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Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast to lead November 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River

Award-winning photographer/author Dennis Fast to lead 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River

Dennis Fast will lead 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River.

Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast will once again lead a Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge this year, from November 10-16.

The Polar Bear Photo Safari takes place during prime polar bear season, when the bears congregate in large numbers on the Hudson Bay coast waiting for the Bay to freeze so they can begin their annual seal hunt. The Polar Bear Photo Safari attracts professional and amateur photographers from around the world, primarily due to its rare ground-level access to polar bears and the resulting specialized photo opportunities.

Churchill Wild’s chief photographer for over 20 years, Fast is one of Canada’s best known photographers. His images have appeared in numerous calendars and books, including Wapusk: White Bear of the North, which showcases stunning images of polar bears and their Hudson Bay environs, and addresses the threats to the bears’ traditional migration patterns and their existence in the Churchill area.

Fast’s images also appear in his most recent book, Princess: A Special Polar Bear which tells the story of a mother polar bear who teaches her cubs about life in the Arctic regions of Canada. Designed to be read aloud and to connect children with the excitement of the outdoors, Princess details the relationship between Princess and her cubs, Braveheart and Wimpy, and touches on many of the same challenges and issues parents and children face every day in their own families.

Polar bears sparring near Seal River Heritage Lodge. Dennis fast photo

Polar bears sparring near Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Calendars that have featured Fast’s photos include those published by National Geographic, National Wildlife Federation, Inner Reflections, Manitoba Autopac (including an exclusive polar bear calendar in 2010), Parks & Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and many more. Thirty-five of Fast’s best polar bear photos are also on display in the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) in Winnipeg.

Fast’s expertise and experience photographing in extreme northern conditions have put him among the select photographers in the world with a talent for capturing the light and magical qualities of the north. He’s traveled extensively across Canada, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Greenland, Iceland and the United States in pursuit of the perfect shot, but the polar bears of Hudson Bay will always be one of his favourite subjects.

“Polar Bears are among the most magnificent predators on earth and have fascinated me since childhood,” said Fast in an earlier interview with book publisher Heartland Associates. “I never dreamed that someday I would actually walk in the land of Wapusk (Cree for white bear). I still remember in vivid detail my first sighting of a wild polar bear and the feeling of awe it inspired with its beauty and latent power. Since then, I have had many polar bear encounters, ­ from mothers and young cubs coming out of their dens, to adult males wrestling for supremacy.”

“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. At the Lodge you can get them either by hiking over the tundra or through the specialized fence that surrounds the Lodge.”

Polar bears wrestling eye-to-eye on the sea ice at Seal River. Dennis Fast photo.

Eye-to-eye on the sea ice.

The beauty of the Seal River Heritage Lodge location is that polar bears have to walk by the point of land that juts out into Hudson Bay where the Lodge is situated, 60 km north of Churchill and nine km 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, and at various times of the year 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.

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.

And it’s not just about polar bears. Last year there was a herd of caribou at the Lodge and three years ago there were over 3,000 caribou in the area, although the actual number of caribou around the Lodge at any given time depends on 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 arctic hares, and in 2009 photographers were lucky enough to catch a White Gyrfalcon. Additionally, the unique combination of location and weather at the Lodge can  result in phenomenal northern lights viewing.

“Through guiding photo tours and staying at the Lodge I’ve met some fascinating people,” said Fast. “From professional photographers and photojournalists at elite publications like National Geographic and the L.A. Times, to some of the world’s wealthiest people, I’ve traded stories with some very interesting and enjoyable company. I’ve met people from Japan, Mexico, China, Russia, Germany and the USA at the Lodge. It is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

Polar bears relaxing north of Churchill at Seal River Heritage Lodge after sparring. Dennis Fast photo.

After the battle…

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

“Expenses can add up on a trip to Churchill when you take into account airfare, hotels, hot meals, day tours etc. 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 outstanding meals and great company.”

And of course, a chance to meet polar bears, eye-to-eye.

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.

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma returns to Churchill Wild for three dates in 2014

Polar bear cub at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge - Robert Postma photo

Here I come… Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma will be back at Churchill Wild again in 2014, this time to lead three different groups of photographers and guests in their quest for the perfect polar bear photograph at Seal River Heritage Lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

Postma will be at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from September 9-15 and will return to Seal River Heritage Lodge and Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge from November 2-13.

Never one to shy away from adventure, Postma split his time this winter between relaxing in Bolivia, South America, and on-call nursing at remote First Nations outposts in Yukon, Canada.

Wolf at  Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge – Photo Credit: Robert Postma

“I’m hoping to catch the fall colours at Nanuk this year,” said Postma, who was at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge for the first time in 2013. “We got some great shots last year. I caught a polar bear and a black bear in the same photo, wolves came right up to the tundra Rhino, and we also experienced a full-on intense thunderstorm. I just love photographing storms.”

Storm over Nanuk.

