From polar bear dens to the Garden of Eden and back, award-winning photographer, author and filmmaker Jad Davenport is on assignment with National Geographic Creative this week at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
Davenport will be searching for mothers with newborn cubs along with seven other adventurous photographers on the Polar Bear Den Emergence Quest. He was on this trip last year and also led two Arctic Safaris last summer for Churchill Wild at Seal River Heritage Lodge.
He’ll be doing the same this year.
“I’m excited to get back there for Den Emergence,” said Davenport, “It’s a true adventure. There’s no guarantee of anything, and that makes it a real expedition. It was epic last year. Massive snowstorms. You wake up each morning and you have no idea what you’re going to see or what’s going to happen.”
“Last year we found a wolverine trotting down the runway, which was great,” said Davenport. “We also found wolves. It’s not a canned African safari where they say ‘Okay, we just got radio call. There’s a lioness and a kill. Where going to drive there for 1 p.m. and at 2 p.m. we’re going to go see the giraffes.’”
This year’s group of hardcore adventurers and photographers are hoping to get that always-elusive shot of a mother and newborn cubs, something they just missed last year, but for the right reasons. First Nations guide Albert “Butch” Saunders and Churchill Wild co-owner Mike Reimer were out on a scouting mission in a different area than the group and found a mother and cubs, but did not chase or try to corral the trio, for fear of causing undue stress.
NEW! Mom with newborn cubs seen on 2018 Den Emergence Quest! More updates coming soon!
“I’m a big believer that Mike is on to something with this,” said Davenport. “So, I wanted to invest my time with him on it. But we don’t want to do anything that would cause problems for the wildlife. No one in the group does. This trip attracts people of a similar mindset. They’re all looking for real adventure and photographs that tell a unique story, but not at the expense of the wildlife.”
Journey to the Garden of Eden
Davenport is a long way from the Garden of Eden, which he was exploring this winter while working on a story for the March edition of Coastal Living Magazine.
“I take the reader from the middle of Iraq, from Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and then I chase the ghost of Major-General Charles George Gordon, who believed that he found the exotic Tree of Knowledge and the Garden of Eden on the Seychelles Islands. It’s all about my journey from Iraq to these remote islands in the Indian Ocean, from jumping off a Black Hawk helicopter into this dusty war-torn valley, to this quest for a more figurative Garden of Eden, on islands that weren’t discovered by humans up until the last several hundred years.”
Davenport recalled the door gunner on the helicopter screaming above the roar of the blades as he jumped, “This is the Garden of Eden! We’re standing in the Garden of Eden!”
“And I looked around at the smoke and the soldiers and the dust, and I’m thinking, this is not what Sunday School promised me,” said Davenport. “So, this is about my search for the Garden of Eden with peacocks and waterfalls and jungles. I followed the maps that General Gordon drew back in the 1800s.”
Davenport’s latest adventure yarn will be the last chapter in his new book Legendary Lands, which will explore imaginary places including the Garden of Eden, the Fountain of Youth, Bali Ha’i and Shangri-La.
“It talks about these mythical places that we can all relate to, that have their bearings in real world places, but that we’ve never seen,” said Davenport. “I traveled to places like the island in the Caribbean that Daniel Dafoe based the story of Robinson Crusoe on, and I explore the island looking for signs. It’s been a fun journey exploring these places and it has probably taken me about 10 years.”
Specialized photo tours, with an on-assignment feel
Between exploring mythical places and polar bear dens, photographing and writing, Davenport has also been leading specialized photo tours for organizations that include Crystal Cruises and the Ritz-Carlton New York. Unlike workshops however, where a photographer might give a talk and instruction, guests are signing up to take photos shoulder-to-shoulder with Davenport and learn about what it’s like to be a photographer on assignment.
“The New York Times did a story about the whole idea of enrichment,” said Davenport, who was featured in the photograph that ran with the story. “It’s about the new trend of brands offering enhanced guest experiences through partnerships with professionals in areas such as photography.”
In conjunction with Coastal Living Magazine, Crystal Cruises hired Davenport to lead daily photography excursions with people sailing around Western Europe.
