It’s been almost two months since a polar bear found its way into the Bering Sea village of Wales and killed a woman and her 1-year-old son, on their short walk from the school to the clinic.
Questions still linger about what caused the bear to attack — but more important for Wales and its neighboring communities is the question of how to move on from this tragedy.
The last fatal polar bear attack in Alaska was in Point Lay, 30 years ago, so it’s been hard to see the way forward — just as it was on Jan. 17, when windstorms whipped up whiteout conditions and gave the bear a veil of invisibility to prowl about unnoticed, until it struck.
The name for Wales in the Inupiat language is Kingigin, which means “high place.” The village, which sits beside a mountain, also hugs the beach. And in the winter, it’s hard to tell where the shore ends and the sea ice begins, ice that makes it possible for polar bears to hunt for seals and other animals that provide the high energy food necessary for survival in the Arctic.
Susan Nedza, the chief administrator for the Bering Strait School District, says it can be an unforgiving land.
“Tough things happen,” Nedza said. “And life in general is a little more difficult.”
And this winter, even more so.
Nedza, who manages the school district from Unalakleet, a community more than 200 air miles away, heard about the attack over the phone as it happened. She was told that some staffers and other community members had risked their own lives, trying to save Summer Myomick and her son, Clyde Ongtowasruk III.
“They were hitting the bear with shovels,” Nedza said. “The bear can be seen on camera leaving that attack and chasing those people up onto the school porch stairs into the front entry way, and the principal managed to close the door.”
Staffers shut the blinds, so the children couldn’t see, but that didn’t keep them from experiencing the trauma.
“Each person responds to crisis differently,” Nedza said. “You’re fine one minute. You’re not the next.”
In this constantly shifting emotional landscape, Nedza says staff and students have to be allowed to heal on their own timetable, a process which requires tenderness and patience.
“Some of the students are really struggling,” she said. “They’re just really, really struggling hard.”
Parents are now asked to escort their children to and from school. There are extra safety patrols around the building. Initially, students returned to a shortened school day, with a focus on emotional wellbeing, followed by a gradual transition back to academics. Parents still have the option to keep their kids home, depending on bear sightings or how they’re feeling that day.
The school now has a snowmachine to give teachers rides, and a fence is going up under the shop, an area where the bear was able to hide, before it emerged from under the building.
Nedza says everyone is gradually getting back to a more normal school day, but it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point. The Kingimuit School in Wales doesn’t usually have a fulltime counselor. They rotate between the district’s 15 communities, scattered across a region that’s about the size of the state of Kansas.
But since the attack, the district has made sure that Wales always had one on hand, which meant other schools had fewer counselor visits, a sacrifice that each has willingly made.
The district also worked closely with the Norton Sound Health Corporation in Nome to widen the safety net for the school’s 30 children. Some students and staffers have had to seek help outside the community, not easy to do when weather can keep planes out for days at a time.
The community has also taken some practical steps to move beyond the bear. Volunteers are regularly on patrol to watch for the nannut, the Inupiaq word for polar bears.
Michael Oxereok, the Wales representative on the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, says the council is working with other organizations to bring back regular patrols.
With a warming climate and less sea ice, Oxereok believes more human-bear encounters are inevitable.
“With sea ice receding as much as it has, bears aren’t able to fend (for themselves) as well as they used to 15 years ago,” Oxereok said.
Scientists say it’s hard to know how much the sea ice was a factor in the attack. When the bear found its way into the village, it was locked in place. But Oxereok says the ocean didn’t begin to freeze until December.
“It finally formed, maybe two or three inches in mid-January,” Oxereok said. “That’s very late for the area of Wales.”
For the bears, the ice is everything. It’s where they dig their dens and hunt their prey. But Dave Gustine, the polar bear manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, says the ice is just one part of a mystery that was hard for investigators to probe.
“We kind of had to tread lightly,” said Gustine, who said agencies involved in the aftermath of the attack also found themselves in unchartered territory. “And the one thing we landed on, we made sure by deferring to the community and the family’s needs and requests any chance we could.”
After a community member shot and killed the bear, which was a male, investigators took samples from its skull. Tests didn’t find any signs of avian flu, rabies or other pathogens that could affect a bear’s behavior. Recent results for tests on a tooth put the bear’s age at about 17 years old. Fifteen is considered old for a male. Gustine says this may answer questions about why the bear was in poor condition.
“Were your meals frequent enough to either, A, put on extra energy reserves, or do you have to dig into those reserves?” Gustine said. “So, this bear was in a place where it had to dip into those energy reserves over time, so there wasn’t any fat on, on his body.”
Gustine says the bear had less body fat than is typical for this time of the year. But other than the bear’s age and condition, Gustine says there’s not enough information to know for sure what caused the attack. Studies show that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea area are, overall, in good health. And until now polar bears have not really been a problem in Wales, which once had a patrol — but the community lost its funding.
Lindsey Mangipane, a biologist in Fish and Wildlife’s polar bear program, says the money went elsewhere.
“We have some communities that have over 100 calls every year up there that are in town, so that requires a lot of resources. So that that kind of took the majority of our funding,” Mangipane said. “But we do have some, some great partners now that might potentially have some funding to help out with these other communities. And it’s definitely a priority for us to try to make that happen.”
Mangipane says the interest is high, and there are plans underway for a regional training session to help communities re-establish their patrols. But that isn’t easy to do in cash-poor communities like Wales where fuel is almost $8 a gallon and supplies, which must arrive on a barge, are costly.
But for now the community takes comfort in seeing snowmachine lights off in the distance, as volunteers take turns on patrol, pulling together to do the best they can to emerge from a very dark and difficult time.
As head of the district, Nedza has watched how communities in the region has get through hard times.
“Even though this is very strange, not something that we deal with at all, people are used to pulling together, supporting each other, giving each other space,” Nedza said, “And giving each other space, I think is very Alaskan.”
A GoFundMe page, to help the family cover the costs of mourning their loss, far exceeded the fundraising goal. There are pictures of Myomick and her son, seen with the full-faced look of a well-loved child, as well as photos of Summer’s 3-year-old daughter who must now grow up without her mom. Fundraisers wrote that Summer was “kind and loved by everyone,” describing her as a mother who was “incredibly proud of her two young babies.” A picture shows Summer’s partner Clyde Ongtowasruk, Jr., holding his namesake and beaming with pride.
There were contributions from not just Alaska but all over the country, a reminder of how the polar bear attack also put this tiny community of about 150 people in the glare of the national spotlight.
Nedza says the village deserves recognition for so much more.
“If you look at the music and the arts and the dance and the history and language and just incredible, incredible tight-knit people,” Nedza said. “Know that it’s a pretty special place.”
And it’s a place where people continue to carry on with a quiet courage, because they must.