Storm over Nanuk. Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Postma won the Canadian Geographic Photo Club’s Annual Photography Contest in 2011 when the theme was extreme weather and he’s certainly no stranger to winning photo contests. He also won the Banff Mountain Festival Photography Competition, The Nature of Things and Planet in Focus Environmental Photography Competition, the Show us your Canada photo contest, the Up Here Fantastic Photo Contest and Canadian Geographic Photo Club’s Annual Photography Contest, among others. And on April 2, 2012 his photo of a great horned owl bursting from an abandoned toolshed in Saskatchewan was the Photo of the Day on the National Geographic Web site.

“I haven’t been entering many contests lately,” said Postma. “I just haven’t had the time. I’m looking forward to getting back up to the Churchill Wild lodges. You just never know what’s going to show up when you go out the front door (of the lodges).”

Polar bears sparring at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Polar bears sparring at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Photo Credit: Robert Postma

“The arctic foxes, like the red foxes, will sometimes come right up to you at Seal River,” said Postma. “We caught a red fox watching two polar bears sparring last year. There’s also an elusive wolverine at Dymond Lake. And there’s something very special about a backlit polar bear walking towards you through the mist at Seal River, as the sunlight cuts through the steam rising off the icy coastal boulders.”

“If the weather is clear we should also be able to get some great shots of the aurora borealis,” said Postma, who wandered about the Nanuk compound in the wee hours of the morning last year helping guests photograph the northern lights. This year he’ll again be tasked with helping guests take better photographs, while also giving tutorials and slideshows during the evenings.

Northern lights over Nanuk.

Northern lights over Nanuk. Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Postma has worked on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut and traveled all over North America, as well as to Iceland, Australia, Bolivia, Peru, Guyana and Lebanon. His photos have appeared in numerous publications including National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Up Here, Our Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Astronomy, as well as in brochures, annual reports and calendars. Examples of his work can be seen on the gallery section of his Web site at www.DistantHorizons.ca and on his Robert Postma Photography Facebook Page.

Postma prefers on-the-ground polar bear photography over the tundra buggy variety. He likes to get down low; to look into his subject’s eyes; in an effort to portray emotion in his photographs. Crouched down, lens ready, face-to-face with a polar bear, your heart pounding….

Could you take the shot?

Polar bear paw closeup

Sometimes you do not need to see the entire bear… Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Who made Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge a success this year? Everyone.

by Nolan Booth, Director of Lodge Operations, Churchill Wild

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Well, once again we find ourselves in the off season, so that means sitting around the office drinking coffee and Baileys in our pajamas and telling stories.

Kidding!

Sure there is some storytelling going on, after all, you helped us create some wonderful memories once again this year! But there are more exciting projects on the horizon for next year at Churchill Wild, and that means work, enjoyable as it may be.

Some great things happened this season, especially at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. I can’t help thinking back to the seemingly endless flights, the hauling of building materials, the long hours and the extraordinary teamwork that resulted in the construction of our beautiful new viewing and dining lounge.

Morning, afternoon and evening we were treated to wildlife outside those big picture windows overlooking Hudson Bay. And what a fabulous place to dine and socialize after a day of walking with polar bears!

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Robert Postma photo.

It was all worth it.

The wolves, black bears, polar bears, moose and the crazy list of birds that followed us from June until September has my head spinning, not to mention the fascinating guest that followed us along the Hudson Bay coast, trudging through the mud and scanning the horizon for movement. Or just sitting in the willows eating berries and laughing at us like nobody was watching.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was a delight to be involved with this season and I look forward to many more Arctic Safaris in the seasons to come.

The Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake started up after a short stint back home with my wife Doreen and the boys, and then I was off again, this time prepping camp for our time “playing” in the snow with polar bears and Arctic Foxes.

Our resident polar bear “Scarbrow” appeared early in the season, which shocked all of us, as we were sure he wouldn’t be back to tolerate us again. Thankfully we were wrong! Scarbrow came and went all season and posed for many fabulous photos.

Scarbrow the polar bear, Dymond Lake Lodge, Manitoba, Canada

Scarbrow was back again at Dymond Lake Lodge!

The Arctic Foxes this year at Dymond Lake were phenomenal. When Terry and I closed up camp we counted 20 plus on the lake and around the compound. There were also a couple of snowy owls and an awesome gyrfalcon that joined us in the evenings as the northern lights put on some incredible shows.

I thought I would be back to sitting around in the office for the winter, but Mike (Reimer) has already moved me off my chair and aimed me at a construction project at Nanuk that could only be rivalled by last year’s feat. So off I go again with a brain full of everything from airplanes, windows, carpenters and polar bears. It’s shaping up to be another awesome year at Churchill Wild and we have not even rung the bell for 2014 yet!

I would like to thank everyone involved at our lodges this year, whether you were a boss, staff, wife and kids, contractor, photographer, guide, culinary genius, pilot or guest. You all made this year little bit easier; the impossible possible; the hard work worth it; and certainly a lot more fun!

I look back now at what we’ve accomplished; at the lives of those we have touched; and the memories we’ve created; with humble thanks, and I can’t help but get excited about doing it all over again next year, with all of you…

and the polar bears!

Polar bear standing at Dymond Lake Lodge, Great Ice Bear Adventure.

Where did everybody go?

 

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.