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!
7am flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, landed in Churchill to -41C. I have all day to acclimatize before the Via Rail train leaves tonight for Chesnaye. The town of Churchill is located just under the 59th parallel and sits just a few miles from the Nunavut border. The buildings here all look the same, covered in sheet metal, and little character can be afforded. We visit Home Depot for supplies and I spend several hours in the equipment rental store, trying on extreme weather clothing. I settle on Baffin boots (good for -100C) and goose down pants and parka. My friend knows where there are some Arctic Hares so we take a walk to try out gear. I am warm except for my hands and face, and realize that even though we are out for a short time, I should have been fully prepared with my battery heated gloves and face protection.
We find an Arctic hare near the edge of town. So beautiful, white against white, with her little black eyes and ear tips in contrast to the snow. After only 20 minutes my fingers and lens are frozen and I can no longer see out of my glasses. The hood of my parka is fringed with frost and my lips are already beginning to blister from the cold. How I am going to stand outside in this all day when we find bears?
By the end of day the train arrives to take us on our two hour journey to Chesnaye, which is really nothing other than a designated drop/pick up spot for the back country lodge. The chaos of the last 48 hours and the extreme heat inside the train put me instantly to sleep. I wake up at 9:30pm when the conductor comes through and announces 10 minutes to drop off point. I have not had time to organize the kind of bags I would like for my gear and have been struggling with two big backpacks. As I step off the train in the black of night, my size 9 boots (2 sizes larger than normal) punch into a snow drift and I am stuck, weighted down by my bags, as the other guests rush to meet the waiting track vans. I am last to get there puffing and struggling under the weight of my 800mm lens and 40 lbs of other assorted camera gear. I have a sick feeling that no one will know to wait for me and I will be abandoned, left on the tundra in the dark and blizzard conditions with nothing but my precious gear.
I climb into the van behind my gear and fight back tears of relief. Sitting in the back seat I resist car sickness as the tracked vehicle bounces along the primitive and temporary snow track, up and over snow drifts, up and over snow drifts, with nothing to break the night landscape except for a few, one-sided, spindly black spruce trees. For half an hour I try to focus my eyes on the imaginary horizon, searching in the dark for the lights of the lodge. Finally they appear and the rustic structure which houses us comes into full view. The yard is littered with machinery, water tanks and caribou antlers.
Inside I can see the warm glow of lights and guests milling about in the great room. Hockey Night in Canada is on TV and the Ottawa Senators are taking a beating by the Calgary Flames. How Canadian is that, eh? But the cliental is hardly Canadian at all. It is a small but international group of photographers from the USA, Japan, China, Germany and Switzerland. No one notices my arrival and I enter and knock the snow off my Baffins. I am shown my room, where I will stay with three other women, dorm style bunk beds – my accommodation for the next week.
The lodge is run by three Cree Nation brothers. One is manager and he tells us that his brother (a tracker) has found a female bear with two cubs in the area and that we will look for her tomorrow. After an hour of sorting and repacking I retire to a restless sleep, and dream of gear failures and frostbite.
I awake at 4am and try not to disturb my room mates. There is no running water here, so a trip to the bathroom means pit toilets and putting some cold water in a bowl to freshen up and brush teeth. I go back to bed and doze until finally at 6:30am the others stir and the day begins.
Breakfast is rustic but delicious and talk of the possibilities of the day circulate the room. Then our guide delivers the news. It is -54C and we are delayed one hour. I will soon find out that “Hurry up and wait” are the normal routine. I am now wearing 5 layers, am overheating and can barely move.
Feet: light socks, wool socks, hot shots, larger wool socks, Baffin boots (4 layers inside)
Bottoms: long johns, fleece pants, hiking pants, goosedown pants
Top: t-shirt, long johns, polar fleece, down sweater, goose down parka
Hands: battery heated gloves, fleece mitts, seal skin snowmobile mitts, handwarmers
Head: balaclava, necktube, toque, fuzzy hat with ear flaps, parka hood.
