Remembering Ahpun, 20 years later
It was a typical winter day — a little chilly, a little cloudy, but mostly calm — when they found her.
Happenstance brought together a young hunter and a young nanuq, a chance encounter during a change in the weather that would alter the course of both of their lives.
"People were catching fish when they would go out fishing 11 miles north of Point Lay, up the coast on the Chukchi Sea," said William Tracey Jr. "My girlfriend at the time and I decided to go do some fishing. We loaded up the sled and gassed up the snowmachine and left. It was a successful fishing day. We had caught a little over 300 smelt that day, between my girlfriend and I."
Despite the good haul, Tracey was bothered by a bum shoulder. Right-handed, his right shoulder being injured made certain tasks more painful and difficult, so the pair decided to call it a day well before the other fishermen at the inlet.
They packed up their gear and fish and headed back out toward home.
Along the way, the northern weather did what it does best: it shifted.
"It became overcast skies and some ice fog, so it was a little difficult to see. The terrain was snow and ice, so it was pretty much all whiteout," Tracey said. "My shoulder was getting a little sore, so I was looking for a place to take a little break from driving the snowmachine. I had seen, off to my right, a little bit what I had thought was a white fox. So, I thought I might as well stop here. Maybe we can watch a white fox while we rest up a little bit."
He pulled over, shut off his snowmachine and got up to check his load.
"As I bent down to check the tie-downs, I heard a grunt behind me. So, I stood up and turned and that's when I saw the polar bear coming out of the snow — her den," he said.
Tracey yelled to his girlfriend to turn the snowmachine back on again and get ready to leave. He pulled his rifle off his shoulder and kneeled down.
"My rifle was up and I couldn't see anything because the bear was so close and it was whiteout. I could only see the two eyes and the nose because they are black. I aimed for that and I pulled the trigger," he said. "The bear disappeared from in front of me."
He looked to where the bear had fallen. She was down and he kept an eye on her to make sure she'd really died, not just been injured.
He walked back over to his girlfriend by the machine, so they both could calm their nerves. Once they'd settled a bit, they tried to haul the bear onto the sled. They pulled and pushed and finally had to flip the sled on top of the bear and pull the ropes underneath her.
"When we had the bear tied on the sled, we heard another noise behind us. Of course, I jumped up real quick and went to get my rifle and out from the den came the cub, Ahpun. She was yelping and crying and went straight to her mom on my sled. She tried to move her mom around, kind of just laid on her," he said. "Ahpun wouldn't let us close to her mom and I still had to tie on my fish and our gear onto the sled. So, what I did was tied up Ahpun to my snowmachine and then finished loading the sled. When I let Ahpun go, she again went straight to her mom and laid on her."
They didn't want to leave her behind, so they drove home the nine or 10 miles with Ahpun riding on her mother the whole way.
When they got back to Point Lay, Tracey recalled to his parents what had happened.
"We didn't realize how close we had gotten to maybe being mauled by the bear, so we were kind of still in shock a little bit," he said. "When I told my parents the story, they were pleased that we made it home alright."
It was then that what had happened really began to sink in. They had come home with a totally dependent baby bear in tow.
"Who knows how to take care of a polar bear cub?" Tracey laughed. "It's not like a normal pet."
His father was on the phone to the Fish and Wildlife office in Barrow right away. They told Tracey to make sure Ahpun didn't get too hot; she stayed in the half of their house that wasn't finished yet.
For four days, Tracey and his girlfriend and parents played guardian to the orphaned cub.
"We tried to feed her milk. She was kind of crying all the time and you could tell she was hungry. She didn't have teeth then, just her canines, so she couldn't eat solids. We tried to give her fish but she didn't know what to do with it. The milk, she would smell it and ignore it. My dad thought we should try some seal oil. So, we mixed in some seal oil with the milk and she went to that right away and started eating it," he said. "That's what we fed her."
It was hard to keep their unlikely houseguest a secret in the village. Once people got wind of the cub in the house, they wanted to come see her. Tracey set some ground rules. They had to be calm and quiet and couldn't pick her up or touch her unnecessarily.
Finally, after the better part of a week, Fish and Wildlife shipped them a large dog crate. They packed Ahpun in and sent her off to Barrow. Tracey said he doesn't know how long she stayed there, but they were the ones who finally sent her to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.
"They contemplated changing her name and my dad talked them into keeping the name Ahpun," which is an accidental misspelling of apun, or snow. "It was my parents who named her Ahpun."
And so, Ahpun the cub from the wild white wilderness of the North Slope ended up in her new home at the zoo in Alaska's biggest city. She was a hit with visitors. Her calm and easygoing nature made her friends, animal and human alike, for two decades.
During the same time, publicly, Tracey stayed relatively quiet about being the one to find Ahpun. Personally, he and his family went to visit her every year at the start. The zoo gave them a backstage pass to see the bear in her enclosure. He thinks she recognized his scent.
Over time, though, he and Ahpun grew apart, as he described it. He wasn't able to visit as frequently; she stopped recognizing him, he thought. He last saw her about a year ago.
This New Year's Eve, his wife was on Facebook when she saw a post announcing Ahpun's death. The bear, who was about 20 years old, had been found dead in her enclosure. Just days before, she'd seemed happy, healthy and normal. The zoo has still not determined her exact cause of death.
"I was sad to hear that," Tracey said, though he maintained she always looked to be well-taken care of and content in captivity,
Many people had happy memories of Ahpun, but others commented about things that didn't sit well with Tracey. The story of his finding the cub got muddled with time and some accounts made him seem more culpable for the initial encounter, he thought.
"To me it kind of implied that I was looking for a polar bear. You don't go up to a bear den because if you do, you're looking for trouble," he said.
He wanted to stress it was chance that brought them together, fueled by bad weather, low visibility, an injury and what he thought was a fox.
"It's a sad story to think about. A polar bear with a cub was shot and killed. It's a pretty sad story. I wanted to make sure that people know that I wasn't out there hunting bear or looking for trouble. It was an accident," he said. "But Ahpun's story, seeing how she inspired people, especially kids, it in a way, is a positive story in the end."
He read countless tales of how Ahpun changed people's lives — how they visited her, experienced her friendly nature, learned about her species and how she motivated their own kids to explore.
"Through personal contact, a lot of people learned about polar bears and how they are. They got to see it firsthand. Not everyone gets to see a polar bear. I didn't know that she had inspired a lot of kids to learn more about polar bears the way they did through their experience at the zoo with her."
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.