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Posts Tagged ‘polar bear photography’

Furry boulders and not-so-feathery seabirds at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Guest Post and Photos by Katlin Miller

Author Katlin Miller

Author Katlin Miller outside Seal River Heritage Lodge

When most people think about polar bears, they probably picture massive white bears roaming a never-ending blanket of snow and ice hunting for ringed seals. Similarly, the word beluga likely triggers reminiscences of the song ‘Baby Beluga’ or the white whales featured in some of SeaWorld’s most popular exhibits. For three Colorado residents however, the lasting memories of polar bears and belugas will, forever more, be much, much different.

Johnnie, Tasha, and Katlin Miller, of Granby, recently joined 15 other adventurers from around the world to embark on a week-long vacation of a lifetime. Flying from Denver to Winnipeg to Churchill and finally to the Seal River Heritage Lodge, the three weren’t exactly sure what they were in for when they signed up for Churchill Wild’s Birds, Bears and Belugas trip.

Most wildlife enthusiasts know that if you want to see polar bears, Churchill, Canada, is the place to go. After all, it is commonly identified as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and even has its own polar bear jail just outside the town limits.

Tundra buggies are the most common mode of travel for polar bear seekers wishing to see the top carnivore of the Arctic. However, tundra buggies are not the only option for polar bear viewing. If you want the real, on-the-ground, polar bear experience, you’ve got to go with Churchill Wild.

Foggy morning polar bear at Seal River

Foggy morning polar bear at Seal River

Located on Hudson Bay near the Seal River Estuary, Seal River Heritage Lodge is one of several Churchill Wild lodges located in the wilds of Canada. Known for being a secluded getaway, you won’t see another soul in sight, or even another plane, train, or automobile.

The little single-engine “Beaver” that drops you off at the Lodge is the only connection you will have to the outside world until it returns to pick you up five days later. Hopefully you learn to like the members of the group, and the lodge staff, because you are literally stuck with these folks for the duration of your trip.

Admittedly, the lodge staff, made up entirely of immediate and extended family members, with the exception of the two guides/bodyguards, were absolutely stellar and heart-warming. The food was also five-star cuisine!

Our fellow adventurers were also great people with many diverse experiences and backgrounds. In addition to the three of us (ranchers), we were accompanied by a principal, swimming pool builder, retired real estate agent, chemist, accountant, family of four, hilarious doctor from the Bronx, psychiatrist, librarian, and even a famous travel writer.

While tundra buggies provide a safe, high-perched, behind-the glass, kind of experience; it would be deemed BORING when compared to Churchill Wild’s EXHILIRATING walking trips. Furthermore, tundra buggies only provide polar bear viewing opportunities in the fall, whereas Churchill Wild offers summer trips too.

Photographing polar bears at ground level

Photographing polar bears at ground level

These summer trips provide tourists with a different scene for polar bear viewing. You won’t see any snow, ice, or ringed seals this time of year. In fact, the typical white background of most polar bear photos is replaced with the vibrant pinks and greens of lush fireweed, grass, and willows. Ringed seals are also replaced with sik siks (arctic prairie dogs).

Likewise, the ferocious, terrifying, killing beasts of the winter turn into a mellow, sleepy bums in the summer. They often lie around on the rocks during low tide and appear as “polar boulders”. Sometimes it takes a second, third, or even a fourth look to see if that boulder over there seems to have a furry texture or if it’s moving. If the true identity of that boulder is too difficult to discern from the “compound”, than why not just take a hike and see for yourself?

Don’t get me wrong, safety is still of the utmost concern and one is constantly guarded by guys with guns when outside the compound, but the nerves of walking alongside the largest land carnivore on earth seem less than frightening. Even up-close-and-personal encounters provided exciting, yet comfortable, viewing experiences.

Churchill Wild is the ONLY tourist company in the world that allows you to step outside the safe confines of a vehicle, fence, or structure and actually walk with polar bears. You walk out in the open and approach bears to within 50 yards both on land and in the zodiac boats.

When in the compound (the fenced yard surrounding the lodge, made 12’ high with 6” wire mesh), guests can literally get within a few feet of the bears. The guide did mention at one point that the fence would not keep a desperate bear out, but rather just act as a deterrent or small obstacle.

