Anniversary in the Arctic

We spent our honeymoon in Alaska in 2011 and were blown away by it’s beautiful landscapes and abundant wildlife.  As we sat on the plane on our way back to the lower forty-eight we promised each other we would travel back to Alaska every five years for another amazing Alaska adventure!  Little did we know that we would be moving to Alaska only a year and a half later.  We have enjoyed Alaska and have had some great opportunities to see more of this spacious state.  With our fifth anniversary quickly approaching, we still wanted to do something bigger, to go somewhere we haven’t been.  One animal I have always wanted to see were polar bears and Kaktovik seemed to be the place to go see them in Alaska.  Due to my amazing convincing, debating, and reasoning skills, it didn’t take much!, Josh agreed that Kaktovik was the perfect place to spend our anniversary!

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The planning started ten months prior to the dates we were hoping to go.  Me, being the planner in the relationship, did a lot of research.  I thought about what we wanted to see, which was a whole bunch of polar bears!  In my research I had read many reviews, blogs, and articles written by travelers, adventurists, and professional photographers.  I learned many things form researching but the most important information I learned was who to contact and what to book.  We chose to spend most of the money for the trip on boat trips out to see the bears.  We wanted to spend as much time with the bears as possible and found Akook Arctic Adventures.  Not only were they quick to get back to me about dates and information but they also helped with the other two main aspects of this trip: hotel and airfare.  We booked everything separately but they were able to give us suggestions on where to stay, not that there were many options!  Since the polar bears were our main focus and the way we wanted to see them was by boat, Akook determined our dates that we would come.  I asked for the latest availability for September where there was room for two people for three nights and four days of boat tours.

We booked Akook Arctic Adventures and then researched more about the hotel that was referred to us, Waldo Arms.  You look at the price and the pictures; then you pause and think. Three nights in Kaktovik or a week in Hawaii?  When you read the reviews of Waldo Arms, there are many people who have stayed and loved the hotel’s charm, cleanliness, and friendly people.  We decided it was exactly the kind of place and adventure we were looking to have!  We reserved the room, booked our flight, and paid our deposit to Akook Arctic Adventures.  Took out a million dollar loan and it was booked!  We didn’t really take out a loan but if you stay long enough you may need to!  We were heading to Kaktovik!

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The months flew by fast for the most part and our anticipation and excitement grew each month.  Before we knew it September had arrived.  The friendly people at Akook Arctic Adventures checked in with us as the trip grew closer, and they recommended we get insurance for our trip incase there was a weather or mechanical delay.  We picked up some insurance and packed our bags.  (If you are reading this, contemplating whether to get insurance for a Kaktovik trip – think NO further, GET INSURANCE!).  The day arrived and we were ready to head to the arctic!  We checked the weather in Kaktovik and it said partly sunny with wind decreasing towards the afternoon.  “Perfect,” I thought to myself.  On the way to the airport I got an email.  The email was from Akook Arctic Adventures and was not the best of news.  As a result of a high wind storm the day before, part of the runway was under water!  I do not know much about planes and delays, but I know having an underwater runway is not helpful when landing a wheeled plane.  I was then thankful for the insurance and still hopeful for some kind of miracle that the runway can get cleared before we were supposed to arrive.

The airport attendants were not super positive either but said they would know more at 11:00am with an update from Barter Island.  There were two flights to Barter Island that day.  One flight went straight from Fairbanks to Barter Island, and another that had a layover in Deadhorse.  We were on the flight with the layover in Deadhorse.  The only problem was that we were to leave Fairbanks at 10:30 and we would not get to know the update from Barter Island until after we touch down in Deadhorse.  The other excited but worried tourists and polar bear enthusiasts sat waiting, while we were pressing our luck and heading on to Deadhorse.  The attendant checked over our boarding information and I asked her about the chances we would get to Kaktovik.  They attendant said, “You should make it… I hope!”  I was working with a “Should make it and hope,” and thought, at least it wasn’t a no?  The flight was stressful but the super friendly Ravn flight attendant and the abundant amount of delicious cookies definitely helped.

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We touched down in Deadhorse and we just about ran into the terminal.  All the waiting, all the excitement, all the money spent depended on whether they were going to fly out to Barter Island or not.  The man behind the counter was optimistic and they were loading up a plane!  We were going to try and make it!  The whole “try to make it” was a little unnerving to me but if it meant a chance we would make it to Kaktovik, I was all for it!  We got up in the air and the flight was absolutely breathtaking.  The right side of the plan had views of the sun peaking through the clouds over the Brooks Range while the left side of the plane saw the Beaufort Sea and countless unnamed rivers spilling into the ocean.

We circled over the runway before the pilot made his way down.  It was one of the smoothest landings I have ever had.  Feeling those wheels touch the ground made me the happiest woman.  I knew we were in for an amazing time.  We hopped off the plane and other people were waiting to get on.  Some of those people had been stuck due to flight cancellations out of Fairbanks, the wind, and the runway.  I knew there was probably a chance we were going to be spending some unscheduled time in Kaktovik but I chose to put that thought on the backburner.  I was about to see some polar bears!
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We were first met at the runway by a police officer.  He closed the runway right after we landed.  We JUST made it.  We got on the bus to take us to Waldo Arms Hotel.  Everyone at the hotel was very friendly and accommodating.  One of our boat captains, Steve, met us at the hotel to take us out on the boat.  We only had time to put our bags in our room and grab the camera.  He provided us with a parka and some really large snow pants.  We rode in his truck to get to the boat.  The ride was hot due to the 8 layers we each had on but all I could think about was the bears. The boat did not have a cab or inside to it but I appreciated that for photography.  If it had been raining, that could have been seen as a negative, but luckily for us, it was a partly cloudy day with no precipitation.  We got into the boat and headed out to see our first polar bears.

