Dennis Fast is hosting our first ever Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. This one week departure takes place August 26-September 1, 2012 on the coast of Hudson Bay in the Cape Tatnum Wildlife Management area.
Dennis’ work can be seen all over our website and promotional materials. He has been working with Churchill Wild since the beginning and is our resident photo expert (as well as an incredible guide).
Below he answers some questions many photographers have asked in recent weeks.
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Everyone who comes to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge wants to know what lenses to bring, and that is an important question.
Most pros would bring at least one lens that can reach out to 500mm or even 600mm. We all know, however, that those lenses are both costly and heavy. So a compromise may be in order for both reasons.
On my trip to Nanuk, I used my 500mm least of all. It’s true that the coast is vast, and bears often are spotted at a distance. The temptation is to get as big a lens as possible on the camera and start shooting. In the end, a little patience delivers a curious bear right into easy range for a 100-400mm zoom or something in that range.
I have taken a lot of photos of bears using just my 70-200mm with a variety of multipliers, including 1.4x. 1.7x, and 2.0x. When mothers and cubs show up at the lodge, and they frequently do, they will be at close range and you will quickly be abandoning your long lenses. Remember also that the multiplier effect of most digital cameras, unless they are “full frame” increases the power of all your lenses by a factor of 1.3x to 1.6x depending on the camera you are using. I have a very compact 28-300mm lens which I plan to use a lot in the North this year. It’s light weight and size makes it easy to hand-hold and keep at the ready at all times. With a C-size sensor it quickly becomes about a 40-450mm lens – great for almost anything.
Nanuk, however, is not just about the bears. The scenery is spectacular along the coast with sandy beaches and shallow inshore lagoons great for birds and reflections – there goes my 28-300mm again!
The sun spot activity is also increasing at a steady rate as we approach the zenith of its 11-13 year cycle. That means the northern lights could be awesome this year all over the arctic. For that you will definitely want a reasonably fast wide-angle lens. I use my 14-24mm lens a lot for the aurora, but my 24mm-70mm seems to be a great lens for that too. Any wide-angle will allow you to get some of the landscape included in the shots of the sweeping aurora to add a sense of scale. Without that you don’t get the feel of how vast the aurora-filled sky really is!
In short, bring what you can comfortably carry without jeopardizing your weight restrictions. And don’t over-do it: a few zooms should cover almost everything for you. Unless you are a pro, you can probably leave your biggest lens at home.
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For more information you can call our office at 204-377-5090 or toll free at 1-866-UGO-WILD (846-9453)
You can also email Doreen at email@example.com
Dennis Fast is the chief in-house photographer at Churchill Wild and one of Manitoba’s best known photographers. His photos have appeared in many calendars and books, including the award-winning bestseller Pelicans to Polar Bears, a Manitoba wildlife viewing guide.
He has had major contributions to many books since then, with Wapusk: White Bear of the North, being the first book to feature his work exclusively. The book showcases stunning images of polar bears and their Hudson Bay environs, but also addresses the threats to the bears’ traditional migration patterns and their existence in the Churchill area.
“Polar Bears are among the most magnificent predators on earth and have fascinated me since childhood,” said Fast, on the Heartland Associates Web site. “I never dreamed that someday I would actually walk in the land of Wapusk (Cree for white bear). I still remember in vivid detail my first sighting of a wild polar bear and the feeling of awe it inspired with its beauty and latent power. Since then, I have had many polar bear encounters from mothers and young cubs coming out of their dens, to adult males wrestling for supremacy.”
“I have even been privileged to be in the presence of a dying mother, and to witness the struggle of her young cubs forced to learn survival skills without her. Wapusk is the story of the polar bear and the land it calls home, and the story of my passion for the North.”
Dennis’s expertise and experience photographing in extreme northern conditions have put him among the select photographers in the world with the talents for capturing the light and magical qualities of the north.
His photography has been featured in Outdoor Photography Canada and in the Michigan publication “Whisper in the Woods”. The CBC followed him on a sunset photo shoot in 2007 as part of their search for the Seven Wonders of Canada.
Dennis has been the prime photographer for seven books including The Land Where the Sky Begins which was commissioned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada featuring Manitoba’s endangered tall grass prairie.
As of 2012, many of Dennis’s polar bear images are featured in the new polar bear rehabilitation center at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo. His new children’s book Princess: A Special Polar Bear is slated to be released in March, to be followed by a coffee table book on Northern wildlife in early 2013.
Dennis is a frequent presenter at photo conferences and other events across Canada. His photographs and his stories are legendary!
There has been much discussion recently about polar bears starving and dying as a result of global warming and climate change. The Telegraph (UK) ran a story entitled Cancun climate change summit: climate change killing polar bears that linked to a (warning: difficult-to-watch) video taken by Daniel J. Cox of Natural Exposures, which showed a polar bear cub dying. Cox’s original blog post: Mother polar bear loses her two one year old cubs most likely to starvation, drew a number of negative comments, including questions from blogger Tom Nelson, which Cox responded to on the Natural Exposures site here. Cox also continued to respond to comments with a blog post entitled: Outpouring of concerns over the starving polar bear family. Senior Polar Bears International scientist Steven C. Amstrup also provided some detailed insights into the feeding of wildlife and the plight of the polar bears with regards to global warming.
