Snow Bank or Polar Bear Den?

3/12/2011 1:19:41 PM

Snow Bank or Polar Bear Den?

Sadly my responsibilities here on the north slope of Alaska have come to a close. With all the gear running smoothly and machines purring, it's my turn to head south, leaving behind two very capable biologists, Rusty and Jay, to complete the season (as well as the blog posts). So I now find myself on a 737 flying toward Anchorage after taking off from a gravel runway. The white flat world I called home is now behind me, giving way to the sharp peaks of the Brooks Mountain Range.

Researchers on snow machines

The orange glow of the low-angle sun warms the south-facing slopes while the cool blue light still clings to the shadowed north exposures. The jagged peaks cast shadows on their adjacent neighbors, causing the colors of blue and orange to alternate across the landscape below. I travel south in the direction of warmth, family, and friends. Behind me I leave the everyday adventure the North Slope provides. Snow machining on the sea ice was my commute, now I will ride my bicycle on paved streets to get to work.

Lone bear on snow

I also leave behind the bears we study and care so much about, after not even having confirmed even one den. Even with the best technology at our disposal, we're unsure whether the snow near our camera contains a mother polar bear and her fragile cubs. We expect denning females to begin emerging at any point between now and early April. Only time will tell if we are, in fact, filming an average snowbank or a maternal polar bear den. I'm glad to be returning home but will miss the people and adventure of the North Slope. Until next year...

Photo credits: Top, ©BJ Kirschhoffer; Bottom, ©Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.

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