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Polar Bear Photography

Walking with polar bears at Seal River Lodge — Special Guest Report

Polar Bear Walking Photo Journey Report, Tropical Birding Trip Report, October 2013
Guest post and photos by guide Iain Campbell of TropicalBirding.com

PolarBearPeaking

I am used to being somewhat underwhelmed when people sprout hyperbole. You go there and it is not quite as amazing as they made it seem. Well I can say that this trip to Seal River Lodge was point blank the best photographic and wildlife adventure that I have ever experienced.

After five days with polar bears, I wanted to stay for another week, and was excited when our flight out was delayed by four hours. Time for one more walk.

The trip started in Winnipeg, where you arrive the night before to ensure you make the early morning flight the next morning to Churchill, Manitoba on the southwestern banks of Hudson Bay. After arriving in Churchill, people needing warm weather gear got fitted out and we took a small 8-seater plane for a low flight north to Seal River Lodge. As we left Churchill we flew over the last of the Taiga forest and onto the tundra. The landscape is not classically beautiful, but glorious in its starkness.

On arrival onto the small runway at the Lodge, the snow was blowing strong, our temperatures dropped, and one person decided that the two minute drive to the lodge was better than the 10 minute walk, so she headed off with the luggage. The remaining six of us braved it out, and were rewarded by our first polar bear sighting off the edge of the runway, chilling out in some willows.

After settling in, grabbing a great lunch and getting an introduction to dealing with massive carnivores that you feel inclined to cuddle, we set off with Tara and Andy, the two local guides who made us feel completely at ease.

We were about to walk around the tundra with polar bears, so having A-grade guides who know their stuff was very important. On the first afternoon we had a bear rolling around, stretching and generally just checking us out. We also had an Arctic Fox in its new winter plumage.

Polar Bear rolling around on the tundra at Seal River Lodge.

It was only that night that we really spent time to check out the Lodge. If you want plush with all the bells and whistles, satellite television and a spa, this is not it. It is however, much better than that, very comfortable with ensuite bathrooms, and there is an extremely cozy lounge to hang out in and chat. And best of all, amazingly helpful staff that do everything to make sure that you have a brilliant experience. Where in the world do you have staff that hops up hourly through the night to call you when the northern lights are shining? Well, they do here.

The food was outstanding, and although I would have been happy in an igloo eating beans, it was fun to have great food every lunch and dinner to warm you up between walks.

The next three days were very similar, where we left the compound, walked on the tundra and on Hudson Bay looking for polar bears. We found at least one polar bear on each walk, but they were always in different situations, different lighting and doing different things.

At no point did I, or any others in the group, feel as though we were doing the same old, same old. So although it was almost all white, it was by no means only polar bears. We spent a lot of time stalking down the flocks of hundreds of Willow Ptarmigan that have turned into their winter plumage. They would let us approach quite closely and you could have taken decent shots with a 300mm. We also chased Arctic Hare all over the place but only managed really good looks inside the Lodge compound.

Willow Ptarmigan Hudson Bay

Sometimes you did not need to head out of the Lodge compound to have a close encounter. Bears are walking up and down the coastline of Hudson Bay, so every few hours or so, one may walk past the Lodge.

Now, sitting for a month waiting for ice to form would test even the most Zen polar bear, so having a person to interact with is a pretty interesting way to fill in the time. If one was in the area and I went out to the compound and sat beside the fence, the bear would come up to the fence. I spent about 20 minutes with the one in the photo above before I was late for lunch and being rude to the kitchen staff. I went in, had lunch and watched him play in the snow.

When we went on the walks, the guides talked about all aspects of Arctic biology, history and culture. We found ourselves talking about Inuit and First Nations lifestyles while being watched by another local. The general protocol was to not let new bears get too close (about 100 yards) before the guides made noise to keep them away. When it was a bear that the guides knew, and knew its behavior, they would let it get to a safe distance.

Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge

There was one bear that followed us a lot, and would walk to within 30 yards and usually lie down and watch us before dozing off. Now that is not to say that there were not times when my adrenalin went sky high with a bear not wanting to back off.  At no time did the local guides lose their composure, and they were always in control of the situation.

The photo at the top of this trip report was one of those situations. The bear did not want to back down, and after having noise made and snow thrown at it, he went and hid behind a large rock and kept poking his head above the rock to watch us. Now playing peekaboo with a massive carnivore seems surreal, but every time he popped his head over the rock, we would all make a noise saying, “We still see you Bob”.

Again, the local guides were in complete control of the situation, which did not feel threatening, as the bear was showing signs of nothing but curiosity.

On the last day of the trip the plane that was due to pick us up had mechanical difficulties, and it looked as though we might not be able to get out, and the new group might not get in. In a show of a first rate operation, Mike and Jeanne from Seal River Lodge sent a message on the radio that “Guys you are getting a helicopter safari”.