We would be very interested in what our readers think about the articles and blog posts above, and the story below, which took place at Dymond Lake on the Great Ice Bear Tour, and which originally appeared in the book Wapusk: White Bear of the North (Heartland Publications – January 2003). The article is reprinted here with permission of authors Rebecca L. Grambo and Dennis Fast. Dennis is Churchill Wild‘s chief photographer and guide and the story below is his poignant recollection of the final days of a mother polar bear and her cubs.
PRELUDE TO A REQUIEM
Mid-October brings snow, bears and visitors to the edge of Hudson Bay. The visitors are there to watch for bears and the bears are there to wait for the ice and snow. For those of us with cameras, a fresh snowfall creates refracted diamonds that glitter on the tundra and decorate the willows; for the bears, who have fasted since June, it’s a harbinger of much-needed months of feasting.
Though they are regular visitors at this time of year, the bears do not appear on command. Lodges in the area must provide alternative entertainments for guests, some of whom have traveled halfway around the globe. One such diversion is a hike into the nearby transitional forest for a bannock roast over an open fire. As we’re about to leave for the hike, someone spots a polar bear across the lake behind some willows. Binoculars appear and soon it’s clear there are two bears, barely visible, moving behind the ridged edge of the lake. Another ten minutes and a mother and cub move into full view and she heads down the esker toward the lodge. Suddenly, a second cub appears.
Moments later the bears have gathered beneath the picture window of the lodge as shutters click and video cameras whirr. The excitement is quickly tempered, as we realize that the mother is emaciated and in very poor shape. We wonder whether her rather large satellite collar has kept her from eating properly last winter. It certainly seems that it might have impeded her attempts to catch seals at breathing holes. Whatever the reason, she looks gaunt. But the cubs seem to be fine, she has looked after them well. After a few minutes, she turns and leads them back across the lake, where she settles down in the willows to rest.
The next morning, they are still there and in the early morning light, we photograph them framed by fresh hoarfrost. Only the arrival of a helicopter bearing new guests sends them hurrying out of sight.
They return in the afternoon, but this time their visit is complicated by the appearance of a rather aggressive male, perhaps five years old. Late at night, the family again makes its rounds, then retires just thirty meters from the window.
At noon, while we are waiting for lunch, the cubs suddenly saunter through camp. I can see the mother slowly shuffling through some willows, as the cubs encircle the entire lodge, wandering well out onto the lake. Suddenly, they realize they are farther from their mother than ever before and panic sets in. They run in opposite directions, rearing up on their hind legs and peering about. Even when they spot her, they seem not to recognize her. The larger cub circles downwind and, catching her scent, dashes to join her. But the smaller cub is in a panic. He bounds through camp, paying no attention to me as he races by. All the while he is barking and mewing like a lost puppy, running in huge circles as he smells the air and the ground for clues to her whereabouts. When he finally spots her, he seems not to be able to believe his eyes. He circles once more and, finally picking up her strong scent, rushes to join his family. Peace slowly returns, but now I can easily imagine the even more traumatic experience that awaits the cubs.
The following day, one of our party spots the trio as he walks through the willows. Mother does not move, even though he is just meters away before he sees her. Another day passes, with no sign of her. Now, we cautiously approach. She lies, her head stretched out, the snow beginning to accumulate on her neck and back. The cubs are still leaning on her for support, but there is no warmth there, no leadership to determine their next move. They cling to her, grief and anxiety apparent on their faces.
I photograph the family for the last time and contemplate what the future holds for the cubs. Without their mother, their chances for survival are considerably reduced. At worst, they face a slow lingering death by starvation, or a quick losing battle with a large male, who will target them to ease his own hunger. Their chances of finding enough food to sustain both of them, and avoiding the perils of life on the bay are slim. Statistics say that at least one of them will not make it through the winter. Mother Nature is cruel, only to be kind.
It is rare to witness the death of a polar bear. Only two, that I know of, have been found. The rest disappear, perhaps dying out on the ice to be swallowed by the sea, perhaps quickly salvaged by other creatures in need. We finish the morning with a walk to the coast and then I sit down to try to put the morning’s experience in perspective.
Animals die every day. Right now, some polar bear mother is struggling to meet the needs of as many as three cubs. But it’s easy to rationalize, easy to intellectualize, not so easy to put this moment out of mind. The death of a magnificent animal is always deeply moving, perhaps because it is such a powerful reminder of our own mortality. May I die so eloquently.
The following day, a Natural Resources helicopter arrives to deal with the dead mother bear. As the confused and terrified cubs run across the lake, the helicopter lifts her body and heads north, carrying it up the coast. The rest of the day, the cubs repeatedly come through camp and wander the lake and surrounding tundra. This brings a series of standoffs with another bear that is also in the area.
