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Posts Tagged ‘photographing polar bears at ground level’

Nursing professor learns, loves and laughs with polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

by +George Williams, Photos courtesy of Jo Eland

Jo Eland gives polar bears a rest at Nanuk Polar bear Lodge. Nina Williams photo.

Jo gives the polar bears a rest.

“When you brush your teeth make sure you spit in the fire, otherwise the grizzlies will come in.”

That’s what professional photographer Robert Postma told Jo Eland while rough camping along the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon a few years ago. Jo got no such advice last year when walking with polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, but she likely didn’t need it, as polar bears and grizzlies are two very different animals.

She did however, appreciate the insights and education she received from polar bear guides Andy McPherson and Albert (Butch) Saunders while at Nanuk.

“The knowledge of the guides at Nanuk was impressive,” said Jo. “And even though we were on the ground within 100 yards of a polar bear at different times, at no time did we ever feel unsafe or insecure. They watched the bears like hawks.”

Polar bear walks the Hudson bay coast at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Jo Eland photo.

And my heart didn’t skip a beat once. Well, maybe once. ~ Jo Eland

A highly educated (PhD RN FAAN FNAP) Associate Professor of Nursing at The University of Iowa, Jo admitted she wasn’t quite prepared for walking with polar bears when she arrived at Nanuk, but she soon embraced the adventure.

“After looking at the photos on the Web site, we thought the bears would come right up to the fence,” said Jo. “We never thought we would be walking out to the polar bears, but it was exhilarating to get so close to them in their own environment. And my heart didn’t skip a beat once. Well, maybe once.”

While bears do come up to the fence that surrounds the Lodge (and interrupt meals) on a regular basis, especially black bears, on most days at Nanuk the guests are out traversing the mudflats in the “Tundra Rhino” tracking polar bears, enjoying the vast stress-relieving landscapes of the Hudson Bay Coast. Jo particularly enjoyed the day trips, despite losing a boot in the mud one day.

Jo Eland taking photos of polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Jo Eland ~ Polar Bear Photographer.

“One of my boots came off when we were walking out to a polar bear, but it was my own fault. You need proper fitting boots, which the Lodge does provide. I brought my own and they were too big. I stumbled a bit but Nolan (Director of Lodge Operations) grabbed my arm and helped me out. My camera gear was okay, I was okay, and we just kept on going.”

Actually, we think Jo’s comment at the time went something along the lines of, “I’m still here aren’t I! It’ll take more than that to stop this old gal!”

Polar bear relaxing on a gravel bar at Nanuk. Jo Eland photo.

Polar bear relaxing on a gravel bar at Nanuk.

Considering her background as a specialist in pain management, and some of the work trips she has taken over the past 25 years, Jo’s comments were not unexpected. This winter, her and her students spent three weeks in India working with the poor in a hospice, while also taking photographs for the families.

“I’ve been going to India for five years now,” said Jo. “Most of the people have no family photos, no photos at all. So I combine my passion for photography with my passion for helping people. Eighty percent of the people we see there live below the poverty line. This year we took a picture of a mother and her disabled daughter, whom she had cared for since the age of four, 37 years. They had no photo of themselves together. It really makes you appreciate your lot in life.”

Prior to her trips to India, Jo had been traveling to Italy for 20 years, utilizing her medical skills to assist in children’s hospitals. Jo has now spent a total of 27 years working with children with cancer. Such a career, while immensely satisfying, can take a toll on a person.

Northern Lights over Nanuk Polar bear Lodge. Jo Eland photo.

Northern Lights over Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

“Trips like Mothers & Cubs are much needed,” said Jo. “They free your mind. You can’t see and do India without clearing your head later on trips like Nanuk. I’ve done a lot of living in my 66 years, but this was my first time seeing the polar bears and I loved every minute of it.”

