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Posts Tagged ‘Dennis Fast’

Churchill Wild celebrates 20th Anniversary! Thank You!

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Seal River Heritage Lodge 2013

Celebrating 20 years! Seal River Heritage Lodge 2013.

20 years? Say it isn’t so. Wow!

Seems like just yesterday we were flying north up the coast from Churchill to have a look at a couple of old tumbled down shacks near the mouth of the Seal River, with hopes of finding a spot for a polar bear lodge.

Dennis Fast shook his head in disbelief when he first spotted the site.

“You better buy it quick before Jeanne sees it!”

Seal River Lodge in 1993

What we saw from the plane in 1993!

Well, we made the plunge, and as they say, the rest is history.

The first few seasons were “interesting” to say the least, and thank goodness we had Jeanne’s parents Doug and Helen Webber backing the program with their years of experience in the fishing and hunting lodge business.

Our first summer (1993) was spent cleaning up the site and making the existing building habitable. It had been used previously as a whale research station and for some goose hunting, but had sat abandoned for many years. All the windows and doors had been knocked out by marauding polar bears; the swallows were nesting in the light fixtures; and the Arctic foxes had found it a convenient spot to get out of the wind for a bathroom break.

With much elbow grease, lots of paint, new beds, plumbing, electrical, roofing and some new doors and windows, we eventually had a place to call home. Of course, just to remind us of whose turf we were on, a curious polar bear smashed out one of the new windows in the first week before we had a chance to get some bars up.

That first season was not a real money maker to say the least, with only one client, but the adventure level was very high. We had an endless supply of new routes and trails to explore and establish!

Like most small businesses, Jeanne and I ran the whole show for a few seasons while we got our feet under us. Jeanne was chef/housekeeper/bear guard/hostess/expeditor/berry picker (with our kids as helpers) while I did all the other stuff, none of which I can seem to remember right now!

I do remember that our first bedroom, which eventually became the laundry room, was five feet wide by 14 feet long with Jeanne and I at one end and our girls — Rebecca, Karli and Allison — stacked three deep like cordwood at the other end. When Adam came along he slept on a shelf above our bed! All very cozy, the kids loved it and thought it was all one big adventure, though Jeanne had some other ideas at times.

Dining Room at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Dining Room at Seal River Heritage Lodge today. We've come a long way!

We discovered, much to our delight, that Seal River had an incredible array of flora and fauna. It was going to be a spectacular choice for an ecolodge! The mechanics of building and operating the lodge came naturally (mostly!) as we had both gained a wealth of very valuable experience working together with Doug and Helen at their lodges. They were pillars of much needed support in those early years.

Operating any sort of lodges or remote camps in the Arctic has its share of challenges, as the source of all supplies is usually hundreds of miles away. And they are being purchased from people who really do not have a clue as to how difficult it is to get anything to us.

Everything must be ordered weeks and sometimes months in advance, to be shipped by train from Winnipeg to Churchill where it can be flown to the lodge, or, in the case of building materials, dragged over the sea ice during the winter with our old 1956 D6 Cat. If anything breaks down you can measure in days and weeks the amount of time it takes to get a replacement part, and sometimes the season ends before the new parts arrive!

Our environment entirely dictates our activities, and on this type of jobsite you might find yourself stuck offshore on an ice flow; broke down in a howling blizzard on Hudson Bay; or sitting in the floatplane on a lonely stretch of river waiting for the fog to lift so you can get much needed groceries to the lodge.

Inside Seal River Heritage Lodge

Interior of Seal River Heritage Lodge today. It wasn't always this nice!

Occasionally you might find yourself whacking an overly curious polar bear on the nose for sticking his head through the shop door, or crawling under the lodge at 3 a.m. to thaw out frozen pipes. There’s a whole host of weird and challenging things at all kinds of crazy hours, in all sorts of weather. Never a dull moment in this business!

There have been many, many adventures and challenges over the years. Maybe someday we’ll find the time to write them all down in a book. At present we continue to add new destinations and safaris. Along with Seal River Heritage Lodge and the Birds, Bears & Belugas summer polar bear experience, we also operate Dymond Lake EcoLodge, home of the Great Ice Bear Adventure, and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, home of Mothers & Cubs, as well as North Knife Lake Fishing Lodge, the Arctic Safari, Polar Bear Photo Safari and Black & White Adventure. Our growth has resulted in the need for more staff. Luckily, we have been blessed with the best. Those little kids we used to stack up on the shelves are now our chefs, managers and admin staff!

Jeanne & Mike

Jeanne & Mike Reimer

Of course, we couldn’t have done any of this without you, our guests. A big polar bear hug goes out to all of you, for spending your hard earned dollars and time with us. We have thoroughly enjoyed your company and made many lifelong friends.

Thank you for making it all possible.

Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Churchill Wild 2011 Photo Contest Winners

Congratulations to our 2011 Churchill Wild Photo Contest Winners!

Curious Arctic Fox at Seal River - Joel Davidson Photo

For a smile I will :) Joel Davidson Photo

Every year we solicit entries from our guests for a Churchill Wild Photo Contest. Some of the most stunning images on our website have come from these contests. We break it into categories and hand out big discounts towards future safaris as grand prizes. This year we added an Amateur category, as we get a wide range of experience levels.

The entries were judged by Dennis Fast. There were a very high number of entrants and Dennis had an incredibly tough batch of photos to choose from. Thank you to everyone who submitted photos, we really appreciate it!

Below are the winners followed by a mini photo gallery.

Amateur: 1. Rod Hallet 2.  Marieke Briggen

Landscape: 1. Bob Leaper 2. Steve McDonough

Other Wildlife: 1. Daniel D’Auria 2. Bob Smith

People: 1. Terry Allen 2. Joel Davidson

Polar bears: 1. Louise Atkinson 2. Joel Davidson

Click image to see larger version.

Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from the air.

Getting ready to land at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

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.

Northern Lights over Hudson Bay - Dennis Fast photo

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!

Polar bear cubs with Mom at Nanuk Polar bear Lodge.
Curious polar bear cubs with Mom at Nanuk

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 info@churchillwild.com

 

Death of a Mother Polar Bear

Polar bears cubs attend to dying mother

Polar bear cubs. Photo Credit: Dennis Fast

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.

Mother polar bear and cubs at sunset.

Mother polar bear and cubs at sunset. Photo Credit: Dennis Fast

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.

EPILOGUE

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

Polar Bear Photo - Polar Bear in Fireweed by Dennis Fast

Polar Bear in Fireweed - Photo by Dennis Fast

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.

Photo Contestant

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.

Professional Wildlife Photographer Dennis Fast with wife Frieda

Dennis Fast with wife Frieda. Ready for their photographic adventure!

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.