Polar bear and Iain at the Seal River Lodge fence.My last image of this spectacular place was taking off from their front door in a helicopter, rising right over their roof, before shooting off towards Churchill flying low over the tundra.

An exhilarating experience, landing in Churchill just on dusk, heading for a wonderful meal with our group in the local restaurant before flying back to Winnipeg that night. Would I go back?

In a heartbeat.

Need more information about this trip and/or future trips with Iain Campbell?

Web: www.TropicalBirding.com
Phone: 1 (409) 515-0514
E-mail: info@tropicalbirding.com

Summer at Seal River Lodge, Notes from an award-winning wildlife photographer

Guest Post by Steven Blandin, Award-Winning Wildlife Photographer
www.bird-wildlifephotography.com

Churchillwild - Splashing Bear

When is the best time of the year to go on a polar bear safari?

That was my initial inner question when my wife showed interest in exploring the possibilities of a trip to see polar bears. I knew we did not want to go as far as Northern Europe, and as it turned out, Canada was in fact the place with the larger population of polar bears.

Now set on finding a great spot in Canada, it seemed that the west bank of Hudson Bay would be the ideal place to see polar bears from July to the middle of November. Why? Because polar bears cross the large Bay after spending the winter north of the Arctic poles. They then congregate west of the Bay waiting for it to freeze anew, so that they may cross and head back to their winter turf.

Churchillwild - Summer landscape

That left us choosing between three seasonal time periods: summer, early autumn with the fall colors or late fall, when there would be snow on the ground. Not wanting to go on our adventure when temperatures were too low, we opted for a summer trip. That might seem counter-intuitive to some, as most of us imagine polar bears on a snowy landscape.

We decided that the Fireweed blooming season, which lasts about three weeks, would be the ideal time to go. The plants flower with purple colors and in big numbers. This provides a very unique green and purple backdrop, which we thought would be a bit different than the typical snowy environment. We targeted a week with likely Fireweed blooming days and booked our adventure.

Churchillwild - Bear Portrait
Flying on a small plane from Churchill to the Seal River Heritage Lodge offered a fantastic view of the grassy coastal landscape on the Hudson Bay shores. And the green contrasted superbly with the rice in the waters. Wait… the rice? Yes!

Large pods of beluga whales can be spotted from up above, and they give the impression of bowl of soup filled with rice. A great introduction to this remote land, we thought, this was going to be a very nice photographic experience!

We arrived to a warm welcome from Lodge owners Jeanne and Mike Reimer and our other hosts, who did wonderful work in the week that followed. The food was absolutely delicious, the rooms were quite comfortable, and our guides were amazing.

We saw polar bears every single day! Whether during walks, or just staying at the Lodge and peeking through the fence, we had memorable encounters with the bears. And all of our meetings with the bears occurred in an environment that was safe for both us and the bears.

Churchillwild - Golden Bear

I was also very happy with the fact that we had not missed the blooming Fireweed season, as we arrived in the last week of blooming. Even though we had missed the most intense blooming days, we were still amazed by the very unique purple and green color mix. We were also delighted to have photo opportunities in which the blooming flowers contrasted beautifully with the majestic bears.

Polar bears are curious creatures. On more than one occasion they actually walked towards us. Another key characteristic that struck me was that polar bears sleep quite a bit! Maybe they should be renamed the polar lions.

Churchillwild - Approaching Bear

We had a specific male polar bear sleeping close to the Lodge for a few days on a small peninsula, but he also took occasional walks and swims. We really felt that he was like another guest who just preferred to spend his nights under a starry sky.

Churchillwild - Sleeping Bear

The Seal River area is not only known for polar bears, but also for its migrating beluga whales and the aurora borealis. The latter phenomenon occurs when particles in the atmosphere are swept by the solar wind, and can be visible during clear nights for a few minutes to a number of hours. Though there are more clear nights during the winter, we did experience a couple of nights with spectacular northern lights. And we did not have to freeze to death to capture good shots!

Churchillwild - Aurora Borealis

Being on the Hudson Bay coast, we also took the opportunity to hop on a couple of the Zodiak boats to experience a swim with the belugas. Having been raised in the warm waters of the Caribbean, the icy waters of Hudson Bay were an initial concern, but once geared up with dry suits, tied to the boat by our ankles, and floating in the water, we found that we did not get cold, and the whales swam within arms-length of us.

In the end, I believe every season brings unique opportunities for a polar bear safari. We experienced the summer season, but the fall is highlighted by beautiful yellow and red colors, along with potentially more diversity in wildlife viewings. And late fall and winter adds the expected and still magical white coat of snow. So really, one might want to experience every single season!

Churchillwild - Yawning Bear

This trip allowed me to add many top notch polar bear photographs to my blog.