“Getting that close to the bears was marvelous,” continued Jo. “But it was much more than that. The people, not only the other guests on the trip, but the Lodge staff, were remarkable. The staff at the Lodge had an excellent work ethic and an exceptional desire to please. You just don’t find that anywhere. I’ve been to hundreds of 5-star hotels and I’ve never been looked after like I was at Nanuk. And to top it off, when we left the Lodge to fly out on the final day, the pilot did a few extra circles over the polar bears for us, so we could get a few more photos. Who does that?”

Jo also admired the ingenuity and creativity it took to build a Lodge in the Artic, and the owner’s commitment to the environment and to those less fortunate in the area.

“If a piece of garbage had floated in off the Bay, the guides would always stop to pick it up,” said Jo. “And there was their commitment to the less fortunate, which included personally delivering excess meat from hunters in the area to a food shelter in Gillam, where it would find its way to elders who couldn’t hunt anymore.”

Some of that meat might also make it into specialized dishes at the Lodge, such as moose stew in a bread bowl.

“I’m pretty picky about my food,” said Jo. “And I’d never seen that before, or tasted anything like it. The food was fascinating, interesting and excellent.”

Godwits at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Jo Eland Photo.

Godwits at Nanuk.

An experienced photographer, Jo took a 400 mm lens with her on the trip, but said that many in the group were simply using point and shoot cameras and getting good photos.

“One of the guests in our group, Mandy from Australia I think, was using an iPhone,” said Jo. “And she was having a great time. Robert Postma was leading the group, and both he and I attached our lenses to some of the cameras belonging to the others in the group, so they could get some close-up shots. When I showed people our photos, they couldn’t believe we were on the ground walking with polar bears. It was such a privilege being on their turf and getting so close to them. I don’t think people really appreciate what it’s like to get that close to polar bears in their own environment.”

The highlight of the trip for Jo came on the final day.

“The guides spotted a polar bear on a sand bar,” said Jo. “We walked out to her as a group, and she posed for us for hours, cleaning her paws, rolling over… We learned, loved and laughed. It really was, the experience of a lifetime.”

Polar bear sitting on gravel bar at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Jo Eland photo.

Final day polar bear posing for the group.

Photographing polar bears at ground level can be a rare and magical experience at remote Eco Lodges on the Hudson Bay coast. Not your normal Churchill fare.

Polar Bears playing at Seal River - Photo Credit: Dennis Fast

Polar Bears playing at Seal River - Photo Credit: Dennis Fast

Professional photographer Dennis Fast has been leading polar bear photo safari tours at Churchill Wild’s remote eco lodges on the Hudson Bay coast for years, yet every season he can’t wait to get back.

“I’m addicted,” smiled Fast.

What used to be a day trip to the wild Seal River to photograph polar bears has now developed into all-inclusive week-long stays at Churchill Wild’s polar bear eco lodges to photograph not only polar bears, but also arctic foxes and wolves, snowy owls, caribou, arctic landscapes and the northern lights.

Professional photographers, amateur photo buffs and world travelers from all over the planet come for the rare photo opportunities that can only be found at ground level in the natural environment of the polar bears.

Polar Bear Mom with Cubs - 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest - Photo Credit: Debbie Winchester

Polar Bear Mom with Cubs - 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest - Photo Credit: Debbie Winchester

“I love it,” said Fast. “The beauty of it is the polar bears have to walk by the point of land that juts out into Hudson Bay where the Lodge is, nine kilometers north of the Seal River. Polar bears are naturally curious. They smell the cooking at the Lodge and they’re also interested in the activity.”

It’s not unusual to have polar bears meander right up to the front door of Seal River Heritage Lodge on a daily basis, and often the bears will spend days lying around the Lodge enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of humans. It’s a unique environment where humans can meet polar bears in their natural home amidst spectacular scenery.

