Photographing polar bears at ground level can be a rare and magical experience at remote Eco Lodges on the Hudson Bay coast. Not your normal Churchill fare.
Professional photographer Dennis Fast has been leading polar bear photo safari tours at Churchill Wild’s remote eco lodges on the Hudson Bay coast for years, yet every season he can’t wait to get back.
“I’m addicted,” smiled Fast.
What used to be a day trip to the wild Seal River to photograph polar bears has now developed into all-inclusive week-long stays at Churchill Wild’s polar bear eco lodges to photograph not only polar bears, but also arctic foxes and wolves, snowy owls, caribou, arctic landscapes and the northern lights.
Professional photographers, amateur photo buffs and world travelers from all over the planet come for the rare photo opportunities that can only be found at ground level in the natural environment of the polar bears.
“I love it,” said Fast. “The beauty of it is the polar bears have to walk by the point of land that juts out into Hudson Bay where the Lodge is, nine kilometers north of the Seal River. Polar bears are naturally curious. They smell the cooking at the Lodge and they’re also interested in the activity.”
It’s not unusual to have polar bears meander right up to the front door of Seal River Heritage Lodge on a daily basis, and often the bears will spend days lying around the Lodge enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of humans. It’s a unique environment where humans can meet polar bears in their natural home amidst spectacular scenery.
“When the tide is going in and out it creates surreal lunar-type landscapes,” said Fast. “During the summer you have these huge ancient boulders of black and gray and their shadows combined with bright orange sunrises and sunsets. In the winter when the tide envelops the rocks, they get covered in ice and you have this huge hummocky ice field, which is also enhanced dramatically by the sunrises over Hudson Bay. ”
In October and November there is a stunning mix of colors formed by a rare combination of the sun, warm air off the land, cold air off the bay, two major river systems and huge boulders rising from a glowing ice fog. That being said, the advantage of the remote polar bear eco lodge location is that the fog bank is further out, which allows much more opportunity to see polar bears. While Churchill can sometimes be totally socked in by fog, the atmosphere at the Lodge is clear.
The unique combination of weather at the Lodge often results in phenomenal northern lights viewing. The location at Seal River doesn’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to the northern lights.
“It’s among the premier aurora borealis viewing areas in the world,” said Fast.
But one of the major reasons Seal River Heritage Lodge attracts both professional and amateur photographers, as well as travel companies that offer photo tours, is for the ground-level photo opportunities.
“When you’re on the ground and a polar bear gets close to you the shot is that much more intimate,” said Fast. “You can’t get these types of shots from above, from a vehicle. You have to be there, on the ground. You can get them either by hiking over the tundra or through the specialized fence around the compound at the Lodge.”
Using a super wide angle lenses you can not only get unobstructed shots of the bears up close but also of the landscape in the background. The wide buffalo fence keeps the bears out while still allowing for exceptional photos. Smaller zooms can go right through for really intimate shots.
“Last year we got some great photos of a polar bear 35 feet away chewing on caribou antlers,” said Fast. “We wouldn’t get that close to a new bear, but with an old bear, a “resident” bear that has been around the Lodge for awhile, a unique relationship often develops between the bear and the photographers. They respect each other’s space. The bear knows he’s going to get yelled at or chased away if he comes too close and the photographers have no desire or need to intrude into the bear’s comfort zone. The bears are generally very quiet, they don’t threaten you.”
And it’s not just the polar bears. Two years ago there were over 3000 caribou in the area. The actual number of caribou around the Lodge at any given time depends on the weather patterns. Arctic foxes have been known to come right into the compound and just about take food out of your hands. There are also the arctic hares and in 2009 photographers were lucky enough to catch a White Gyrfalcon.
“Through guiding photo tours and staying at the Lodge I’ve met some fascinating people,” said Fast. “Professional photographers and photojournalists from some of the world’s top publications like National Geographic and the L.A. Times, and I’ve also met some of the world’s wealthiest people. Trading stories in this kind of company is more than enjoyable. I’ve met people from Japan, Mexico, China, Russia, Germany and the USA at the Lodge. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.”
The facilities at the Lodge are excellent and the food is superb, prepared from the family’s award-winning cookbook series Blueberries and Polar Bears. And importantly notes Fast, the trips are all-inclusive.
“Expenses can add up on a trip to Churchill when you take into account airfare, hotels, hot meals, day tours etc.” said Fast. “So the cost of staying at the Lodge is actually quite reasonable when you consider it’s an all-inclusive adventure vacation and you’re actually staying in the wild – experiencing the polar bear’s natural environment. Yet you still have all the comforts of home along with gourmet meals and great company.”
“This is going to get hot,” continued Fast. “Everybody’s starting to get wind of it and major adventure tour companies are starting to organize more and more arctic photo safari tours to the Lodge. They’re beginning to realize that this is a fabulous venue for polar bear photography and it’s only going to get better. I have tons of polar bear shots and I can’t get wait to get back there.”
Polar bears, the feeling of the arctic wilderness, the northern lights, arctic wildlife, great food, superb company and photo opportunities with soft light and a blend of colors you just can’t find anywhere else in the world.
“Catch a white polar bear in purple fireweed at sunset and add in the fog,” grinned Fast.
“And you’ve got something magical.”