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2018 In Review

My 2018 adventures from Antarctica to the Mongolia, the UK and Sable Island National Park.

Polar Bears 2016

Polar Bears 2016

Polar Bears are the largest land predator in the world. According to researchers their population will likely decline to half by 2020.  This is why they are the poster children for climate change.  There are 19 polar bear populations globally and 8 of them are in decline. Only one shows an increase, and the others lack information. It is for this any many other reasons that when a last minute opportunity arises to go to Wapusk National Park, Manitoba for polar bear cubs, I seize the moment.

The invitation is due to a very rare and last minute cancellation of another photographer.  In order to make the trip worthwhile photographically, I have 48 hours to secure the right gear, namely an 800mm lens.  A call to Nikon Pro Services in Toronto yields just what I need and the courier delivers a loaner to me the next morning. It comes in a metal strong box with locks.  Rightly so, the item is valued at $20,000.  I have never used a lens this big and the 10 lbs of glass is cumbersome, but at the same time, entirely necessary.  I book my last minute Westjet flight to Winnipeg and now I am loaded for bear!

Post Script

high five
Six months later I have been awarded a very coveted “Highly Honoured” prize from Nature’s Best Photography for my image Peer Amid (below).  We are off to Washington DC for the presentations and to see our polar bear images hanging in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 

 

PS2: January 2018

“Warm Embrace” chosen for the Natural History Museum (UK) Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibit! Off to London…

 

Having an image in the Natural History Museum (UK) Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibit is the photographer’s equivalent of being nominated for an Oscar. Formerly known as the BBC WPOY Contest, this exhibit travels the globe each year with 100+ images from the best of the year in wildlife and nature photos. My bear image “Warm Embrace” was selected in the People’s Choice category and is up for voting by YOU! Unlike other People’s Choice voting, you can only vote one time (thank goodness). This is undoubtedly the most coveted recognition I have ever received and it really is true that just being nominated feels like a win.

 

Spirit Bears 2014

Spirit Bears 2014

Bears: One of the most beautiful, mysterious and feared creatures on earth. Highly intelligent and curious, they command respect wherever they roam. The Kermode Bear, otherwise known as the Spirit Bear moves through the dark, dripping landscape of the Great Bear Rainforest with such elusive elegance, it does indeed seem like an apparition.

First Nations legend tells us that Raven (the great creator) bestowed the bear with a white coat, deigning it to be ‘pure’. Some scientists say the white gene is a recessive mutation that goes back to the Ice Age, where white may have been the common colour of camouflage for a bear in glacial habitat.
The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. White fur occurs in only one of every 40 to 100 black bears on the British Columbia mainland coast, but the trait is especially pronounced on certain islands in the Great Bear Rainforest*. The island I am about to visit holds a high percentage of nearly one third white bears possibly because of the lack of grizzlies, the senior and more dominant ursine cousin.

The Spirit Bear walks in a pristine wilderness, the tenuous existence of which is constantly threatened by logging, pipelines, oil spills and poachers. The salmon that form a vital link to their survival are also on the precipice of having their unique life cycle disturbed by humankind. In an effort to preserve this ecological wonderland, certain First Nations and Conservation groups have bought up as many of the ‘hunting leases’ as possible in a large area of Rainforest where they now allow the Spirit Bears to be hunted only by those of us whose intrepid nature and endless patience will allow us to shoot with our cameras not our guns.

Post Script

I was happy that I managed to negotiate the challenging bear trails and slippery river beds without a fall during the whole trip. On the morning of our last day, we spent time in the village photographing the local people and scenery. It was a foggy morning (my favourite) and I walked out along the float plane pier and down to the dock. I carefully edged my way down the ramp and when I hit the bottom both feet slipped out from under me and I found myself flat on my butt, camera still in hand. I looked up from my involuntary sitting position and noticed the sun coming through the fog and a nice composition of fish nets and ropes in the foreground. I spent the next 20 minutes shooting from this position and being thankful for it. Ah, the romantic life of the nature photographer!