“When the tide is going in and out it creates surreal lunar-type landscapes,” said Fast. “During the summer you have these huge ancient boulders of black and gray and their shadows combined with bright orange sunrises and sunsets. In the winter when the tide envelops the rocks, they get covered in ice and you have this huge hummocky ice field, which is also enhanced dramatically by the sunrises over Hudson Bay. ”

In October and November there is a stunning mix of colors formed by a rare combination of  the sun, warm air off the land, cold air off the bay, two major river systems and huge boulders rising from a glowing ice fog. That being said, the advantage of the remote polar bear eco lodge location is that the fog bank is further out, which allows much more opportunity to see polar bears.  While Churchill can sometimes be totally socked in by fog, the atmosphere at the Lodge is clear.

Northern Lights at Seal River on Hudson Bay

Northern Lights at Seal River - Photo Credit: Dennis Fast

The unique combination of weather at the Lodge often results in phenomenal northern lights viewing. The location at Seal River doesn’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to the northern lights.

“It’s among the premier aurora borealis viewing areas in the world,” said Fast.

But one of the major reasons Seal River Heritage Lodge attracts both professional and amateur photographers, as well as travel companies that offer photo tours, is for the ground-level photo opportunities.

“When you’re on the ground and a polar bear gets close to you the shot is that much more intimate,” said Fast. “You can’t get these types of shots from above, from a vehicle. You have to be there, on the ground. You can get them either by hiking over the tundra or through the specialized fence around the compound at the Lodge.”

Using a super wide angle lenses you can not only get unobstructed shots of the bears up close but also of the landscape in the background. The wide buffalo fence keeps the bears out while still allowing for exceptional photos. Smaller zooms can go right through for really intimate shots.

“Last year we got some great photos of a polar bear 35 feet away chewing on caribou antlers,” said Fast.  “We wouldn’t get that close to a new bear, but with an old bear, a “resident” bear that has been around the Lodge for awhile, a unique relationship often develops between the bear and the photographers. They respect each other’s space. The bear knows he’s going to get yelled at or chased away if he comes too close and the photographers have no desire or need to intrude into the bear’s comfort zone. The bears are generally very quiet, they don’t threaten you.”

Caribou running over tundra

Caribou running over tundra - 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest - Photo Credit: Wendy Kaveney

And it’s not just the polar bears.  Two years ago there were over 3000 caribou in the area. The actual number of caribou around the Lodge at any given time depends on the weather patterns. Arctic foxes have been known to come right into the compound and just about take food out of your hands. There are also the arctic hares and in 2009 photographers were lucky enough to catch a White Gyrfalcon.

“Through guiding photo tours and staying at the Lodge I’ve met some fascinating people,” said Fast. “Professional photographers and photojournalists from some of the world’s top publications like National Geographic and the L.A. Times, and I’ve also met some of the world’s wealthiest people. Trading stories in this kind of company is more than enjoyable. I’ve met people from Japan, Mexico, China, Russia, Germany and the USA at the Lodge. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.”

The facilities at the Lodge are excellent and the food is superb, prepared from the family’s award-winning cookbook series Blueberries and Polar Bears. And importantly notes Fast, the trips are all-inclusive.

“Expenses can add up on a trip to Churchill when you take into account airfare, hotels, hot meals, day tours etc.” said Fast. “So the cost of staying at the Lodge is actually quite reasonable when you consider it’s an all-inclusive adventure vacation and you’re actually staying in the wild – experiencing the polar bear’s natural environment. Yet you still have all the comforts of home along with gourmet meals and great company.”

“This is going to get hot,” continued Fast. “Everybody’s starting to get wind of it and major adventure tour companies are starting to organize more and more arctic photo safari tours to the Lodge. They’re beginning to realize that this is a fabulous venue for polar bear photography and it’s only going to get better. I have tons of polar bear shots and I can’t get wait to get back there.”

Polar bears, the feeling of the arctic wilderness, the northern lights, arctic wildlife, great food, superb company and  photo opportunities with soft light and a blend of colors you just can’t find anywhere else in the world.

“Catch a white polar bear in purple fireweed at sunset and add in the fog,” grinned Fast.

“And you’ve got something magical.”

Polar Bear at sunset on Hudson Bay - Photo Credit: Dennis Fast