It’s long been a dream of mine to photograph polar bears. I liked polar bears since I saw them on those Coca-Cola commercials. As I grew up I saw them on National Geographic channels. I still liked them. Then as I became an adult I’ve been hearing all this news about how life in the arctic is changing, and polar bears being effected by the global warming. I felt I was running out of time. I wanted to photograph them in all their glory before they become extinct. Maybe I was a bit too paranoid, but it gave me an excuse to pursue this huge adventure. I say huge not only because of its significance, but also because of its price tag. You know, going to so-called remote places is always expensive. This one wasn’t going to be any different.
Once I decided that I will go and see those cute and deadly bears, I faced some choices. But the most important, and the first choice that I had to make was this. Choosing where to go. For us normal civilians there are three places you can go to meet the white bears. One, Churchill in Canada. Two, Svalbard in Norway. Three, Kaktovic, in Alaska. I researched each locations and tried figure out which place will give me the best chance not only at seeing them, but getting myself as close as possible to these magical creatures.
First, Churchill was the by far the most popular spot for the bear viewing. It was and still is the prime polar bear tourism destinations. That kind of put me off a bit though. I didn’t want to be surrounded by a whole bunch of tourists fighting for a window spot. The fact that the so-called buggy, U.S school bus like vehicle, is used for the bear viewing was the nail in the coffin for me. I wanted to share same air with those bears. I didn’t want to put myself in danger but yet I also wanted the feeling of being with them.
Svalbard is an island in northern Norway and I’ve heard good things about the place. People usually seem to see the bears on a cruise ship there, but I heard it’s also possible to walk in the land and encounter them. But the information was a bit limited, and by far Svalbard bear tours cost the most of all three of them. So I decided to skip it. That’s when I set my mind onto going to Kaktovic, one of the northern-most villages in Alaska.
One thing I definitely liked was that we were going to find the bears riding on a small boat, with six maximum passengers on it. And only limited numbers of boats were allowed out on the water each day. It meant I wasn’t going to be fighting off all the other tourists’ boats for a better spot. Kaktovic really wasn’t a tourist destination. Some tours do come but it’s not as commercialized as in Churchill or Svalbard. I liked that. Only concern I had was how close I’d be able to come with the bears while on a boat. And if being on the water would prevent me from getting a clear shot. These were things I could not be 100% sure of unless I went anyway. I had to take a leap of faith. So one October day in 2014, I headed to Kaktovic. Here are some of the photographs I made during my time there.
I stayed a week in Kaktovic. Weather wasn’t as good as I hoped it to be. There was no sunset to be had so that was a shot I didn’t get to have. Overall though, I was pretty satisfied with the shots I was able to take. Only thing was I only got to go out in the water for four days, as the water got frozen and the boats could not leave the dock anymore. It’s something you should take into account if you plan to visit the area to see the bears. If you go in September, you will see the bears everyday no problem, but there probably won’t be snow. Going in October means you will see them in snow. But you never know when the weather will worsen and the water gets frozen. I took a gamble because I really wanted to photograph them in full snow. The end came earlier than I expected but I don’t regret coming in October. I’d do it again if I have a chance.
Being on a boat was not bad at all for the photography, after all. The water was calm, and with monopod it wasn’t too much of a problem to get the shot. We could get very close to the bears as well. There were few times little cubs got curious and got right in front of our boat. I had to use wide angle lens because they were so close by. When the shoot was done we stayed at Marsh Creek Inn, and this was also a very nice place to stay. No hotel of course, but much better than what you’d have expected out of this type of wilderness place. After all, it is an American soil. I was truly glad I made the choice to come to Kaktovic. These polar bear photographs are surely one of my favorite shots in recent years.
It’s been more than two years since I was there. I still think about it. I still dream about returning there. As a wanderlust who tries to travel to new countries as much as possible, I rarely wish to return to a place I have been. Kaktovic however is one of a rare exception. I wish one day I make my way back. I’d love to make some more polar bear photographs, and hopefully turn them into a book. Until then, I will just have to keep looking at these photos to remind myself how amazing it was to interact with them in person.