Arctic Dispatch: A Polar Bear Plunge | Science | Smithsonian
On the drive from Toolik, a view of the ocean and sun in the early morning hours (Christine Dell’Amore)

Arctic Dispatch: A Polar Bear Plunge

A trip to the oil-rich Prudhoe Bay region ends in an Arctic swim

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On a three-hour drive to Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, the rolling tundra leveled off into the coastal plain and animals began popping out of the woodwork. Over the course of the day, we spotted tundra swans, glaucous gulls, caribou, musk oxen, red fox and Dall sheep. Though we didn't spot any grizzlies, the predators are often seen in the fields of Prudhoe.

We stopped at the industrial town of Deadhorse, an appropriate name for where the Dalton Highway dead-ends at the Arctic Ocean. Deadhorse consists almost entirely of oil rigs, pipes, and metal buildings. The Arctic Caribou Inn and a small general store (home to the town's only housecat) offer the only pockets of liveliness in this harsh land.

Before our tour we watched a film on Prudhoe, which emphasized oil companies' commitment to environmental protection and asserted that caribou numbers had increased since extraction began in this oil-rich region. After the film, we loaded into a van and rumbled on to Prudhoe, passing herds of caribou grazing on the fields, their spindly antlers sticking up over the hillsides.

We reached the security checkpoint and were permitted onto the corporate oilfields – our only access to the Arctic Ocean in the region. At the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean, a thin peninsula separated their calm waters (The Arctic Ocean, amazingly, sits above the Earth's tidal forces).

This was the moment that separated the dippers from the plungers -- swimming, and often skinny-dipping -- is a tourist tradition at the Arctic Ocean. I came prepared with my rain pants and water-resistant shirt; I jogged around a few minutes to warm up and then made the plunge. To my surprise, the water felt no colder than the Atlantic Ocean in May. My feet sank into the spongy bottom, which looked and felt like peat moss. The water was shallow, so I propped myself on my elbows and floated on my back for about 10 minutes, soaking up the polar sun as the other fellows made quick dashes in and out of the ocean. When I finally made it back to shore, I was given the nickname of Polar Bear. I even earned a certificate saying as much when we returned to the Inn for dinner.

We didn't make it back onto the Dalton Highway until 9 p.m. or so, and we planned to stop on the way home at a spot where tourists told us they spotted musk oxen -- shaggy, bison-like animals endemic to the Arctic. These Ice Age relics are retrofitted for winter weather: Their coats -- called skirts -- hang like a woolly curtain down to their white-socked ankles. About 80 miles south of Prudhoe, our fellowship leader Chris Neill spotted hulking brown shapes in the distance. We jumped out of the truck and watched the animals weave through the willows, the midnight sun glinting off their backs. One of the fellows, Jason Orfanon, walked further down a gravel path to set up his video camera. The rest of us were about to turn back when I saw the huge creatures crossing right in front of Orfanon, who stood frozen behind his camera. I sprinted down the path to get closer. Some of the beasts stopped to stare at us and a few paused to rub their hairy backs against a tree -- perhaps marking their scent. We even saw a calf frolicking behind its mother. We lingered silently after the last animal passed, listening to the oxen's low grunts and snuffles. On a nature high, we all piled back into the truck, and just a few minutes later spotted a cluster of Dall sheep clinging to the side of a mountain near Toolik. The sheep rest on what seem like gravity-defying outcrops during the night to avoid wolves, their main predators. It was truly a singular moment in the Alaskan wild: a fulfillment of that sense of reverence and wonder that draws people to this country.

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