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Journey to Northern Manitoba, part I

You may have seen my polar bear photos, so let me tell you a bit about my recent trip to Churchill, Manitoba.

After a quick overnight in Winnipeg, I boarded a charter flight north to Churchill. The landscape below was peppered in farms at first, then forests and lakes, then the roads disappear, then only wilderness stretching beyond the horizon. Several wildfires could be seen, burning unchecked. Forest, lakes, marsh, forest, and more lakes. Out of nowhere a dirt road appears, followed quickly by a runway, and touchdown.

On the western shores of Hudson Bay, northern Manitoba, lies the small, rugged village of Churchill, with roughly 950+ weathered residents. Only accessible by air and rail (although the rail is down indefinitely due to flooding last spring), it’s a remote outpost which happens to lie smack-dab in the middle of polar bear country. Brilliant, eh? At first glance it’s nearly apocalyptic—derelict buildings and large machinery graveyards surrounded is a surreal landscape of coniferous trees and rocky shoreline. Locals buzz around on ATV’s and beat up trucks. There’s very little “charm” at first glance but charm is a luxury that living in the far north doesn’t afford. The warm months are short, and much of the time is spent recovering from the long winters, and preparing for the next winter. There is, however, abundant life wherever you look, apparent in the smiling faces of the locals, the colorful art murals on many buildings, a hustle and bustle of tourists and guides setting out for an experience in the surrounding wilderness, and flocks of Canada geese foraging on the taiga. Most importantly, Churchill is real, raw, and wild; preferable to charm any day in my book.

The recorded history of the area dates back over a thousand years- migrating First Nations peoples from the Dene tribe arriving from further north around 500AD, followed by the Thule (Inuit) a few hundred years later, and the area was also hunted and inhabited by the Chipewyan and Cree natives. European settlers didn’t arrive until 1619 and briefly established a trading post, but only 3 of 64 members of the initial expedition survived the first winter, and sailed one of their ships back to Denmark. It’s hard to fathom the hardships and misery these first settlers endured, and most succumbed to, completely unprepared for nature's frigged wrath. The Hudson Bay Company succeeded in establishing a permanent settlement in 1717, and remained relevant for some time as the fur trade boomed. As the fur trade eventually waned, the port of Churchill still remained critical for the trade of grains from farmers in the south. Railroad was slowly laid, and by the early 1900s the railroad connected Churchill to Winnipeg, allowing grain exports to sail out of the port of Churchill, which it did until August 2016! Now, the grain terminal rests abandoned, windows broken and dilapidated, and the railroad, a lifeline for the Churchill residents, flooded last spring sparking a political hot-potato on who is going to pay to rebuild it.

Now let me say, wildlife photography is not my forte. I’ve been fortunate enough to capture some strong wildlife photos, but they have been a result of luck and “right place, right time” more than anything. However, I do bow hunt for deer in the fall, and that skill set actually transfers quite well to wildlife photography (getting familiar with animal patterns, learning how to get close, etc.), yet purposeful wildlife photography, its equipment & techniques, is very unfamiliar to me—new territory. So unfamiliar, that I had to buy a telephoto lens for this trip. I went with a Tamron 150-600mm f5-6.3, and waiting in the wings was my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 if I was lucky enough to get really close. The 150-600mm is my first long lens, and in the few weeks prior to Churchill, I practiced in the woods near my house. I quickly learned A) it is quite challenging to get a crisp/sharp image, as any vibration is magnified at the outer reaches of the lens B) the need to adjust your settings to the current situation before shooting—don’t wait for the subject to appear before choosing your settings, you’ll miss the shot, and C) when you are ready to shoot, blast away—use burst mode and hope that a few come out nice and sharp. I’m willing to get more technical about my equipment, so if you’d like to know more, just ask! So, with my limited experience and knowledge of wildlife photography, I was ready to see some polar bears!

The first 24 hours were nerve racking… No bear sightings. Shit. This was only a 4 day visit to Churchill, and my expectations were unrealistically high, absurdly high, despite my futile attempts to bring them down. I was with a local guide (armed with bear spray and a shotgun), as well as a small group of tourists. Let me tell you, they all helped to diminish my expectations… and my will to live: “Not the best time of year to find polar bears” “Not looking good today!” “I’m just here to see beluga whales.” “Maybe they don’t like my perfume.” “Global warming killed them all.” “Can we go look for birds now?” I was ready to offer myself as bear bait.

