After 30 Years, Alaskans Get a Reminder Who the True Apex Predator Is

isabel kendzior /
isabel kendzior /

Life in Alaska is tough. No matter what the season is, it is not for the faint of heart. From subzero temperatures to massive snowfalls, lots of layers and spending minimal time outside is the key to survival.

Wales, Alaska is just below the Arctic Circle and is the westernmost point of the North American mainland. Just 50 miles away from Russia across the Bering Strait, it is home to just 150 people. The vast majority of them are indigenous people known as the Inupiat. Mostly accessed by plane or boat, winter trails allow for snowmobiles to reach out to other communities and grounds for hunting. They also have no law enforcement in the town.

So on January 17th, the small community as well as the rest of the state got a reminder of where they are in the pecking order. Facing a tremendous squall, Summer Myomick bundled up her 1-year-old son Clyde Ongtowasruk to walk 150 yards from the school to the health clinic.

While attempting to cross, a polar bear came out of the wall of white snow. It immediately crossed the woman’s path and attacked both mother and child. This marked the first fatal polar bear attack in Alaska in 30 years. While several employees left the building to try and scare the bear away with shovels, the principal ordered a lockdown and shut all the blinds. Keeping the children from seeing such a ghastly sight is one of the best things he could have done for them.

Their attempts to divert worked for a moment as the bear let up from the attack, but it was only to come after them. Forcing them back inside the school, Principal Dawn Hendrickson slammed the door shut in its face. The bear attempted to break in but was unsuccessful. Susan Nedza, chief administrator of the Bering Strait School District received the frantic call about the attack. “The polar bear was chasing them and tried to get in as well. Just horrific. … Something you never think you would ever experience.”

Based 250 miles away in Unalakleet, there was little that the school district could do to help. Thankfully, an unnamed man came and shot the bear while the beast continued its attack on mother and son. With the winds blowing, the woman was unlikely to have a clue the bear was there according to a statement by AK State Troopers.

That same storm kept the lights for the town’s dirt runway from being illuminated. As such, the AK State Troopers as well as a state wildlife official from Nome had to wait until the 18th to come in. Samples from the bear were taken, and the bodies of the mother and son were flown to Nome for eventual transportation to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage.

Naturally, the students had the 18th off so they could spend time with their families, with the district flying in counselors for them. The 19th and 20th would be what they called “soft openings” that wouldn’t include classes but would allow students to visit with administrators, get a meal, or play a game if they were up to it.

Given the tremendous 600 to 1,200 pounds average weight, the male polar bear is a vicious opponent for any creature. At their biggest, they have been recorded at 1,700 pounds, and 10 ft in length. Given their dexterity, speed, and sheer mass they have an easy time with their seal and beluga whale diet. Attacks like these on humans are rare, and Alaska is the only state they are native to, which is why it has been so long since we have seen an attack.