Camera & lens: down vest strapped on with bungie cord
There are six of us that finally load into a van that runs with tracks instead of tires and is equipped for extreme weather. Because I am new and do not know the ‘system’ I am stuck in the back seat again. The torture of riding for two hours in the back seat, bouncing over drifts and tundra cannot be described. The guides, who drive ahead on snow machines, have found a bear and 2 cubs near a frozen lake. The terrain is rough and even the cat-vehicles struggle to get through. Finally we see the bear and she is nestled down in a bear bed in the willows. The bad news is she is wearing an ear tag and tracking collar, but at least we have a bear. Many guests to the area will stay for 10 days and never see one. This is not the average tundra-buggy scene, but a hunt for female bears with cubs just emerging from the den. It is not a guaranteed find.
We all bale out of the van and are instructed by the guides where we are permitted to stand. We are warned that we must react immediately if the guides say to abandon shooting and get back in van. Though I have been extremely close to black and grizzlies in the past, I know that this is a completely different situation. Black and grizzly bears are 20% carnivorous, while polar bears are 100% carnivorous!
This however, is the least of my worries. I scramble to get my gear set up fighting against a 60km gusting wind that threatens to blow away various pieces of clothing and equipment. I finally get my lens hood on the lens, tighten the down jacket around it with a bungie cord and get my tripod the right length and balanced in the snow. By now everyone else has been shooting for 5 minutes and I am still fumbling around trying to get the new snow out of my lens hood. Nothing like this is possible with mitts on so I am down to a single layer of thin gloves that I can feel my gear with, but pretty soon I cannot feel my fingers so it is not much good anyway. Finally I get myself sorted out but the bears have stopped playing and are now quiet.
I am surprised, actually, at how close we are. Well not that close, but it seems like it through 800mm. The sleeping bears fill my frame easily and I take a couple of test shots and all is well. We wait with great anticipation for the bears to awake. They have been out of the den for a while, but still need frequent naps. And we wait, and we wait. We entertain ourselves by taking photos of one another with our second cameras. Our goose down gear protects us well, but we are hardly recognizable as only our eyes are visible peeking through the layers.
Finally the cubs begin to stir and with great excitement I return to my tripod, camera and 800mm lens. I press the shutter and it fails to work. Instead of a click, a squeaky whining noise emits from my Nikon D4. I check the battery and it reads as full. A few more attempts and the shutter begins to work, but no images are recorded. Digging through 5 layers of clothes, I locate my back up battery in a warm inner pocket in layer number 2. Every little movement is a struggle and also requires the removal of two layers of gloves in order to grasp anything larger than a tripod. The backup battery gives the needed boost and the camera begins to record images, but no other functions are available. I cannot change my exposure compensation, switch to video, or review images. I have to trust that the electronics will do their job.
The cubs are lively for only a few more minutes and now my opportunity for cute cub shots is again past. And so I wait some more. Another hour goes by and now the wind is even stronger and I am forced to stand sideways to the wind in order to tolerate it. Since we are facing the wind I cannot remove my lens hood to reduce shake or my lens will be covered in snow. When the bears finally stir again, I am shaking with cold. The shutter is so stiff that I can only work it if I take my hand out of the mitts which is extremely painful and frostbite becomes a real concern. I try to pull my immense parka hood over the camera so that I am not facing directly into the wind, crack open two more packs of hand warmers and I survive for another half an hour. My camera view-finder fogs up each time I put my balaclava-covered face up to it. And eventually the entire back of my LCD screen is covered in ice from my breath.
The sun is now low in the sky and the snow picks up the darker blues and purples of the evening light. The bears are in the shadow of the snow drifts and willows, so getting clear shots is almost impossible, but I have to keep trying. As the day draws to a close she organizes the cubs and wanders off across the tundra, with the cubs playing along behind. I have never been so glad to see the back end of a bear!
Frozen and spent, I pull my batteries and cards out and put my gear into plastic bags to prevent icing and condensation and climb into the van for the bumpy two hour journey back to the lodge. As I undo my goose parka I realize that my D750 is still hanging around my neck. Too late! The cold camera is covered in frost instantly and who knows how much damage is done.
At the lodge wood stoves are burning and dinner is being prepared. This hardly seems relevant to me, as I peel off some layers, grab my laptop and review the few images I was able to get. About half of them have the shutter through the middle, the rest are okay, but not great. It could be worse – at least I have a few images and only a small amount of frostbite on the tip of my nose.
I store my bagged and frozen camera gear under the bed in a cool spot, to be left to thaw until morning. The clothes and boots are pulled apart and hung above and around the wood stove for drying. Tomorrow is another day.