Granted, August isn’t the optimal time of year to see polar bears but it is quite likely to see them. In broad strokes, polar bears of this region are most successful hunters when they’re out on the frozen Hudson Bay- catching seals and beluga whales. When the waters thaw in May-June, the bears are left roaming the rocky shoreline, lazing in the summer sun, cooling off in the water, eating when the opportunity arises, but living off fat reserves and waiting for the Bay to freeze over again in November.

We scoured for hours, posting up on overlooks and glassing the rocky shoreline. White rocks kept fooling my eyes, and were soon dubbed “rock bears.” But, in the last hour of Day 2, the guide noticed a game-changer--- a fresh beluga whale carcass, left behind by the receding tide. Only a raven had found it so far, and was busy eating the whales soft eyeballs. (Lovely, eh? I hate to tell you, but mother nature is often a cold-hearted bitch and gives zero fucks. More on this subject later) However, we knew it would only be a matter of time before the carcass would attract polar bears. Not 20 minutes later, the guide yelled “Everyone in the vehicle, polar bears coming!!” She had somehow spotted a sow and two cubs, abstracted on the distant horizon by shimmering heat waves, about a mile and a half away, making their way in our direction.

The anticipation grew stronger as the three bears covered ground quickly. I must admit, I was dying to get out of the vehicle and watch their approach from the ground, but I had booked a “wildlife safari” with rules, and considering I was on a business trip, the rules had to be followed-- begrudgingly on my best behavior, story of my life. The outfitters and guides discourage (and rightly so) stressing the bears out, and set strict policies that are not bent or broken. We certainly could have observed from the ground as they approached, and had a much more adrenaline pumping experience while still remaining safe and without stressing out the bears, however, in this scenario someone elderly falls, the bear charges, the elderly is eaten, onlookers are horrified and crying. Thus, rules are rules.

The cubs were 2nd year cubs, and already about the size of your average black bear. We assumed they were making their way to the beluga carcass, but the wind was blowing the whales scent away from their approach, and I realized they were unaware of the feast nearby. I was fighting an aggressive temptation to herd the sow towards the carcass. Meals are few and far between this time of year, and a fresh whale carcass would alleviate some serious stresses on this family. I didn’t attempt to herd them however, because, well you know- they’re friggin’ wild polar bears. Sadly, they walked right past, oblivious to the 12 foot long, 1,500 lb meal only 150 yards away from them. Damnit, polar bear mom! Get your head in the game, dude!!

I snapped a few photos of this encounter out of fear that it might be my only encounter with bears on this trip. However, I knew none of these shots would be portfolio contenders—too distant, not enough interest in the foreground/background. It was interesting to see them investigate a huge shipwreck—the mother didn’t seem puzzled by it, she had likely seen it before, but the cubs were intrigued, see picture. The 3 guys in the foreground are a British film crew and their hired bear guard. They reappear later in this story...

At their closest point they were about 75 yards away, and kept on the move until they disappeared into some nearby spruce trees. This 2nd photo is them at their closest point.

The guide, the tourists, and myself were elated. Some exclaimed “we’ve seen polar bears so any more sightings are just a bonus!” While this is the healthy outlook to have, and I wished I shared it, as a photographer I knew I didn’t have “the shot” I was after. Photography is a funny thing, especially when it has evolved beyond mere hobby—at times photography can bring you closer/more intimate to an experience, to appreciate the subtle beauty and micro-compositions inside of a scene that most people overlook. Other times it can be distracting, and withdraws you from the interaction—becoming objective only, rather than subjective to the range of emotions one should be feeling. Either way, I was encouraged by this first encounter, but I was greedy—I wanted to be closer, more adrenaline, better shots.

Looking at my schedule for the next few days, I saw that the following afternoon there was nothing booked, nor anything for the morning after—so that left me with about 24 hours of “free time.” With this whale carcass just waiting to be discovered, I decided to come back to that spot come hell or high water the next day. I would rent a car, and hopefully find a “bear guard” to accompany me… stay tuned for Part II.

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