Nevertheless, we all flocked to the fence when the opportunity arose to stare into the eyes of passing polar bear. The bear in the photo album below was totally calm and seemed to care less that there were a bunch of ecstatic tourists just on the other side of this seemingly wimpy fence. He stuck around for an hour or more, posed several times for the camera, fiddled with a bird feather on the edge of the deck, swatted some nagging mosquitos, and even took a snooze before our eyes!

Another time, we got very close to three different polar bears swimming in the water. We were in our zodiacs, but still…they were so close and are excellent swimmers.

Though polar bears often steal the show in Churchill, an equally impressive distant relative, the beluga whale, deserves just as much credit. Thousands of belugas migrate into the Hudson Bay during the summer to raise their young, shred dead skin, and enjoy the summer season. Their spirited chirps, whistles, and chatter, ring underwater and righteously honor their reputation as “Sea Canaries” (aka not-so-feathery seabirds).

Beluga whale couple at Seal River

Beluga whale couple at Seal River

Seeing beluga whales from above the water is majestic in itself, but the real action comes when you take the plunge into the water with them. Even though they are carnivores in the sense that they eat fish and other sea creatures, belugas are very gentle and friendly when it comes to people. Just hook up your snorkel and face mask and start humming your favorite song.

The belugas don’t care if you’re a rock star or a beginner singing nursery rhymes; to them, it’s all new and different. Before long, their curiosity becomes irresistible and belugas start showing up everywhere. Swimming within inches of you, the whales sometimes even give little nudges, nibbles, or even a kiss. It is truly a life-changing experience to be touched by a beluga!

All in all, Churchill Wild’s catalog of world-class trips is a MUST-DO for any avid traveler or wildlife aficionado. From furry boulders to feathery and not-so-feathery seabirds, you’ll see it all at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Trips are suited for all sorts of people. Kids, parents, grandparents, singles, families, and couples are all welcome, and everyone will thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to the Birds, Bears, and Belugas trip that the Millers took, Churchill Wild also offers several other polar bear and wildlife-viewing trips.

Churchill Wild does not disappoint!

Note: A selection of Katlin’s photos from Seal River Heritage Lodge are included below. You can view her full photo album from the Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure here.

 

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.

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma to lead Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Polar Bear Roll - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Polar Bear Roll - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma will lead the 2013 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in early September, and he’s excited about getting back on the tundra at ground-level with the world’s largest land carnivore.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” said Postma speaking from his home in Whitehorse, Yukon. “I’ve never been to Nanuk, but have wanted to go ever since I started visiting the Churchill Wild Lodges, especially to head a photo safari. I’m looking forward to helping the other photographers get some great shots, give tips and advice, answer any questions they might have.”

The 41-year-old Postma has worked as professional photographer since 2003. His photos have appeared in numerous magazines including National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Up Here, Our Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Astronomy, as well as in brochures, annual reports and calendars. On April 2, 2012 his photo of a great horned owl bursting from an abandoned toolshed in Saskatchewan appeared as the Photo of the Day on the National Geographic Web site. Examples of Postma’s work can also be seen on the gallery section of his website at at www.DistantHorizons.ca and also on his Robert Postma Photography Facebook Page.

A few of Postma’s photo contest wins include the 2010 Banff Mountain Festival Photography Competition, The Nature of Things and Planet in Focus Nature in Focus Environmental Photography Competition, the Show us your Canada photo contest in 2004 and 2008, the Up Here Fantastic Photo Contest and Canadian Geographic Photo Club’s Annual Photography Contest in 2011, for which the theme was extreme weather. He has worked on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut and traveled all over North America as well as to Iceland, Australia, Bolivia, Peru, Guyana and Lebanon.

The Nanuk Polar Bear Safari represents a perfect progression for Postma, who was part of the group that attended the 2012 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River.

“I always look forward to my trips with Churchill Wild,” he said. “I‘ve been to both Seal River Heritage Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge and they were phenomenal experiences — first class, great meals, gracious hosts and excellent guides. And for some reason I’m just drawn to remote landscapes.”

It doesn’t get much more remote than Nanuk. Located approximately 150 kilometers southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay Coast within the Kaskatamagan Wildlife Management Area, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is only a 10 minute bush plane flight from Canada’s historic York Factory, the original trading post established in 1684 by Governor George Geyer of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

“We still find remnants of old ships occasionally in the mud flats,” said Churchill Wild’s Mike Reimer in an earlier interview, perhaps referring to the Battle of Hudson Bay in 1697, the largest Arctic naval battle ever fought. “From brass railings to cannons to old grave sites, you never know what you might find. And our guides are direct descendants of the Western Woods Cree, the “Home Guard Indians” who worked with the Hudson Bay Company over 300 years ago at the original settlements — guiding, hunting, interpreting and procuring wild game and furs for them.”

