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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This cool polar bear photo was taken by Julie Thompson at Seal River Heritage Lodge and it was attracting all kinds of attention on the Churchill Wild Facebook Page. It was suggested that the bear smelled the Cranberry Cake with Butter Sauce, a Lodge favorite from our Blueberries and Polar Bears Cookbooks. Hmm… well… it is delicious! The bear obviously knew that
Here’s what Julie had to say:
I tell people I walked amongst the polar bears just to see the looks on their faces. Some can’t believe it’s possible. They’ve never heard of such a thing.
“How close were you to one of the greatest predators on earth?” is usually a question which follows.
“Pretty close” I say, as they peruse our photo book with awestruck faces.
Standing outside of the lodge, we cautiously watched our resident bear approach. He was an inquisitive one, determined to enter into our “home away from home.”
I think he enjoyed the attention and our company. Always peeking into windows and pacing around the compound looking for a quick entry. He was affectionately known as Snuggleputz. The previous group staying at the lodge named him. While there was much discussion surrounding renaming him, Snuggleputz is the only name which sticks in my mind.
This bear gave us fantastic photo opportunities throughout our stay. With expert wildlife photographer, Dennis Fast, leading our group, we were always learning, whether it be out on a tundra trek or during one of his early evening fireside chats. We met fantastic people from around the globe who shared in our love of photography, we ate great food and were welcomed into the lodge as if we were part of the family.
Perhaps Snuggleputz sensed this warmth, the fun and friendliness of the lodge and he just wanted a glimpse of it for himself. If only someone would hear his knock.
Hey, why not? The popular television franchise is shown in about 35 countries, worldwide, and has been based in Vegas, Miami & NY. We think they should make a Churchill version and we could offer up Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge for production. It has already been used for big budget videoshoots so we’re sure cast & crew would feel right at home and enjoy a big helping of Jeanne’s awesome cooking!
Thanks to a crew of citizen “research assistants” from around the world, tracking individual polar bears around Churchill is literally a snap.
“We can’t handle and mark polar bears in the tourist region because the marks would interfere with their photography,” Jane Waterman said as she transferred photos of four polar bears from one computer screen on her desk to another.
“But, in order to study the behaviour of bears, we need to identify individuals.”
The solution was the University of Manitoba’s Whiskerprint Project, a database of polar bear photos — most of which have been taken by tourists around the rocky shores of Hudson Bay near Churchill, 1,465 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
“The library uses photographs of the polar bear’s facial profile (left or right side) to distinguish among individuals based on whisker-spot patterns and scars,” Waterman said.
You can go have a look at the Polar Bear Photo-Identification Library at http://polarbearlibrary.org/
Best Polar Bear Photo – 1rst Place
The Churchill Wild 2010 Photo Contest has officially come to a close. Guests from all of our adventures submitted their favorite photos and it was great to see all those magical moments again!
We saw polar bears wandering the icy coast line, lazily lounging on rocks and some even sparring. Guests got up close and personal with polar bears and some enjoyed an awesome display of northern lights.
No matter what the photo, each submission was good for one reason or another, which made this an extremely tough job for our judge. We do like to keep him on his toes! Dennis Fast was in charge of judging the contest this year and he has done a great job. It was very tough naming just one first prize winner for each category.
Please watch for all submissions to be posted on the Churchill Wild Web site next week. Without further adieu we announce the winners of this year’s photo contest.
Best Polar Bear Photo – 2nd Place
Best Other Arctic Wildlife Photo – 1st Place
Best Other Arctic Wildlife Photo – 2nd Place
Best Arctic Landscape Photo – 1st Place
Best Arctic Landscape Photo – 2nd Place
Best People Photo – 1st Place
Best People Photo – 2nd Place
We tried to think of some fun taglines for the photos, but if you have some better ideas, please let us know. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who entered! And congratulations to the winners!
by Andy MacPherson with notes from Terry Elliot – Seal River Lodge Polar Bear Guides
with photos by Paul McAteer
I’m sure everyone woke up a sometime during the night to the sounds of the howling wind. I know I did. And we weren’t disappointed in the morning. High winds and blowing snow were busy creating a new landscape for those of us brave enough to explore it.
