October 25, 2011

Canadian Low Arctic, October 12-19, 2011

A five year old male polar bear rests in the shade of the willows as high winds blow along the shores of Hudson Bay in the Canadian Low Arctic. Captured with a Canon 7D 70-200/2.8L IS II in aperture priority mode with an exposure bias of + 1/3 at ISO400, f/3.5, and 1/250th of a second. The camera was handheld.


I have spent the last six months looking forward to this trip. I love cold weather, remote places and powerful wildlife, so it was only a matter of time before I ended up in the Arctic to photograph polar bears. I thought that it would be something that would have to wait until I was a bit older, as Arctic trips, especially those designed to photograph polar bears, tend to be very expensive. When this opportunity presented itself to me, I knew that I must take advantage and head north.

October 12
I went to bed late on the 11, because I could not sleep. The alarm was set for 04:30h and I was awake and waiting for it. By 05:30h my gear was packed and I was parked at the school waiting for others to arrive. Folks started to trickle in and we loaded up the van and left just after 06:00h.

We made the mistake of driving through Williston, ND. which meant that we encountered traffic thanks to the massive oil field that is being drained in the area. With the mixed group of us in the van, conversations drifted from juvenile banter to birding onto environmental issues and back to birding again. Beyond the lively conversation the drive was uneventful until we hit the Canadian Border.

As we were traveling with our guide, we had a little more fun at the border crossing than we expected. Everyone was asked to head inside the border patrol office and left all of us a little scared. They ran our passports, asked each of us a long list of questions...and then as quickly as they hauled us in they said, "have a great trip, you can be on your way."

It started to rain as soon as we were back on the road, and it poured all the way to Winnipeg, MB. We had made reservations at a hotel right by the airport, but unbeknownst to us they had closed a few months before and moved a few miles down the road. My GPS batteries had died as the outlets in the van were down, and the guide's GPS was far enough outdated that it had no clue where the new hotel was. Lucky for us when we stopped at McDonald's (I love vacation when I can eat crappy food) I hopped on the Wifi and found where the hotel had moved to. We got checked in around 23:15h and try to steal a few hours of sleep before our flight into Churchill, MB. With the loss of an hour we were on the road for 18h 15m, and as it was just two of us doing the driving, we needed every bit of sleep we could get.

October 13th
Wakeup calls were ordered for 04:00h, so we could be at the airport before 05:30h. Small flights to the Arctic get bumped around timewise, so we were not surprised when we got to sleep in the airport for a few hours. When it was time to leave, we quickly loaded the plane and I went for a seat that would allow me to attempt to photograph the setting full moon as the sun rose. I am not one to sleep during a flight, but the students had no issue with it.

Calm Air has a policy that promises to get your "priority bag" in on your flight, but makes no such claim for your second bag. Most of the folks on our flight got both bags, but myself and two students got neither of our bags, so we were in the Arctic with only our carryons. I always travel with two camera bodies, a 17-40/4.0L, 70-200/2.8L IS II, 1.4TC III, 2.0TC III, and a few other required accessories in my carryon, so I had something to start the trip with while the airline tried to get us the rest of our stuff. I dress for flights, so that if things go wrong I have enough on me to survive. Unfortunately one of the students only had a pair of boat shoes on, so it was going to be an interesting first day in the Arctic.

We landed into another world than the one we left. Rain, fog, wind and 0C. The guide has a similar policy to mine, when you reach a new distention you head to a place where you can set your bearing to the new landscape, but given the conditions I don't know how well that worked for most of the students.

We needed to get to the research center relatively quickly, so the students who had received their bags could unpack before lunch. On the drive I took some long exposure shots to play with motion blur on the vibrant colors of the changing leaves that still hung to the willows. We did stop on the way to look out at the edge of the boreal forest. Once back on the road to the reserch center, we had to make one last stop to photograph a flock of willow ptarmigan in the rain and fog.

As we arrived at the research center, formally know as the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, everyone in the group was blown away by the facility. Those that had things to unpack did and after a brief tour, we were enjoying a great "Canadian" supper, and I was loving the fact that I eat whatever I want on vacation.

As soon as we cleaned up, we were all chomping at the bit to get out and look for polar bears, so we headed out.

We made a quick stop to look at the MV Ithica, a ship that ran aground years ago, and the bear hunt continued. We spotted one bear, but he was on an island and we could not get within 250m of him. Just as were were turning around a friend of our guide came by and told us that there was another bear on a caribou carcass about 2km away. Needles to say, we were off. The conditions were still harsh, but a polar bear on a caribou carcass is quite rare so we got out and began filling memory cards with photographs and video. Fortunately, a friend had joined the trip, he rode the train with his 600/4.0L IS and tripod and was nice enough to share with me a bit, so I was able to shoot both the wider view and a much tighter view of the situation that was a mere 109m away. It was a great experience to be kneeling on the ground one hundred meters away from the planets largest land carnivore.

I loved every minute of that first experience, even in the nasty conditions. One thing that stood out to me is that there were no ravens on the carcass, about a minute after I said that out loud one flew over the carcass. The bear went and laid down in the willows, so we took the opportunity to do some scouting for more bears in the area.

We found an Arctic hare, but that was about it for the rest of our scouting trip.

Dinner was excellent, but I had a hard time enjoying it because the weather had worsened and I still did not have my bags. I went back to my room to download and edit the days photos when I got news that the flight had been forced to divert to the next town to the South, but they would try and make it in later tonight, if conditions allowed (no roads connect the two towns). We had a group meeting and lecture at 19:30h and as we finished we got word that our bags had arrived. I was like a little boy on Christmas morning, racing down the hallway and ripping open my bag to check my 500/4.0L IS and tripod. All was in working order, so after taking a huge sigh of relief it was time to go unpack and keep editing photos. I needed to edit because I had promised all of you that I would try to get one or more photos online each night.