At dinner, one of the cubs suddenly appears at the dining room window, peering longingly at the bountiful food on the table. We all feel both compassion and guilt, but we must drive it away, for we can not encourage its presence near the lodge. Already the cubs seem bolder and more aggressive without their mother to caution them, and the smaller one takes a series of runs at one of the staff members as he pumps water from the lake. Though the cubs are not yet two, they are as large as an average-sized black bear, and could certainly be dangerous.
The cubs remained around the lodge until November, dodging large males and trying to interact with other mothers and cubs as they moved through the area. Natural Resources officers attempted to relocate the cubs out on the newly-formed ice on Hudson Bay, but they quickly found their way back to the lodge.
They were still there when the lodge closed for the season. Whether they survive or not depends on the lessons they learned from their mother. If she had begun to teach them to hunt during their first winter on the ice, they have at least a fighting chance of survival. If not, they are surely doomed. Their mother, it was determined from information gathered from her radio collar, was twenty-four, a ripe old age for a wild bear. She did her duty to the very end.
– Dennis Fast
Churchill Wild Polar Bear Photo Safari host Dennis Fast participates in international photo competition
Professional photographer Dennis Fast is building an international reputation for himself and Churchill Wild is proud to count him among those who are responsible for our success. Dennis was recently selected to be one of 20 photographers in a contest organized by the The Images for Conservation Fund (ICF), which offers prize money of $180,000 and world-wide recognition to the participants.
After almost a decade of being our unofficial resident photographer Dennis now hosts many of our Polar Bear Photo Safari tours which run in October and November. If you take a look around the Churchill Wild Web site many of the beautiful wildlife and landscape photographs are his work.
The Arctic Photo Safari that Dennis hosts provides professional and amateur photographers the opportunity to experience ground-level photography with breathtaking landscapes and wildlife including polar bears - and don’t forget the incredible displays of the Aurora Borealis.
Check out Dennis’ work on the Churchill Wild Web site, on our Churchill Wild Facebook Page and on his own personal photography Web site for some spectacular polar bear photos and examples of what you could add to the brag bin of your personal photograph collection.
If you think you might be interested in visiting our Polar Bear Eco Lodges for one of these photo tours please e-mail us and we’ll send you all the information you need. We only run six Polar Bear Photo Safari Tours a year so space is limited.
by Elaine Peters
(This article orginally appeared in, and is reprinted courtesy of, The Carillon Newspaper – May 13, 2010)
It is possible that photographer Dennis Fast could receive recognition for his photography on a world scale. He was accepted into a month-long photo competition in Texas, competing against 19 other professional photographers representing eight countries: USA, Canada, Mexico, France, Holland, Italy, and Argentina. The only other Canadian was from Quebec.
The first step was to be accepted as one of the contestants. The deadline was February, and that had come and gone. But when a couple of contestants dropped out, Dennis was phoned. He felt a little like he came in through the back door. Technically, in order to be considered professional, contestants were supposed to receive 80 percent of their income from photography. That was not the case with Dennis, yet when he told them that he had a couple of books out and had done some other work, that was good enough. He was in.
On March 12, 2010 Dennis and Frieda Fast set out on their great adventure. One week before the competition started, there was a big event where all the contestants were gathered together. Photographers were paired with landowners by a draw from a camera bag. Once on the 90,000 acre ranch, Dennis had from April 1-30 to shoot with Frieda as his official assistant. The pressure was on. The weather was cool, 24-25 degrees Celsius instead of the usual 35-37 degrees.
When intermittent rains destroyed the roads on the ranch for ten days, the pressure increased. One 4X4 left foot-deep ruts. Eventually Dennis and Frieda were given the use of an ATV so that they could resume their photography. The silver lining to this cloud was that the rain brought out creatures that would not otherwise be seen, for example, toads only come out after rain.
The Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) was running this competition for the third time. The first competition was in 2006 and there were 100 contestants. By now it had been narrowed to 20.
The competition takes place every second year in the Rio Grande area near Laredo, Texas, near the Mexican border. The goal is that ranchers would become open to other uses of their land besides hunting, with the photos from the competition being used to promote photography tourism. One hundred and eighty thousand dollars in prize money is on the table. The top prize is $80,000 to be split 50/50 with the ranch owner whose land the photographs were taken on. This year’s winning photos will be published in a book.
The winners will be announced July 10, 2010. Before then Dennis has to sift through 175,000 photographs and choose the best ones to submit. He can only submit 40: ten of birds, ten of mammals, ten of insects and ten of reptiles.
Polar Bears and Climate Change – CNN Video interviews polar bear veterans at Seal River Heritage Lodge
Is climate change reducing the world’s polar bear population? There’s no question the polar bear’s favored environment – the arctic sea ice – is melting, yet the polar bear population on Canada’s Hudson Bay seems to be thriving right now. Why?
CNN producer Jessica Ellis took a film crew to Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge to get the answers from some veteran polar bear men including Churchill Wild co-owner Mike Reimer, wildlife guide Andy MacPherson and professional photographer Dennis Fast.
We think you’ll find their answers both interesting and informative. Click the image above to watch the recent CNN Video Feature about Polar Bears and Climate Change.