With the temperature hovering between -5 and -11, taking into account the wind chill, our first excursion was more of an exercise hike in white out conditions. Off we went to Swan Lake to look at the ice and five-foot snow drifts piling up on the lee side of the willow, birch and alder trees on the shore of the lake.
We left fresh signs of our lakeshore visit by creating numerous snow angels in the drifts to confuse and tempt any furry four-legged carnivores that might venture this way later. We saw flocks of ptarmigan and finally spotted two polar bears sparring on Two Bear Point at the end of our brisk jaunt, but decided to take an early lunch and join them later.
After a hearty meal we headed north up the coast towards the point where we’d seen the bears sparring earlier. They were nowhere to be seen as we approached and made our way down the spine of the ridge towards the tip. Finally two white heads popped out of the thick willows, one chewing on the others ear, before disappearing out of sight. The polar bears were still here and still scrapping, but we could barely see them!
We moved the group in order to get a better vantage point, but when the bears noticed us they halted their play fighting and began to take more of an interest in us than in their game. They came closer, moving out into the open and laying down together in a comfy knot on a snow drift, one burying its head in the snow like an ostrich. Again we moved and waited patiently hoping they would find the energy to spar again.
Ten minutes later one of the bears had recuperated enough to start a fight – bite a foot, chew an ear – and they were at it again! Stand up, double shove to the chest, hay maker to the side of the head; take down, head lock, roll-out and jump four feet in the air pin wheeling; rear foot kick to the head – a stylized dance that they really seemed to enjoy – or maybe a cross between Greco Roman wrestling and Brazilian Jujitsu. They didn’t stop until a huge bear that had been bedded down just to the north of us caught wind of the sparring partners and decided he wanted in on the action.
But this bear was too big. He was also sporting a jail-house tattoo from the Churchill detention centre. A big green spot, meaning he’d been a participant in the Polar Bear Alert Program Churchill – a bear with a record. The two buddies gave him a wide berth before moving in as a pair to challenge the big bear, pushing him away and over the ridge where he finally bedded down.
The original two bears checked out his trail, scenting carefully, before splitting up. One followed him over the hill and out of sight while the second walked to the edge and posed for us, front feet perched on a rock, looking first for the big bear and then back at us, silhouetted against a dark grey sky. Beautiful! We left the bears at this point, making our way back to the lodge for wine and appetizers while watching the sun set in a clearing sky.
John Grady, a previous fishing trip guest at Webber’s Lodges’ North Knife Lake Lodge, was on the walk today, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. It was their first polar bear tour at Seal River Lodge. He turned and shook guide Terry Elliot’s hand, thanking him for a rare and special walk with polar bears.
“My whole life could be described as a series of long walks,” said Grady. “Today’s experience was and is one of the most important and memorable walks of my life. I first met this amazing family at North Knife Lake Lodge five years ago. What started out as a single fishing trip with Webber’s Lodges turned into a number of fishing trips, culminating with this exotic trip to the land of the polar bears with my whole family and some dear friends. I never thought I would see this country in the winter, when it is such a playground for these amazing bears.”
“I thought you could only see this on TV,” continued Grady. ”When I asked my family if they wanted to go on this trip, they thought I was kidding. They couldn’t imagine that you could really do this. That’s the point. The staff and owners of Churchill Wild and Webber’s Lodges make all of this an absolute reality. I hope my kids learn to never let life pass you by. Thank you.”
The wind and snow of the past few days was abating, hinting at an evening of shimmering northern lights. Could there be a better ending to a perfect day… and a walk to remember.