“That was a big hit,” said Davenport. “There were 200 passengers and it sold out almost instantly and people really enjoyed it. We’re talking about doing it again this year in Tahiti. People were able to go out and shoot elbow-to-elbow with me and then sit with me to review photos. I wasn’t lecturing them on F-stops and apertures, although I can help with that. We would talk about using different light and telling a story with their photos. I want it to be personal. I want people to be out there and get the whole on-assignment feel.”
People love to hear stories about what it’s like to be an on-assignment photographer and Davenport certainly has a truckload of memories to draw from after covering a dozen wars from Bosnia to Iraq. He’s also a member of The Explorers Club and has worked in over 150 countries and on all continents.
Davenport’s stories range from jumping out of helicopters in Iraq to dropping his camera in Cuba and having a cobbler try to bang the lens out with a hammer, to how he got through check points for five years as a war photographer using a rejection letter from LIFE Magazine.
“I never said I worked for LIFE,” said Davenport. “But the letter had the big LIFE logo on it and I would just pull the letter out at the checkpoints and they would say, ‘Okay you can go.’” People love the real stories of what it’s like to be a photographer on assignment, and the little tricks I teach them. Like the fact that I’ve got to get all the colours, the reds, blues, yellows and greens for my editors, because each page needs to have a representative of each, and how and why that helps you tell your story.”
A multiple winner of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award and Canada’s Northern Lights Award for travel writing and photography, Davenport has also photographed on assignment in Greenland, Svalbard, Nunavut, Alaska, Siberia, the Russian Far East, Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia. Over the past few years his National Geographic Creative assignments have also included traveling to the Hudson Bay coast of Canada and leading groups for Churchill Wild.
Caribou, polar bears and black bears highlight Arctic safari
“The Arctic Safari was unbelievable,” said Davenport. “We had black bears, the caribou were there, we had Sandhill Cranes and northern lights, great food and a nice mix of beautiful late-summer days along with some blasting snow, so we really got the best of everything. The caribou looked magnificent. We saw several hundred easily, in various groups just moving through the area. We spent a lot of time just sitting down watching them walk past us.
“Our guide, Terry (Elliot) did a wonderful job. And the group was fun. I think that’s what’s great about the Arctic Safari is that it really attracts people similar to those on the Den Emergence trip. They want adventure. They’re willing to give up a little bit of comfort for a true Arctic experience, even though Churchill Wild sets up these beautiful tents on the tundra and they have first class cuisine. And not just on the safari side of the Arctic Safari, which is the Seal River Heritage Lodge part of the trip, with the polar bears and belugas, but also when you’re in the true Arctic, right up on the edge of Nunavut.”
Even in the worst weather, guests on the Arctic Safari were hungry for adventure.
“I was going to go hiking one day and the rain was blowing sideways,” said Davenport. “And I had three people ask if they could join me. We ended up having a great encounter with a black bear. It was fantastic. We were trekking our way across the tundra and this bear ran right across our path and we followed him down into a valley. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’re up there on this vast landscape standing under that massive sky, and between you and the north pole there’s not a road. There’s nothing. It’s just you and the Arctic.”
Davenport’s wife Karin and daughters Annika (11) and Skye (8) joined him at Seal River Heritage Lodge for the second part of the Arctic Safari and they were treated to a rare sighting.
“We had a Mom and three cubs,” said Davenport. “That was the first time I’d ever seen three polar bear cubs together. She walked right past the lodge, Right through the water with three little cubs. That was a wonderful moment for guests. Mom looked great too. Really healthy. My daughter Annika wants to write a blog post about the experience, from a kid’s perspective. She took photos and kept a journal while she was there.
“I think people love Seal River because you really feel like you’re in the Arctic. You’ve left Churchill behind and you’re right on the water. The water is so key to this experience, and to the polar bears. People not only love being right on the coast and being able to touch the ocean, but also the fact that once they step into the Zodiacs they’re in Nunavut. Some of these people may never get to Nunavut, but once you’re out in the low tide zone in Hudson Bay you’re in Canada’s newest territory.
“And of course, the archeological ruins are fascinating at Seal River. It’s where the Cree, the Dene and the Inuit all converged. And the Europeans were there too. It’s one of those rare points on the map where four cultures intersected. There was a point of land there where we photographed some ancient tent rings. We took people out to them and howled up a bunch of wolves. You’re sitting in these ancient stone tent rings and you’re howling, and wolves are howling back at you. Incredible.”