And not only is the area surrounding Nanuk drenched in history, it’s right in the heart both the newly discovered polar bear denning areas and the impending solar maximum, which occurs approximately every 11 years. According to Canadian Geographic in their January/February article Sun Struck, 2013 promises to be a once-in-a-decade opportunity to experience the sun’s magnetic power at its height, which could mean northern lights displays that are even more spectacular than usual at Nanuk.

“Solar activity, — flares, sunspots, solar winds and other forms of radiation — is governed by changes in the sun’s magnetic field,” writes Peter McMahon in the article. “These activities wax and wane on a fairly predictable 11-year cycle known as the solar maximum. The peak of this cycle hits this year (predicted to be September 2013 or later), which is why skywatchers and scientists are so excited. The solar maximum should bring with it the brightest and most frequent auroral displays for more than a decade.”

“If we get clear skies during the solar max we could see some stunning aurora borealis displays,” said Postma, who has taken numerous photos of nature’s most spectacular light show.  But what he’s really looking forward to is photographing polar bears at ground level on a picture-perfect backdrop that includes the Hudson Bay coastline, fall colours and beautiful interior lagoons.

“I’ve photographed polar bears from both the tundra buggies and on the ground,” said Postma. “But it’s on the ground where you can really get the good shots. I like to try to portray emotion in my photographs. I want people to experience what I was feeling when I took the shot. I like to get down low, looking up at the bears. People don’t think about that, but when you’re on your knees at eye level with a polar bear, it’s intense, and that comes across in the photos.”

“If the bears are interested they will sometimes get as close to 30 feet from you,” continued Postma” “But I’ve never felt scared or threatened. The guides are knowledgeable; they know the bears and they always have their eye on them. All precautions are taken.”

After a hearty breakfast, Postma and his band of photographers will hike the tundra in search of polar bears and the perfect shot. They’ll do the same after lunch and sometimes even after dinner. That’s assuming they aren’t interrupted by polar bears at the Lodge fence or a spectacular Northern Lights display.

“Walking on the tundra up there is a special kind of experience,” said Postma. “I’ve done it a lot, but I’ll never get bored of the wide open spaces. It awakens a part of me that just lays dormant.”

“It’s good for the soul.”

Polar Bears Sparring - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Polar Bears Sparring - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Top African Safari Guide Ian Johnson visits Seal River Heritage Lodge

It was almost a year ago that we met with Ian Johnson of Epic Private Journeys in the Johannesburg Airport and chatted about “stepping out” of the warm safari scene in Africa and organizing a slightly more chilling expedition in the form of an Arctic Safari.

One of Africa’s top professional guides and photographers, Ian was true to his word, and ventured over to visit us with friends Soren and Egler from Shanghai, to experience an arctic adventure with our great ice bears.

Below normal temperatures, down to -38 C with the wind chill, delighted the polar bears during Ian’s visit, and resulted in very quick ice formations reminiscent of the ’80s. As a result, the bears began their steady trek out onto the frozen surface of Hudson Bay.

Everyone agreed that the early accumulation of ice and snow cover created some incredible sea and landscapes as a fantastic backdrop for our bears and foxes. As the bears ventured back out onto the ice we were able to get some over the top shots that included the new ice formations.

Thanks for visiting Ian, Soren and Egler!

Ian Johnson Photos


Shoot the Light’s Charles Glatzer applauds recent ground-level polar bear photo shoot at Seal River

Polar bear walking towards, Seal River, Manitoba, Canada

Are you ready for this?

Shoot the Light is all about capturing subjects in that perfect light, which as you know, can be quite elusive.

Thankfully, our lodges at Dymond Lake and Seal River have been blessed with an abundance of fabulous lighting over the seasons!

Much to the polar bears’ delight, temperatures have recently dropped well below normal, and along with the cold weather have come welcome clear skies from the northwest.

Charles Glatzer deemed his photography adventure here a few days ago today as one of the finest ground-level bear photo shoots we have done with him at Churchill Wild, despite wind chill temperatures that reached -35C!s

Red foxes are in abundance, but the arctic foxes should be here soon!

Photo gallery below courtesy of Charles Glatzer. Thanks Charles!