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 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.
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.
“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.