The Dock1

Dock2

  • (From Wikipedia) Coastal temperate rainforests are characterized by their proximity to both ocean and mountains. Abundant rainfall results when the atmospheric flow of moist air off the ocean collides with mountain ranges. The size of the Great Bear Rainforest is roughly 32,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi). The Great Bear Rainforest extends from the Discovery Islands in the south to the BC-Alaska boundary in the north. It includes all offshore islands within this range except Vancouver Island and the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. Its northern end reaches up Portland Canal to the vicinity of Stewart. To the south it includes Prince Rupert, most of Douglas Channel, half of Hawkesbury Island, and part of Gardner Canal. Kitimat is outside the region, to the east. Farther south, the region includes all of the coast west and south of the Fiordland Conservancy, Kitlope Heritage Conservancy Protected Area, Tweedsmuir North and Tweedsmuir South Provincial Parks—which includes Dean Channel, Burke Channel, Rivers Inlet, and the communities of Bella Bella, Bella Coola, and Hagensborg. The southern end of the region includes Knight Inlet but not Bute Inlet.
  • Map-GBR

Sable Island Expedition 2012

Sable Island Expedition 2012

Nature photographers often say that in order to really connect with a place you must experience and photograph it three times. As if like an ocean mist a sense of familiarity creeps in, and the scene becomes personal and the animals like family.  This is an account of my third expedition to Sable Island.

At Peggy’s Cove they have a saying:  “The fog comes and goes at will.  You should not begrudge it for this, but only wish that you could be as free.”

Sable Island Expedition 2010

Sable Island Expedition 2010

The Wild Horses of Sable Island 2009

The Wild Horses of Sable Island 2009

I have only been home for two weeks from my camping trip in Alaska and it seems rather decadent to be embarking on my next journey so soon. Unlike the Katmai trip, this excursion was planned almost one year in advance.  After finally succumbing to the fact that horses would continue to thrive in every aspect of my life, I had decided that I would like to photograph horses in the wild.  I had heard of several possible wild horse trips in places like Colorado, the famous Chincotigue/Assasotigue ponies and even the ‘local’ Alberta mustangs, but my research indicated that the horses in these areas were either too wild to get good close-up shots, or they were actually ‘managed’ herds that were not truly wild. Then I discovered the Sable Island Horses.
Sable Island is a small windswept crescent of sand dunes and meadows about 160km off the coast of Nova Scotia. It has been historically called the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ due to its infamy as a place of shipwrecks. Its dangerous sandbars and shoals reaching as far as 14km from shore were the fate of thousands of sailors, their cargo and vessels. From 1801 to 1958 a ‘humane establishment’ was placed there, a small community whose sole purpose was to rescue these unfortunate seafarers. Over time the establishment was lost and what is left today are only remnants of the old settlements and a herd of wild horses whose ancestors farmed the land and assisted in rescue operations. They survive today in small herds whose total number has reached close to 400.
History

History

In the fall of 2008, after making the decision that Sable filled my list of ideal requirements, I set about the task of figuring out how to get there. The first obstacle was to gain permission from Environment Canada and the Sable Island Coast Guard Station to visit the island. Since there are no other accommodations or camping on the island, the only place to stay is in the coast guard station itself, where they have a small area equipped with bunk beds and a common kitchen. It is $150/night and you bring your own food and bedding. Fair enough. I sent an email to Gerry Forbes, station manager and he granted permission for a small group to visit for one week in August 2009. Because of its limitations for landing by sea vessel, the only practical way to get to the island was to fly by charter with Maritime Air Charters. That meant a $10,000 plane ride with a maximum weight of 1400 pounds, including passengers and gear, along with a $500 landing fee to pay the station manager to check the beach for debris (and seals) so that we have a safe landing strip.
Exxon Offshore

Exxon Offshore

The next hurdle was then to try to find three or four people crazy enough to want to spend that much time and money to see some sand dunes and scruffy looking horses.  I thought this could take a great deal of time and advertising, but sometimes all the stars align and things fall into place.  The first four people I asked to go with me accepted with great enthusiasm… My sister Donna was the first to accept (but had to cancel a few months later when she found out her daughter Chelsea was pregnant and due the same week as the trip).  Next to jump on board was Darren Reeves, horse photographer from Langford, BC and husband of show jumping trainer/course designer Meghan Rawlins.  Meg and I go back a very long way, as her mother Alice was my first riding coach and sold me my first pony in Victoria in the late 1960’s.  A phone call to Joan Larson, renowned horse artist from Coombes, BC, revealed that Sable was a dream trip she had always wanted to take.  Ironically Joan and her sister Karen were my riding companions in Victoria when we were all teenagers.  Joan’s long time friend Claudia Notzke, a wild horse expert and anthropologist signed on a few days later.  Within two weeks I had enough interest to make the trip viable. I finalized all the bookings and took deposits from the other three crazy horse people.  The trip is on and we are all meeting in Halifax on August 2nd, scheduled departure to Sable Island, 9am August 3rd.

