Polar Bear Blog

Ruth Elwell-Steck Wildlife Photo Gallery

Polar bear in fall colours. Ruth Elwell-steck photo.
Polar bear in fall colours at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.

by George Williams

Welcome to our first guest photo gallery!

This gallery comes to us courtesy of professional photographer Ruth Elwell-Steck, who was at Seal River Heritage Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge last fall. Ruth had previously been to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge six years ago, before the new timber frame lounge addition, and she loved what she saw.

“I didn’t even recognize it,” said Ruth. “Even though the lodge wasn’t what it is now when I was first there, it was just the experience itself. It was absolutely incredible. The guides were amazing. The same guides who are there now, Butch and Andy.”

The 49-year-old mother of four from Seattle was originally a studio photographer, but switched over to photographing wildlife about seven years ago. It was her father Robert, a Seattle police officer, who originally set her on her path as bear photographer.

“My Dad always photographed eagles,” said Ruth. “They were his favourite. And where you find eagles you find bears. So it kind of made logical sense, because I didn’t want to do the same things as my Dad. So obviously, the bears were there, and they have such personality, and I really wanted to capture that in my images.”

Lunchtime in Alaska! Ruth Elewell Steck photo.
Lunchtime in Alaska! Ruth Elewell Steck photo.

Influenced by a life-long love and respect for the natural world through time spent growing up in and around Issaquah, Washington, the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, Whitbee Island and the San Juan Islands, Ruth became attached to bears, always looking to portray the thoughts and emotions of her subjects. She now calls her two favourite photography subjects Alaskan brown bears and polar bears.

“When I first started with wildlife photography I kind of shot anything and everything to see what I really loved and it ended up being bears,” said Ruth. “That’s kind of where my focus went. And I love going back to the same areas year after year. You do get to know the bears. You get to watch them grow. I go to southeast Alaska a lot for the black bears and brown bears, and I also take our kids, especially our youngest. He’s gone out in the bush with me. He loves it. All of my kids have been, but he’s gone multiple times.

“He’s 12 now and he probably started going when he was six or seven. My other son is more into the science behind the bears. One of the people I work with in Alaska took him out and showed him how to read tracks, what kind of berries you can eat etc. He’s more into the science than he is the photography.”

Polar bear close-up at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.
Polar bear close-up at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.

Ruth has now been on over 15 trips to photograph brown bears in Alaska, and she’ll be making her fourth and fifth trips to the Churchill Wild polar bear lodges when she returns to Seal River Heritage Lodge this fall for the Polar Bear Photo Safari and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge next spring for the Polar Bear Den Emergence Quest. She seems to be away from home a lot, but husband Rich is also encouraging.

“He has a job where he can work and still be there for the kids,” said Ruth. “He’s extremely supportive and he thinks it’s great. He went once with me and that was enough. He’s a computer guy. There were too many bugs. He worries about me being out there but he trusts me and he trusts the people I’m with. And I think that’s another reason to go back to the same places. You gain trust with them and you know that they’re going to handle any situation that comes up.

“I think it’s so important how the lodge and the guides interact with the bears, so that they’re not encroaching on the bears, not pushing the bears. If they see that they’re stressed we back off. And that’s really important, because over the years I’ve seen situations where that is not the case. Andy and Butch at Nanuk, and Andy again at Seal River, they’re just incredible guides. They tell you a lot of the history and the stories behind the bears.”

Nursing brown bears in Alaska. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.
Nursing brown bears in Alaska. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.

The stories behind the photos are very important to Ruth. Formally trained as teacher, she not only sees the value of stories when teaching her students, but also with potential buyers at art shows.

“It definitely makes a difference,” said Ruth. “I do a lot of local shows with canvases and framed art, and I love to talk to people about the experiences behind the images. They usually bring other people back so I can tell them the story behind the photo too.”

One of Ruth’s favourite bear stories resulted from a trip to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

“People love the story behind that photo (see photo at top of this post),” said Ruth. “She would come and lay by the lodge whenever dinner was made and she would usually have her head down. I laid down flat, and it was cold and the film crew was kind of harassing me a bit. They said she was never going to lift her head, but an hour later she lifted her head for me and I got the shot. It took a long time but it was definitely worth it to get that shot. ”

Ruth had been around brown bears for years before her first up-close visit with polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, but nothing could have prepared her for the immensity of her first standing polar bear encounter.

“We came upon a male polar bear quietly laying in the beautiful fall colors,” said Ruth. “When we began our slow approach he quickly stood to get a better look at us. It was such an incredible experience to have this giant bear standing up in front of you, and to look at him eye to eye. People tell you they’re 10 feet tall, but when a big male polar bear stands up in front of you, that’s an experience.”

Having a polar bear stand up directly in front of you is definitely an experience you won't forget. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo taken at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
Having a polar bear stand up directly in front of you is definitely an experience you won’t forget! Ruth Elwell-Steck photo taken at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

And the shocks haven’t all been related to polar bears. Ruth was once thrown from an ATV in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska while following a Mom with triplets, and there was no way she was leaving.