Polar bear and black bear caught together in rare photo at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

by Nolan Booth, Director of Lodge Operations, Churchill Wild

Polar bear and black bear together at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Polar bear and black bear together at Nanuk! Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Professional photographer Robert Postma was at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in early September to lead photographers on our Mothers and Cubs Adventure and a Polar Bear Photo Safari.

He got me something I’ll treasure forever.

I am always after my professional and amateur photographers for something out of the ordinary, and while visiting Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge one of my requests has always been a picture of my favorite North American land carnivore the polar bear, and everybody’s cute and fuzzy black bear – together, in the same photograph. This time it really did feel like my request might finally become a reality.

Black bears were wandering around the compound regularly, cleaning up the last of the berries that this wonderful land produces, and polar bears were circling the Lodge enjoying the smells from our culinary expert Riley Friesen. I’m not sure whether it was the moose hamburger soup, the caribou bacon wraps, or the smell of freshly baked bread and Jayne’s delicious chocolate chip cookies that kept attracting the bears.

Whatever it was, it was working!

On numerous occasions our guests commented that today Nolan may just get his picture. Well, after three years of wonderful shots of these magnificent creatures on separate slides, my request was finally filled when Robert approached me and suggested he may have gotten a picture of both bears, but the light was not great.

As you can imagine, I was quite excited. Only once had I missed this opportunity myself. Polar bears and black bears do not like to spend time around each other, let alone posing together for photo!

Polar bears are generally solitary animals, but they will spend time with other polar bears. Black bears, on the other hand, will tolerate other black bears more freely, but there have been countless occasions at the Lodge in which we have seen black bears running into the tree line at the slightest whiff of an approaching polar bear.

Robert presented me with the photo of the black bear and the polar bear outside the Lodge at Nanuk on an early September evening. You can just see the black bear peeking out of the bushes in the top right hand corner of the photo. It is one of my most coveted photographs and I am proud to share it with all of you.

Thank you Robert!

Happy days from up here at The Next Great Arctic Safari!

The Ultimate Polar Bear Booter at Hubbard Point

Xie Jianguo of Birds Eye Media taking polar bear photos at Hubbard Point.

Xie says hi from the icy waters of Hudson Bay at Hubbard Point!

Remember when you were a kid and you always had to test the depth of the ice water in the spring? And how that always seemed to result freezing cold wet feet?

Fast forward to adulthood and you’re up to your knees in icy ocean water as the tide rises ever higher, trying to get that perfect shot of a polar bear.

The contents of this post were initiated by a Zodiac excursion north to Hubbard Point, one of our favourite polar bear viewing areas. We had spent several hours with the fine folks from Beijing of Birds Eye Media, enjoying endless gigabytes of polar bears in various settings and light conditions.

The photo gods must have been smiling on as we lucked into a mother with two cubs (Coys, cubs-of-the-year) about to settle down on a rocky spit for supper. All things were in our favour. Sunset on its way with perfect light, rising tide, breeze in our faces and no other pesky male bears to disturb the snuggle fest about to happen.

Walking the Zodiacs in closer to the polar bears at Hubbard Point.

Walking the Zodiacs in closer to the polar bears at Hubbard Point.

Master guides Quent and Mike, (okay maybe Quent) gently poled the boats into shore and walked them into camera range on the rising tide and it wasn’t long before that magic sound of clicking and whirring motor drives filled the air.

Xie Jianguo elected to exit the boat and set up his tripod on the gravel beach for a little more stable support, and once the action started all focus was on the nursing cubs. But as we like to say at Seal River, the “tide waits for no man or woman.”

We shortly realized that those were not gasps of excitement from Xie as the frigid sea water began to seep over the tops of his boots. An hour later, as the chill water crept past his knees, our brave and dedicated photographer finally struggled gamely back into the Zodiac, but frozen feet seemed to be a small price to pay for the award winning photos taken by all.

A gorgeous sunset escorted a very tired and happy crew back to Seal River Lodge, where another gourmet dinner awaited us. There were more true tall tales to tell.

From Beijing, China, to Seal River, Manitoba, for polar bear photos

Xie Jianguo and his hardy group of photographers from Birds Eye Media traveled all the way from Beijing, China this week to pursue our great white bears with their cameras.

Fireweed!

Fireweed!

From all aspects the trip was a “smashing” success, sorry Li, no pun intended after dropping that new 600 & D1 on the rocks! Hope it is repairable. And Xie hopes that his feet will one day thaw and feel warm again.

Lazy day in the grass.

Lazy day in the grass.

The weather, tides, bugs (lack thereof), and wildlife all conspired to give us an exceptional experience. Mike was fortunate to be able to get out with cousin Quent and help guide for a change of pace from regular lodge operations and it was a blast.

As the photos indicate, there were some very special photo opportunities to be had and the group will have many exhausting hours of editing ahead of them.

Love is in the air.

Love is in the air.