast, we board the boats to spend three hours cruising close to shore to look for bears. After returning for lunch and some rest time at the hotel, we depart on another three-hour outing each afternoon. The sight of the bears induces sheer delight, and we may get photos of lone males, mothers with growing cubs, or sparring juvenile males learning to play-fight. At times, the bears may be resting, so we never know exactly what to expect. Keep your camera poised for other Arctic wildlife, too, such as wolves, Arctic fox
and seabirds. The realm we explore is one of the most primitive and untouched places on the continent. Protected as part of the Arctic Refuge—the largest wildlife sanctuary in the United States—this land is unmarred by any roads or trails, and Kaktovik is the only human habitation inside its bounds.
While we can never predict how many bears we may see, their numbers are increasing around Kaktovik. The reason is a warming climate. In years past, the Beaufort Sea remained mostly frozen year-round, with pack ice accessible not far offshore. Now, the ice is melting earlier, what remains may be 200 miles away, and freeze-up happens later. Since seal hunting—the polar bears’ main means of sustenance—requires sea ice, the Southern Beaufort population is being forced to adapt. In Kaktovik, the bears have found an alternate food source to sustain them through the lean summer and autumn months: the carcasses of several bowhead whales that Native villagers are permitted to harvest seasonally as part of their traditional subsistence lifestyle and ancient cultural practice.
While we are here to enjoy the presence of wild polar bears and to capture thrilling photos of them, we are also witnessing profound changes in a rapidly warming Arctic, which are creating the very phenomenon we have come to see. Evening conversations with local people provide further insight into Arctic life in the 21st century, and we learn about how people are also trying to adapt.
Day 6: Polar Bear Viewing / Fly to Fairbanks
After breakfast, we are scheduled to make a sixth and final boat excursion among the polar bears, capturing a final chance to capture photos that are the hallmark of this singular experience. We return to the hotel for lunch before boarding our private chartered flight back to Fairbanks this afternoon. On arrival, transfer to our hotel on the banks of the Chena River in the heart of lively downtown Fairbanks. This evening, share your favorite moments with the polar bears over a farewell dinner.
Day 7: Fairbanks / Depart
Today, our Alaska polar bear photo safari comes to a close as we transfer to the airport for flights home.
Please note: Our daily itinerary is contingent upon weather and local conditions. Exact timing and activities will depend upon those circumstances and are at the discretion of our Expedition Leader. Because weather can affect the limited number of scheduled commercial flights to and from Kaktovik, we choose to charter our own private aircraft for maximum convenience and flexibility.
Physical Rating: Moderate