“The image of the Mom I actually shot with two broken bones in my hand,” said Ruth. “I was thrown off the ATV the first day we were out in the bush and broke two bones. Luckily the owner’s wife at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge was an ER doctor in Anchorage and she was out visiting. She set my hand with duck tape and a metal rod. I stayed out for the week and was able to get a National Geographic winner. It was definitely worth it. The image appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe.

“I was a little concerned coming back when I went through security, but they took one look at me in Anchorage and said, ‘You did that out in the bush didn’t you?” I said ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘Cool! Come on through.'”

Another favourite image with a story came to Ruth courtesy of “Pav” and her cub.

“I had been photographing Pav for many years” said Ruth. “And she had such an incredible personality even before she had cubs. She was a first time Mom and because her cub had no siblings the second year she had to teach her everything. There was such an amazing connection between them and it was such an honor to witness and photograph. We even watched her take down a boar (male brown bear) that had come after her cub. Pav did not make it back this year, but I am still photographing her sweet cub, now a juvenile.”

Personality in a photo. "Pav" and her cub. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.
Personality in a photo. “Pav” and her cub. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.

Ruth’s approach to photography is founded on a practical understanding of her subjects and photographic technology, which helps her convey her personal vision of the beauty she finds in nature. Following many of the same bears from year to year allows her to get to know her subjects and their stories. She enjoys sharing her experiences with others and also teaches children how to create their own vision and capture it on film. Sparking their imagination and giving them a solid understanding of photography is something Ruth finds extremely rewarding.

“I taught kindergarten and first grade,” said Ruth. “But recently, about the time I got into nature photography, I also started teaching fourth and fifth graders a photography and science tech program. It was part time, which worked out well with two young boys. We did film, we did macro. We worked with green screen, Photoshop, the whole bit. It was a lot of fun. We also taught them how to shoot film.

“The whole process is important. When I get lazy shooting I think, well I can fix that in post. So I force myself to shoot film because it refocuses me. And I’ve become a better photographer doing that. If you shoot film you have to get the picture right the first time. There’s no editing.”

Ruth’s images have been featured in Discovery HD, Images of Canada, Canadian Geographic (print and social media), Wildlife HD, BBC earth, BBC Brazil, Tour Canada, Nature Alaska, Alaska.org, NANPA (print and social media), Currents Magazine, The Atlantic, The Journal, Boston.com, Nature’s Best Photography Magazine among others. An impressive list!

Ruth is also quite active on social media, and she will be doing a takeover of the NANPA Instagram account from June 27 to July 7, sharing images and stories, as well as links to other Instagram accounts. You can follow Ruth on Instagram here and on Facebook here.

Recently featured on BBC Earth, five years ago Ruth had an image of a nursing brown bear featured in National Geographic. The photo also appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe and in other publications. She has had three images featured on BBC Earth, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet over the past few months, and an Arctic fox she shot at Seal River Heritage Lodge was featured in a print version of Canadian Geographic.

Arctic Fox at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.
Arctic Fox at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.

“Canadian Geographic found the image on Instagram and used it for their social media,” said Ruth. “I try to post daily on Instagram unless I’m out the bush and have no access. I’ve only been doing Instagram since January so it’s a new thing for me, but I’ve found it can be really helpful. And I do a lot art shows locally. Ruth will also be doing an art show at the Bellevue Art Museum (BAM) on the last weekend in July.

“I do love bears,” said Ruth. “Most people think I’m the crazy bear lady. I just love doing shows and talking to people about bears. I love teaching and exposing people to them as well. People sometimes look at my work and say they really never liked bears and are afraid of them, but after they read the stories behind my images, they start to connect with the bears. It allows people to care about the environment and about the bears. If I can do that for just one person that’s great.”

Thinking about getting into photography?

“Go for it,” said Ruth. “Anyone can do it. It’s just a matter of taking the time and energy and putting yourself out there. Part of photography though is that you have to find what you love. If you find your niche, something you love, it will show in your work. I mean, what’s the worst thing that can happen. You try. No matter what, you’re going to have an amazing time. And at Churchill Wild the food has always been really good. Of all the places I’ve been, it’s the best.

Personality in a photo. Wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.
Personality in a photo. Wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.

“With Churchill Wild it doesn’t matter, you’re going to have an incredible experience. You know, I don’t say that about every lodge. And I’ve seen lots and lots of northern lights over many, many years, because I travel to Alaska a lot, but I’ve never seen them like they are at Nanuk (Polar Bear Lodge). And with Churchill Wild, watching the northern lights and listening to the wolf pack howl, while they serve you wine? What could be better!

“I mean seriously, what’s better than that?”

You can follow Ruth on Instagram here and on Facebook here. You’ll also find more gorgeous images on her portfolio at rmsteckphotography.com. Ruth will also be doing an art show at the Bellevue Art Museum (BAM) on the the final weekend in July.

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