SABLE ISLAND EXPEDITION

Afterword

For those of you that have not seen the Sable Island docufilm “Chasing Wild Horses”, the BRAVO special by fashion photographer Roberto Dutusco, I highly recommend it. For anyone that has already seen it you should know that the horse in the movie that appears to be very lame (in fact has a broken leg) is still alive and well four years after the film was made. Although Roberto is not a ‘horse person’ per se, he certainly captures the mood of the horses and their environment, and his passion for the animals really comes through.

Reflecting back on my short time with the Sable Horses, I too have fallen under their spell. Their remote and amazing environment should be protected at all costs. I was prepared for the worst on coming to the island. Visions of starved and lame horses in all states of condition crossed my mind. Nothing could have been more opposite. The horses were in excellent health, sound and managing beautifully without human interference. Certainly, there were exceptions and I did see the occasional skeleton, but in context, life and death in the wild can often be much more brutal than on Sable Island. In fact I will remember the Sable horses and their fascinating environment as a place of peace and prosperity. As with such special places on earth, we can only hope that its pristine nature is preserved for generations to come. I hope to return to the Sable horses, perhaps in winter, to continue their extraordinary story. You should join me….

Five Islands, Nova Scotia

Five Islands, Nova Scotia

Katmai Bears 2009

Katmai Bears 2009

Annica and Overtone

There are times when I ask myself “why?” with all the beauty that abounds close to home, that I feel compelled to wander far afield. After all I have my own little piece of paradise, a small acreage in the foothills of the Rockies, just a stone’s throw from Kananaskis country.

The View

With stunning mountain vistas and exciting weather systems constantly birthing from the eastern slopes and in the heart of the historic ranchlands – what more could you ask for? I have spent the winter renovating a 950 square foot farm house circa 1946. With only a few landscaping jobs left to do it represents a sense of accomplishment, but also of scaling down from the hectic pace of running a full time equestrian center. It is peaceful there. My two young horses Overtone and Anicca seem content here, well , now that they have concurred that a wire fence IS indeed a real fence.

With stunning mountain vistas and exciting weather systems constantly birthing from the eastern slopes and in the heart of the historic ranchlands – what more could you ask for? I have spent the winter renovating a 950 square foot farm house circa 1946. With only a few landscaping jobs left to do it represents a sense of accomplishment, but also of scaling down from the hectic pace of running a full time equestrian center. It is peaceful there. My two young horses Overtone and Anicca seem content here, well , now that they have concurred that a wire fence IS indeed a real fence.

I had thoughts of returning to Katmai even before I had left it last year. It certainly was not my intention to return so soon, but after enquiring about trips with photographer/guide Kent Fredriksson, if became clear that this would have to be the year. Kent has been camping in Katmai for 14 summers and this might be his last. He hopes his mission there, a photography book and story of the Katmai Bears, will be completed.

On my last trip Kent was our guide for one evening of photography and it was clear to me that to capture the wildlife at the best times and with the best light, it meant camping in the park. None of the comforts and 5-star meals on the Katmai Coastal Tours ship like last time. My backpack is now loaded with food for 10 days of camping – weight and USA border restrictions determines that it is mostly freeze dried and probably horrible. It is sustenance and nothing more.

Bear on the Beach

I am a little frightened. I think it is better to be a bit on edge than complacent of the hazards of the wilderness. My first concern is the weather. There will be no security of vehicle or roof-top tent to keep me from the elements. I am not sure if I have the right gear, enough rain-proof clothing, a warm enough sleeping bag. And then there are the bears. Yes, they are the main reason for the trip, but they generate in me an awesome sense of fear coupled with an intense curiosity. I have fallen into the abyss of bear-addict like many before me. I am heading back to get my fix.

Post Script

Plans are already in the works for a late summer or early fall trip to Hallo Bay in 2010. Anyone that might be interested in this amazing experience to see the coastal brown bears and Katmai National Park should contact me.