History and a haunted coast at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge
Davenport found more history, with a twist, at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, as well as more mothers and cubs.
“We had amazing cub action,” said Davenport. “Every time we went out it seemed liked we were running into a mother with a couple of cubs. And they were super curious. They just kept getting closer and closer, to the point where our guides Andy (MacPherson) and Josh (Robson) had to shoo them back to Mom.”
Like all who had come before him, Davenport was hypnotized by the spirits of Nanuk, which drift knowingly through the forests and down the coastline, secretly riding the mists, winds and waters deep into the souls of all who visit. Stewart Webber, the former owner of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, called it the “Nanuk Magic” and added, “Mike (Reimer) felt it immediately.”
“We snowmobiled 40 km east from Nanuk to York Factory last year,” said Davenport. “To me, that was one of the high points in my life, to see the remnants of that settlement. It was essentially Canada’s Jamestown, where it all began. It was the heartbeat of Canada, where all the furs came in. The birth of the fur trade that fired the engine of modern Canada in the 1600s.”
Renowned as the most significant Hudson Bay Company historical site in North America, York Factory was built in 1684 on the north bank of the Hayes River, on a low-lying peninsula between the mouth of the Hayes and Nelson rivers, 11 km inland from Hudson Bay and 224 km south south-east of Churchill. The York Factory post changed hands between the French and the English several times from 1684 to 1713.
In 1697, the waters near York Factory were the site of the Battle of Hudson Bay, which Peter C. Newman termed “the greatest Arctic sea battle in North American history.” The French sent a fleet of warships to Hudson Bay, but only one, the Pélican, reached its target. And a day after arriving at York Factory, the Pélican was engaged in a battle with the Royal Navy warship Hampshire and two additional armed freighters owned by the Hudson Bay Company, the Dering and the Hudson Bay.
Despite facing a 118 to 44-gun disadvantage, the Pélican broadsided the Hampshire and sank it. The Dering fled to the Nelson River and the Hudson Bay surrendered. The badly damaged Pélican later hit a sandbar and its crew was forced to swim several kilometers to shore.
York Factory was held by the French from 1697-1713 before being restored to the Hudson Bay Company by The Treaty of Utrecht. In 1782 the post was burned down by the French and a rebuilding project that was started in 1785 was stopped in 1778 when the Hayes River rose 10 meters and flooded the site.
A new site for the York Factory was selected 1 1/2 km upriver, where it sits today, and while slow in development, the new post was complete by 1819. The new York Factory became the major fur trading post for the Hudson Bay Company until 1873, when its population grew too large for the local ecosystems to support, and it was closed as the headquarters and supply department for the Northern Department of the Hudson Bay Company.
The annual transatlantic shipping cycle stopped in 1931 and in 1957 York Factory was closed permanently. In 1960, York Factory was declared a National Historic Site and it has been operated by Parks Canada as a tourist attraction ever since.
And if that wasn’t enough history, nearly 4,000 years before the first Europeans arrived, the area was home to Aboriginal peoples that included the Predorset, Dorset, Thule, Cree, Dene and Inuit, many of whom lived a nomadic existence that followed the seasonal cycles of fish, game and berries.
“It’s a supernatural coast,” said Davenport. “It’s probably one of the wildest corners of Hudson Bay. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is right on that coast, and when you’re traveling along it you feel like you’re on a mystical landscape that has legends attached to it. And there are old ship cannons sitting in front of the lodge that might be hundreds of years old. When you visit Nanuk you’re not just at an eco-lodge, you’re really at the edge of the frontier, what was once the frontier. You get those long vistas along the coast where you can see for miles and miles and the forests kind of creep out against the water. It’s got that feel of history. It’s a very haunted coast and I love it.
“The fact that I write and make films also allows me to help the guests with both their storytelling and videos. I can teach them how to shoot, but I’m not there just to help them capture a pretty picture of a bear, I’m there to help them capture the story of their whole adventure.”
Now imagine yourself on assignment at Nanuk or Seal River, on a haunted stretch of Hudson Bay coastline. Sun setting low over the bay. Wind in your hair. Spirits in the mist. Polar bear in your lens, or not, there’s a story to be told here.