It’s February 27, International Polar Bear Day. Welcome to life in Polar Bear Town, USA.

It’s always Polar Bear Day here.

Polar bears are everywhere around this tiny Alaskan village, napping on sand spits, playing in the shallows, padding down the beach with cubs in tow and attracting hundreds of tourists.

The bears that come here are climate refugees.

40 years ago the pack ice was visible from the shore all year round.  In the last 10-12 years it has changed dramatically and the last years there has been no ice visible at all in the summer.

At night, the bears steal into Kaktovik, making it dangerous to walk outside without a firearm or bear spray. They leave unwillingly, chased off by the nightly polar bear patrol with firecracker shells and spotlights.

So far, there have been no attacks on humans, but there have been some close calls.

Village residents are tolerant of the bears – though probably neither party forgets that one is the world’s largest four-legged predator.

“They could break right in here, but they know the rules,” according to Merlyn Traynor, a proprietor of the Waldo Arms Hotel.

It was a polar bear tradition to gather to rest and feed on hunter-harvested bowhead whale remains near Kaktovik.  But in recent years, possibly hundreds of bears are becoming stranded on the coastal plain because they can’t reach the retreating sea ice.

Kaktovik is hardly alone in this problem.  In Churchill, Manitoba, polar bears sometimes outnumber the locals. Halloween trick-or-treating was banned in another Canadian town for two years due to polar bears.

Scientists have counted up to 80 polar bears at a time in or near Kaktovik.

The village of Kaktovik (population: 250) is a scruffy collection of buildings, many on stilts, set along a few streets carved into the grassy tundra.

There are two small stores, a clinic, a military radar facility, two hotels (with the village’s two restaurants), two churches, two village police officers, a school with 60 to 70 students and a community center that hosts Thursday night bingo.

Kaktovik is often shrouded in fog, and flights, even for medical emergencies, can be delayed for days.

About 1,200 people came to get up and close with a polar bear in 2015.  The number is increasing year by year, according to Robert Thompson, an Inupiat guide who owns one of six boats that take tourists to view the bears.

While some local entrepreneurs capitalize on the high demand for lodging and tours, Kaktovik is far from a tourist trap.

A stay in one of the village’s two modest hotels might run close to $300 a night, with meals included. A short boat ride to catch a view of the bears runs $300 to $500 for half a day.

The locals are private about their traditions, reticent about discussing them and not too happy at being photographed by outsiders.

Some visitors are surprised at the bears’ darkened coats, dirty from rolling in sand and whale remains. “They don’t look like polar bears,” one man from the Netherlands said. “But it does not matter. I will Photoshop them when I get home.”

 

Sources: NY Times, Salon, MMN, Washington Post