Churchill Wild guest Claire Wilson makes semi-finals in Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition
by Claire Wilson
We visited Seal River Heritage Lodge on Churchill Wild’s Great Ice Bear polar bear tour at the end of October 2009. I have always had a huge fascination with polar bears and was extremely excited about visiting the Seal River area in search of polar bears. I tried not to get my expectations too high however, telling myself that we might only get a distant glimpse of a bear.
How wrong I was!
As soon as our plane touched down at Seal River, we could see several bears around us. Within an hour, there were two bears play-fighting a few feet from the front door of the lodge – amazing! I felt like I had died and gone to wildlife heaven!
We were lucky to get a mixture of conditions – the weather was dry and bright when we first arrived, but we then had plenty of snow and at one point the temperature cooled down to -27 degrees.
Our whole three days at the lodge were jam-packed with photo opportunities. Terry and Andy, our friendly and knowledgeable guides, were ready to take us out for hikes at any opportunity, and we saw plenty of bears every time we ventured outside. Everyone learned a great deal about these majestic animals and their environment, and every day we all came back with full memory cards on our cameras. My husband Pete and I took about 3000 photographs between us!
Upon returning home, I was so proud of some of my photographs that I decided to send a few into the Wildlife Photographer of The Year competition, now in its 46th year and organized by The Natural History Museum, London and BBC Wildlife Magazine. This is a huge competition which has tens of thousands of entries from all over the world every year. Last year there were over 43,000 entries, and apparently there were well in excess of this amount for 2010.
I was absolutely stunned when I recently received an e-mail advising me that three of my entries had made it into the semi finals!
One photograph entitled “High and Mighty” (Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our first full day at Seal River when we went for a long group hike. The two bears seemed to want to perform for the cameras!
I shot “On The Rocks” (Semi-Finalist for the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife) the next day, literally feet from the lodge. And the third photograph I submitted, “Clash of the Titans” (also a Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our last morning at Seal River Heritage Lodge just a few minutes before we had too, reluctantly, leave this wonderful location.
We had such a great time with Churchill Wild! I can’t wait to return for our next adventure!
Polar bear photos, arctic wildlife, landscapes and people highlight 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest
There were some spectacular photos taken by Churchill Wild guests during the 2008 season! Many of the guests proved to be fabulous photographers, as evidenced by their submissions to the 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest.
There were four categories in our first annual contest: Best Polar Bears, Best Wildlife, Best Landscape and Best People.
Wendy Kaveny was the winner in the Best Polar Bears category for her excellent photo of two happy polar bears high-fiving each other at sunset. Joy Roberts won in the Best Other Wildlife category for her incredible photo of a Snowy Owl.
Best Landscape honors went to Judi Pennock for her gorgeous sunset over the Hudson Bay rocks at low tide and Best People photo honors went to Gary Potts for his picture of 11 photographers trekking out on to the tundra in the snow to photograph the mighty polar bears and more.
A big thank you to all of our wonderful guests who participated in the 2009 photo contest! We’ll be running another photo contest this year and would love to have more of your awesome photos!
To view all the entries and winners in the 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest please visit our Wild Things Gallery page at the Churchill Wild Web site: http://www.churchillwild.com/2009-photo-contest.cfm
Have you ever had a polar bear join you for lunch? We have – on a regular basis. They also come for breakfast and dinner. At Churchill Wild’s Seal River Lodge both the guests and the polar bears come for the food.
At some point during your stay it is quite common to have a bear join you for a meal. The bears just always seem to know when meal time is at the lodge. They show up and walk by the window in the dining room as the guests are sitting down to eat. They then always seem to wander off to the far side of the lodge, taking the guests out of the dining room with cameras in hand to chase them from window to window.
But what happens when a Great Ice Bear decides to join you for your picnic lunch? We had that happen one week when the guests were out on a 6-wheeler trip at the mouth of the Seal River. Luckily the guests had already eaten, and had left the 6-wheelers for a bit of a hike.
