Late September at Backcountry Journeys always brings with it a sense of adventure. This is the time of year we travel North of the Arctic Circle to check-in on the world of the Nanuk – the Polar Bears of Arctic Alaska.
The sense of adventure comes from the unpredictable nature of life and travel in the arctic. What will the conditions be like? Will there be snow? Will there be weather delays?
Our trip takes us to the remote shores of an island along Alaska’s Arctic coast. Barter Island has long been home to the Inupiaq people and a place where Polar Bears congregate during the summer months.
We run this trip usually with two groups – one right after the other. The timeframe is critical as there is a narrow window in late September / early October when there might be snow on the ground and before the ocean freezes up. Once the ocean freezes up the bears are free to travel off on the ice – and they quickly disperse.
But why do Polar Bears congregate en masse on Barter Island anyway? Polar Bears are generally solitary creatures who spend their time roaming far and wide on remote arctic ice flows in search of seals. Ring and Bearded Seals are hunted by Polar Bears as they emerge to breathe from under the ice. When there isn’t ice to travel on it makes catching seals a difficult endeavor. So the bears turn elsewhere for nourishment.
It sounds relatively easy. No food? Find another food source. But this is the arctic. There isn’t a tree for hundreds of miles and game is scarce – both on land and at sea. When the summer pack ice melts and disappears every year the bears have to adapt. Some travel further out to sea where large ice sheets remain and some travel to the arctic coast hoping to find food.
For years the native population residing in the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island has traditionally hunted Bowhead Whales off the coast to feed their community. Polar Bears have always inhabited the region adjacent to Barter Island but in recent years have been attracted the leftover and discarded whale parts. For years Inupiaq whalers discarded the whale bones into a pile just outside of the village – which inevitably attracted Polar Bears.
Nowadays, the bone pile is gone but the bears keep coming – whether this is an instinctual reaction or they are just hopeful – the bears keep coming. Every summer from about mid-August through mid-October, Polar Bears arrive daily looking for a whale feast.
Kaktovik is situated on the Northside of Barter Island along a protected lagoon. This lagoon provides a calm respite from the pounding waves of the arctic ocean and is a great place for the Polar Bears to hang out while they wait for the ice to form.
Our photography expedition involves a small, open-air boat that allows us to maneuver through the shallow arctic lagoon in search of Polar Bears. But we don’t have to search – they are right there. Within five minutes of pulling off the shore, we can usually find bears as they forage, wrestle and swim along a stretch of land known as Bernard Sand Spit.
What’s so remarkable about this trip is that we are able to position our boat in ways that allow for extreme close-ups of these bears. Sure you need a long lens but the quality of up-close photographs that can be made is second to none in the world.
Svalbard has better scenery and there are higher numbers of Polar Bears in Hudson Bay but nowhere on the planet do we as humans have close-up and safe access to photograph Polar Bears like at Barter Island, Alaska.
Like anywhere in the Arctic – conditions can be all over the map. Wind, fog, rain, snow – beautiful bluebird skies – you name it. I’ve personally never traveled anywhere in the world with such constantly changing weather conditions as Alaska. This dynamic environment can be a challenge for photography but it can also make for some incredible atmospheric conditions.
On our two trips this year we seemed to be constantly treated to incredible sunsets and backlit conditions. I’ve never had the opportunity to get such amazing Polar Bear silhouette photographs. The detailed close-ups are relatively easy to come by on this trip – you know the ones with the bears looking right at the camera!
What I find to be the more interesting shots after having led these expeditions for some time are the rarer moments like a spring cub standing up and waving at the boat (yes this actually happened – multiple times) or a large boar (male bears are known as boars) with the mighty Brooks Range framed directly behind him in perfect light – those are the “aha” moments and we definitely got them in droves this year.
Northern Lights photography is tricky on Barter Island as one has to be careful of roaming Polar Bears after dark. We generally do most of our Northern Lights photography in Fairbanks before and after we travel to Barter Island to photograph the Polar Bears.
One interesting fact about the aurora – is that it runs in a narrow oval or band around the polar regions of the world. When we are on Barter Island we are actually North of the more active aurora displays and so often we are looking south to photograph the Northern Lights – wrap your head around that one!
Fairbanks is one of the best places on the planet to photograph the Northern Lights as it sits just underneath the Auroral Oval – and fall is often one of the best times to see them as the skies are generally more clear than at other times of the year.
Needless to say Polar Bears of the Alaskan Arctic is quite an adventure and one of the more exhilarating and rewarding photography trips we offer. There really isn’t anything quite like coming face to face with the Arctic’s most fearsome predator.
We only take six photographers at a time on this trip and usually run two departures. Space is extremely limited each year so if you want to join us make your reservation early. Click here to learn more.
I hope to meet you in Fairbanks sometime over dinner at Lavelle’s Bistro before we board that bush plane up to Barter Island in search of Polar Bears!
Russ Nordstrand is an award-winning Landscape & Wildlife Photographer based in Flagstaff, Arizona. His Fine Art Prints are hanging in private collections throughout the world and he runs Photography Tours & Workshops in the most beautiful and inspirational locations in the Western United States and beyond.
Russ has been hiking, backpacking, photographing and guiding people in the wilderness areas, deserts, canyons, and mountains of the world since 1997. He has logged thousands of miles on the trail and for many years in the past decade over half of his nights were spent in a tent in some far-flung outdoor destination.
His photography reflects an awe and admiration of the great, wide and still wild world we live in. Often his subjects include towering canyon walls, mist-shrouded mountain lakes or wildlife in their natural habitat. It also reflects a commitment to preserving these places for the health of our world and for those who come after.
It would be a lie to say he does it completely from an altruistic standpoint. Like any great outdoor photographer, he loves the thrill of wild, remote places and the accomplishment of nailing that shot after waking up three hours before dawn and hiking in the dark!
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)