Hakai Magazine

polar bear guards in Alaska
Gun in hand, Michael Thomas scans the vicinity for polar bears. Photo by Chris Arend

Coastal Job: Polar Bear Guard

At the northernmost tip of Alaska, bear guarding is about more than just bears.

Authored by

As told to Kristen Pope

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Born and raised in Utqiagvik, Alaska, Michael Thomas is the field operations manager and a polar bear guard for UIC Commercial Services, an Alaska Native Corporation that provides support for local construction, shipping, and research. He specializes in protecting scientists from bears and from the extreme environment.

When I’m bear guarding, I’m usually out on the sea ice, where -35 °C is a typical temperature in winter. Most people couldn’t survive in -35 °C. The biggest part of the training was just growing up and being raised on the land, having that Indigenous knowledge. The other bear guards grew up here, too. There are four of us; we provide logistics for researchers studying things like coastal erosion and sea ice. They’re only here in the Arctic for maybe two weeks out of a year—or out of their whole lives—and we make sure they’re safe during their stay.

“Bear guard” is what they call it, but the job is so much more than that. The environment is often the biggest problem we contend with. Many of the scientists aren’t used to the cold. They can tighten up and form “T. rex arms.” When that happens, I’ll hand them a shovel and tell them to dig in the snow until they loosen up. Once, when we had to work all day in -50 °C, one researcher came up with a dance—kicking his legs like a jig—to get the blood flowing.

The researchers can sit there, bent over a piece of equipment, for hours, so my job is to watch for bears. I’ll keep an eye around the vicinity, usually two or three football-field lengths away, scanning for movement. But if you try too hard to look for a bear, you’re going to start seeing one. You’ll start to believe that a piece of ice is moving out there, but really it’s nothing. If you do see a bear coming in your direction, you get everyone on snowmobiles and drive to a safer area for a while. If the bear leaves, you go back to the site. But if it doesn’t, you call it a day and head back to Utqiagvik.

My most memorable encounter with a bear on patrol was when some researchers and I were hiking close to a lake. All of a sudden, we stumbled upon this giant bear sitting on the tundra. It looked lethargic, like it must have just eaten a big meal—a baby caribou, maybe. We were able to move right past it, and as we did, it sat there, watching us.

At work, I’ve never had a bear act aggressively toward me or any researcher. I’ve never had to fire any kind of deterrent—and that’s something I take pride in.