My gear has fully recovered except for my 24-70mm lens which is foggy. I only have a tiny bit of frost bite on the end of my nose. Others are much worse off including my roommate whose big lens is toast. Low temperatures, fog, flurries and low visibility have us lodge-bound on an hour to hour basis. We pass the time writing, working on images, and reading. The hours roll by and after lunch it is announced that the day is too bleak to venture out. I am relieved! I make some new friends in the lodge and find myself exchanging grizzly bear stories with Tinman Lee (winner of the Nature’s Best Photographer of the Year Grand Prize for his grizzly bear shot) and Buck Wilde (Great Bear Stakeout). My stories and accomplishments pale by comparison, but many laughs later, connections are made for future possibilities.
The day begins with high optimism. A balmy -35C with sun and light breeze will make shooting much easier today and we head out with high hopes. We spend 8 hours bumping around on the tundra and find only bear tracks. The van gets high centred in a snow drift and the experienced staff has us dug out and pulled with another vehicle, in no time at all. After a long and unproductive day, we head back to the lodge and about 2 miles from home lose the tread off one of our tracks. The guys do their best to repair it, but in the end another van comes out from the lodge to rescue us. A long, long day and no bear images.
I don’t even want to write about it. I have spent another day sitting in the cramped quarters of the van. My knees ache from inertia and my back is killing me from all the bouncing. It becomes contagious, this mood of not wanting to shoot anything if there are no bears. Forget snowscapes. The females in the group have taken to not drinking anything after leaving the lodge because trying to get through 6 layers, then literally freeze your butt off to squat in the snow, is just not good. Neither is dehydration but it seems the lessor of the evils. We sleep and read the day away. Finally at the end of another bear-less day, we stop and photograph a lone ptarmigan. It is the event of much joking that we have ‘captured’ a polar chicken.
The days begins exactly the same. We have a collection of good luck charms now sitting on the dash – anything to get the universe to bring bears! I have a penguin charm and my friends have polar bear stuffies. I am now beginning to worry that I will be one of those unlucky ones that spends a week out here and has little or nothing to show for it. I begin to doubt if anyone is really trying to find bears. Depression sets in, but then when I see someone that has been here for 15 days with only a minor bear siting, I guess that I should be grateful.
I have now resigned myself to the waiting, and to the low percentage of chance to getting good bear shots on this trip. The bumpy ride out is the same, and I tune out the conversations in favour of reading a book. FYI I am reading “The Nymph & the Lamp” an amazing old novel written by and based on the life of Thomas Raddall, a telegraph operator on Sable Island. I dream of being there. I glance out of the window every few minutes, but the landscape offers little interest. The sky is blue however, which somehow lightens the mood. I notice a single cloud in the northern sky. It is undoubtedly the shape of a running dog. I take it as a visit from my white dog. He is free on the other side of the rainbow bridge and has shown me a sign. I hear him saying “it took me a while to find you!”
Lunch time comes and goes in the usual way. At 2pm Morris the scout checks in. “How you doing out there?” he says on the two-way radio. It is the same daily greeting as always but our driver reads much more into the message. “They have found something!”
“How do you know Frankie?”
“I can tell by the tone of his voice”. He knows his brother well.
Days of monotony are now followed by a hyper sense of excitement. The mad panic ensues to put back on layers of gear, add new hand and feet warmers to gloves and socks. Check settings on camera. There is a mother and cubs quite close and the scouts instruct us to follow behind their ski-doos. They lead us to mother and cubs that are resting in the lee of a handful of stunted black spruce trees.
We bail out of the van in a rush to set up in a good location. Luckily the bears lay in a clear area, unobstructed by trees or bushes and shooting is relatively unblemished by distractions. Tripod set, camera and lens mounted, lens protector off, lens hood flipped, adjust ISO, take a test shot. And wait. The bears are sleeping and nothing happens for an hour or more. It is the usual hurry up and wait.
Finally the cubs begin to stir. They are so small and fragile looking. I don’t know why, but my sense is that they are brother and sister, as one seems a bit smaller and more feminine. They are shy and stick very close to mother, and she keeps them well protected by wrapping her huge front legs around them as they nurse and occasionally poke their noses out to sniff the air. It seems this may be their first day out of the den. The world is new and a little scary.
I am overwhelmed with a feeling of awe and gratitude towards these bears. The possibility that they may become extinct in the wild within my lifetime is a somber thought. I begin to tear up at the thought and my eyes start to freeze shut. No more crying.