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The boat stopped and we all looked out.  A sow and cub were playing in the water.  My first polar bears and they did not disappoint.  The cub went under mom’s neck and then nuzzled her.  It was pretty surreal seeing the intimate interaction of these bears.  Due to the high winds, the waves were huge but luckily we were on the bay side and could watch the bears from a fairly calm boat.  We watched another sow and two cubs for awhile as they walked by us and the large waves crashed behind them. The polar bears were very playful. They would pick up sticks and balance them on their paws or play tug-of-war with each other.  A cub from one sow would play with another sow’s cub.  It was amazing to get to experience the natural behavior of these large bears.  We finished the day at the bone pile.  The three whales that were taken by the Inuit village this year were relatively small and the bears had already picked over most of the bones, but they still came and rummaged.  Our grand finally for the night was a sow and her three spring cubs climbing up to the top of the bone pile.  It was a day that would be hard to top but luckily for us we had another five trips out on the boat with Akook Arctic Adventures.

We arrived back to the hotel and were welcomed with a full dinner.  The food was delicious and the beds were small but comfortable.  The next few days we got accustomed to the great hospitality and incredible views.  On the second day we were fortunate enough to see a polar bear stand up for us!  The polar bears are large, but when standing, you just look up in awe!  The sunrises and sunsets could be considered epic by anyone’s standards.  The bears would frolic in the water together, pouncing, jumping, and swiping their paws.  Some of the bears spent most of their time sleeping, and Akook allowed us to see the sleeping bears before seeking more active models.  Some of the most amazing interactions we were able to see were cubs nursing and the amount of times the bears would meet and greet each other by touching noses.

The last boat trip on the last day was bittersweet.  It had been such an incredible time out in Kaktovik and part of me didn’t want to leave.  As we sat in the boat and watched a sow and two spring cubs gnawing on the bones. Reflecting in the high water, we thought about how incredible our trip was.  Little did we know that although this was our last boat ride, it was not our last day in Kaktovik. The plane that was supposed to come and get us did not land.  Our flight was cancelled and we were set to stay another night in Kaktovik.  It was nice to spend some down time in the hotel.  The other days went by fast with waking up early, going out on the boat, coming back for lunch, going back out on the boat, coming back for dinner and then heading to bed early to start it over again!  Having a night to relax and sleep in was refreshing.  We talked with the friendly staff and guests, looked out through the spotting scope at bears, and watched some television.  It is crazy that they get better television service than we do at home in Fairbanks.  Either way it was a great day but we needed to get on a flight the next day.

It was another tense morning.  We were not the only ones who had delayed and cancelled flights.  The staff for Ravn were very supportive and had us down for the first flight off Barter Island.  Now it was just a waiting game to see if a plane was going to land.  Every time we heard a loud noise we would peek outside or rush into the lobby hoping it was a plane.  When we did get the call to grab our things were we pretty relieved.  Not that we wanted to leave but with no other boat tours and with our money about tapped out, we had to head home to make more!

If I were to offer tips to those wanting to travel to Kaktovik for the polar bears, I would recommend a few things.  I would definitely recommend getting travel insurance.  You can never predict Alaskan weather, especially in the bush.   I would get refundable flight tickets and schedule a few extra days before and after your trip.  When I read reviews and tips for Kaktovik this was a recommendation that I did not take as seriously as I should have.  All of my photos were taken with a 100-400mm lens.  I didn’t have to use the full focal length the whole time, but I would recommend having the focal length for the bears who decide to be adorable a little further away.  Although there was room for a tripod on the boat deck, a monopod worked much better.  If you need something to stabilize your camera and lens then a monopod could be helpful.  We only used one boat charter service and they were great.  Steve and Akook Arctic Adventures kept us out for 4 hour increments, versus most other charter’s 3 hour trips.  He was super helpful throughout the adventure, from beginning to end.  They were very respectful to the bears and very knowledgeable about the area and wildlife.  As a photographer himself, Steve was very helpful by arranging the boat in the best light and would try and set up the best photos possible.  The boat I was on was small, but I never had an issue getting a spot to photograph on their boat, even with 6 people on the boat.  There is not a top or cab to the boat, which was great for us due to out non-existant precipitation.  I would definitely recommend them, but I do not have another company or experience to compare them too, same with the hotel.  Waldo Arms was the perfect place for us, but we did not visit other hotels.  All I can say is that if we were to go again, we would choose the same charter and hotel.  Waldo’s food was delicious.  The entire staff was wonderful, so accommodating, and helpful!  I would recommend a trip to Kaktovik to all those looking for an Alaskan adventure to see polar bears!

When a plane finally arrived I was both sad and relieved.  I didn’t 100% believe we would be leaving until we boarded the plan.  As I finally boarded the plane, I thought about how incredible this experience was.  We missed our flight from Deadhorse to Fairbanks, so we were fortunate enough to be re-routed on the next flight out from Deadhorse to Barrow, Barrow to Anchorage, and then Anchorage to Fairbanks.  This gave us plenty of time to talk about how this “once in a lifetime” trip was probably going to be something we would want to do more than once.  We have such a great time getting to experience more wildlife, culture, and landscapes of Alaska and we feel so fortunate to be able to live here.  Who knows what the next few years will bring, what new, amazing Alaskan city or village we hope to visit next, or what grand Alaskan adventure we will plan for our tenth wedding anniversary.  One thing is for sure, we picked the perfect place to spend our Arctic Anniversary.

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