Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
ARCTIC: Teenager Helps Keep People and Polar Bears Safe in Kaktovik, Alaska
Alaska Region, May 1, 2015
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Chelsea Brower teaches visitors how to be safe in polar bear country and about the people of Kaktovik, Alaska.
Chelsea Brower teaches visitors how to be safe in polar bear country and about the people of Kaktovik, Alaska. - Photo Credit: Chelsea Brower

Chelsea Brower, 17, of Kaktovik, Alaska, grew up around polar bears and often observes them wandering through her village, curious about the scents of locally harvested foods outside of houses. Her first memory of these magnificent bears was when her family was heading over to visit her grandmother. She was quite young and her dad was helping her and her siblings out of the car. While waiting alone in the truck, she spotted an enormous white bear coming closer and closer. Frantically, she scrambled into the driver’s seat and honked the horn with fury, but without hesitation the bear tromped towards her. Thankfully, her dad heard the honking and came out banging a pot, and the bear finally retreated from the truck.


Brower is getting ready for her 4th and final season as a Kaktovik Youth Ambassador. Not many young people have this opportunity - Brower is one of a handful of youth in her small northern Alaskan village who educate visitors, who come from all over the world to view the iconic white bear, on safety.

While there has alway been the possibility of a 1000 pound polar bear lurking outside her front door, it is now a more frequent reality. Her parents and grandparents grew up when polar bears were farther out on the sea ice. Since then, much of polar bear sea-ice habitat has melted, leading some bears to choose coastal habitat. Other factors that draw bears to the area include a bone pile from the community's whale harvest, a higher population of seals — the bears’ preferred food — closer to shore, and the annual formation of fall sea ice in the area, which occurs earlier than in other locations along the coast.

During her first year as an ambassador, Brower was shy and nervous, but wanted to get involved in the program to try something new. “The experience helped me come out of my shell,” she says. She enjoys meeting the visitors and getting to know where they come from. “My favorite part of the experience is informing visitors about what my village considers acceptable behavior and what is safe for them and the bears,” she shares. Sometimes during the briefings there are miscommunications, as some visitors don’t speak much English, but for the most part Brower sees humor in mistranslations. A tourist last summer asked if he could take pictures of a dog, and Brower told him to ask permission first, meaning to advise asking the dog’s owner. The confused tourist thought he was to walk up to the dog and say something along the lines of, “Hello Fido, can I take your photo?”

While the majority of tourists have focused interests in everything polar bear related, Brower admires the tourists who appreciate the cultural importance of sea mammals to her people. One particular tourist, a Danish man, made an impression on the ambassadors. He was stuck in the community for quite a while because of bad weather, during this time he took a genuine interested in learning about community life and activity. She is glad for the opportunity for outsiders to gain awareness of culture and lifestyle in her village. Yet, there are also downsides to tourism, like when visitors draw on scarce resources such as the limited number of seats on regular flights, which causes hardship for some local residents needing to depart the village for medical or supply visits to larger towns.

While Brower doesn’t have her college plans figured out exactly, she has been actively researching how to become a marine veterinarian. She has a desire to explore the shores beyond polar bears and become familiar with different kinds of marine animals. Brower has become a role model to those around her – one of her friends recently asked Brower how she, too, could become an ambassador. Brower thinks it is important for youth her age to be involved so they know how to bring their voice forward and so others know that young people care about issues like polar bear well-being and community control over the tourism industry.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service helps fund the Youth Ambassador Program, which began in 2011, and other initiatives that build local capacity for polar-bear related management.

Contact Info: Andrea Medeiros, (907) 786-3695, andrea_medeiros@fws.gov
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