As the afternoon light begins to fade momma becomes restless, sniffing the air for danger. She gathers the cubs and strolls off towards the forest for the night. Since this bear has been out and will likely stay around for a few days, I make the decision to extend my stay until the next train out on Tuesday. This is a big decision because it will add another $2700 to the trip. In for a penny – in for a pound!
To top off the day the northern lights were spectacular and we kept shooting well into the night.
We greet the morning with high hopes of seeing the same bears again. The weather has changed and snow flurries with high winds are in store. The day passes slowly on the tundra. The scouts can tell by the tracks that mum and cubs are still in the forest. Flurries and flat light last all day, and we wait for 7 hours before giving up.
A morning of beautiful light adds to the optimism of another attempt to find bears. Winds are high and airborne ice crystals act to defuse the bright sunlight like a soft filter. If only the bears will come! We wait all day near a den opening in a snow drift, hoping for an appearance, but none is made.
We abandon the den-watching by late afternoon in favour of some sunset and ice photos on the frozen lake. The ice and snow are incredible pastel colours of purple, pinks and gold with the setting sun. But, alas, my landscape lens is still fogged up and my shots are of little value.
We no sooner arrive back at the lodge for dinner when we find the northern lights are coming on strong. I wolf down a potentially delicious roast turkey dinner in about 5 minutes and rush outside for the spectacle. The sky is breathlessly dancing with light and I stand in awe with my wide angle shooting on an interval timer every 10 seconds. I continue shooting until after midnight, and while there is more to see, I know that I must retire and save some energy for the next day.
It is my last chance to see bears today. The light is nice, sunny with some high cloud and not too much wind, but still -37C. The scouts report that a bear with two cubs has been spotted and they are just waiting for her to settle in a spot before taking us to her. An hour later they come for us and show us the way. She is sleeping in a fairly open area near a small stand of black spruce. The excitement is palpable and we all line up and stake our claim on a spot to shoot from.
Because of the location, the placement of the horizon for a pleasing composition means shooting from a very low angle. I lower my tripod to be able to set my camera and lens about 2 feet off the ground and prepare to spend the rest of my day on my knees in the snow. And as is always the case, the sleeping bear and cubs stay still for about 40 minutes. The cubs start to fidget and bother mother to nurse and finally she sits up and invites the cubs to suckle. It seems they are never full, so she pushes them away and paws herself another resting spot. The cubs are ready to roll now that they have had their feed. It is the same pair that we saw last week, but now they have been out in the world and are playful and great fun to watch. The female polar bear is both nursery and gymnasium. The cubs climb all over her, bite and pull her fur, attack each other and then run into the trees to tussle. She keeps one eye on us and the other on her cubs, but she seems to know we are not a threat.
This is the best opportunity one could hope for in terms of location and behaviour. The cubs are really active now and perform for several hours. At last, they settle in for a nap, which allows me to change batteries, cards, grab a hot chocolate, replace hand and foot warmers, and peel off six layers of clothes for the dreaded Arctic bathroom break. Ladies, you can only image what that is like in this weather with only your parka for privacy. Replacing all the layers with frozen fingers is yet another challenge.
The cubs rebound in less than an hour and are back nursing and playing again. Mother is more cautious now as another female with single cub can be seen by our scouts with binoculars. Her sense of smell is so acute she can tell from miles the approach of another bear. She sniffs the wind constantly checking and re-checking the location of the other bear. The cubs give us another amazing show and I continue to tough out the bitter cold on my knees.
By now my feet have fallen asleep and my body is shaking from the cold. Fingers are numb despite best efforts to keep shutter hand covered and my face protection is wet and frosted to my face. The lashes on my non-viewfinder eye have frozen together. Like clockwork, by 5:30pm she takes the cubs back to the forest. Fumbling to properly break down the gear and put into sealed bags is a daunting challenge that is somewhat tolerable because of the thrill of wonderful images ready to be downloaded.
We ride home to a beautiful purple sunset which transitions into northern lights, but we are too worn out to capture them and just enjoy the lightshow from the warmth of the indoors.
Morning comes with pink and purple hues. We travel once more across the desolate landscape to our pick up point and the train rolls in for the long ride back to Churchill. Until next time, goodbye bears!
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.