When they returned a couple hours later, they witnessed a young polar bear munching down on their leftover Caribou sandwiches and chicken noodle soup. As you can tell from the photo, the cooler was ripped apart, and later became a tool bin in the garage. The soup container had some new scratches on it, and the latch was broken, but it was quickly replaced the next day.
Our two guides did an excellent job of chasing the bear away, but not before the guests got a few shots in with their cameras. Once the bear was gone, a quick clean up was done, and everyone returned to the lodge, happy that the polar bear hadn’t come along before they ate lunch.
What kind of warranty does Coleman have on their coolers?
In late March and early April we spend two weeks working between Churchill, Dymond Lake Lodge and Seal River Lodge. A typical day during these two weeks generally begins at 5 a.m. and goes until about 10:30 p.m.
What are we doing in below zero temperatures? On the frozen Hudson Bay? With the occasional white out thrown at us just for fun?
We are the Cat Train crew.
Those of you who have spent time with us at Seal River Lodge have probably seen the photos of the D6 Caterpillar hauling freight over the sea ice during the winter for various projects that are planned in advance for the summer. We also spend what seems like endless days cutting and hauling fire wood to both Seal River Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge.
We would like to introduce you to the newest member of our crew. He was a little eager and showed up about eight months early, but seems to be ready to go. This nice white bear decided he would try and take our Cat out for a spin, and a couple of our guests were lucky enough to snap a few shots before he noticed them.
For those of you who have not joined us at the Lodge I have also included a couple shots of the real cat train departing Churchill, Manitoba on its two-day trip, hauling almost 40,000 pounds en route to Seal River Lodge.
Life often deals winning and losing hands at the same time – and it all depends who gets the Aces. This year, it’s the polar bears of the Eastern Arctic and Western Hudson Bay who are winning, with the longest, coldest spring in decades. This follows last year’s “normal” spring, with ice persisting on Hudson Bay until mid- August.
Over the past 40 years, scientific knowledge of the ecology of western Hudson Bay has expanded at a tremendous rate. The famous white bears of Churchill were familiar to anyone who lived in the area for as long as anyone’s notes or memory extends. In fact, due to the exceptional interests of several of the traders working for the Hudson Bay Company, Churchill is credited with having the oldest and most accurate birding records of any location in the world! Weather and climate data, and observations of many other natural features were also accurately recorded for almost 400 years. Largely missing from this body of data were scientifically verified details about the intimate lives of the bears and birds – how and when they reproduced, how many offspring they had, growth rates, physiological details etc. That type of knowledge began to rapidly accumulate in the 1960s and ‘70s, with the change in Churchill’s economic focus from trading, shipping and military towards research and ecotourism.
In a nutshell, key points from what was learned about the birds and the bears included the fact that the birds arrive in a rush in the spring (that’s late April and May, not July!). They arrive carrying fat stores and developing eggs in their bodies – essential because the weather does not usually allow them to put on weight when they arrive – everything is still emerging from the grip of winter. Some of the birds nest near Churchill, but the majority will only pass through – heading for the food-rich predator-limited conditions offered by the burst of life in the Arctic summer.
For the polar bears, spring is also a critical time of year. Unlike the other bears most of us are familiar with, which pack on weight in late summer and autumn before their winter’s sleep, the polar bears’ boom time is spring – from April to July – when the young seals are born. These young seals grow at tremendous rates (their bodies may be 50% fat) and are very available to the bears because of their inexperience. The bears slowly lose weight throughout the remainder of the year, so the right conditions in springtime are essential.
Keeping the key points above in mind, it’s easy to understand why 2009 has winners and losers. The birds are trapped by the weather, food is limited and they use up their fat stores. They absorb their growing eggs or lay their eggs only to have them freeze. And finally they head south again without nesting.
On the other hand, the polar bears bask in the cool spring conditions, feeding on seals for a month or more – longer than average. The end result is large numbers of fat and healthy polar bears, with numerous healthy cubs – and great bear watching seasons in 2009 and 2010!