October 14th
The next morning we were all at breakfast at 07:00h and ready to leave at 08:00h (sunrise). Less than 3km from the center one of the students spotted an Arctic fox running along the road. There was next to no light, so we moved on quickly.

We went by the caribou carcass, but it was overrun with tundra buggies, so we left.

Heading north to Bird Cove we found some common eider and herring gulls before we decided to go for a hike through greywacke to get a better view of the MV Ithica. We caught a vole and found some beautiful muscle shells.

We packed bagged lunches, so we sat and watch the fog roll in off Hudson Bay as we ate. The fog was getting worse, so we took the opportunity to shoot some landscapes, but the promise of tundra buggies heading out for the day and a bear that could be waiting for us pulled the group back to caribou carcass.

The bear was waiting for us, and this time he had 5 ravens to keep him company. The fog kept getting worse, so we decided to head inland to see what we could find.

I spotted a flock of willow ptarmigan that put on a nice show for the better part of an hour. However, just like before, the promise of a bear on the caribou carcass brought us back toward the coast.

The fog had begun to lift so we did a little shooting, but before long a tundra buggy came through the fog on their way back home. As the tourists on tundra buggies are not allowed off the vehicles and onto the ground with bears, we had to head back to our vehicle. Most of the local guides keep their visitors inside the vehicles when the buggies are around, so not to force the buggy drivers to answer the difficult question of: "why do they get to be out on the ground?"

We as a group did not like shooting from the vehicle, so we headed back toward the center when a third buggy arrived and stopped in the area. On the way back our guide spotted a pair of willow ptarmigan and as we got out of the vehicle the professor spotted a wood frog, so I took a few photos of that.

We headed back to the center before sunset, as the weather conditions made it clear that we were not going to get any light. Another great dinner and lecture followed by some yoga and editing, then it was time for bed.

October 15th
Breakfast at 07:00h was missed by a few of the students, who wanted some extra sleep. Regardless we were off at 07:45h and on our way to Bird Cove to see what we could find. It was our lucky day, as a bear was sleeping and appeared to be waiting for us. We spent over an hour with the bear, and I was most surprised by the bear's dog-like behavior.

We visited the home of the friend of our guide, who lives in "polar bear country" year round, and her home was impressive with all of the precautions taken to keep bears out. On our way out from her home we stopped at a Canadian Eskimo Dog tie down site, where a few of the untied females visited our students. On our way back to the main road we also stopped at a few bear traps that have been used to trap problem bears.

With heavy rain we decided to head to Churchill, MB and have lunch at the community center. After that we headed to the town's museum for a look around. After an hour in the museum it was time to head to the Parks Canada center for an interpretive tour of the new facility.

We headed to the heart of town to visit the gift shops and get some dessert at the bakery.

By the time we finished it was getting late, so we headed back to the center for dinner and lecture. After that, as tired as I was, I still did some yoga and editing.

October 16th
Just like each day, we had a filling breakfast at 07:00h and were on our way at 07:45h. On our way out we decided to check on the caribou carcass, and a new bear was just heading into the area to go check if there was any food left to be had. Unfortunately, all that was left was bone and antlers, so the bear moved on quickly.

Next we were on our way to bird cove and we spotted a bear taking shelter from the 95km/h wind in the greywacke. We were able to approach, with our vehicle, to within about 25m making for some great images of a white bear tucked into grey rocks. When that bear fell asleep, we moved on to let it rest.

Polar bears spend half of the year alone, in the dark and out on the ice, so they tend to be very curious and love to get some socialization when they can. In line with that, bears often hang around Canadian Eskimo Dog tie down sites. My gut says that fact that they can steal occasional scraps away from the dogs helps bring them to the area, too. One of the sites has been fenced off by the man with a lease on it, so he can charge tourists to come and try to photograph bears around the dogs. Our guide knows the "owner" well, so we got to head in and see if we could find a bear. The wind was gusting at over 90km/h and a five year old male bear was taking shelter in the willows to escape the wind and rain. He was playful and just enjoying his time out of the wind and rain. The colors were excellent, and I truly loved every minute of the experience. After a while the bear got up and walked along the side of the bus, letting me take a pretty darn cool iPhone snap. He then turned towards the bay and headed off.

We went down to the bay, opposite him, to look for birds, and to take a walk. We found a mixture of Herring, Thayer's and Glaucous Gulls who were trying to take off between gusts of wind. The students and professor got out for a hike in the high wind and rain, while I hung back to photograph them. As the tide headed out we decided to hike to Nunavut as were were very near. A few of the students posed with the shotgun to show how rugged they were.

On our way out we found a beautiful Arctic fox. The conditions were continuing to get worse, so we headed back to the center.

October 17th
With our last full day in the Low Arctic upon us, we headed to breakfast at 07:00h and were on our way to find bears at 07:45h. We started the day with snow and an Arctic hare, but we had no luck with bears (within photography range). We found a pair of Dunlin on our way to Point Mary; where we found the wind to still be on the insanely strong side, but that made for idea conditions to play in the sea foam. Smelling like the sea, we got back in the vehicle drove through the sea foam and before we could drive far we found three red fox, one of them was a classic cross fox.

We headed back to town for lunch and another shopping trip and then off to the tie down site looking for another bear. We found him in the same spot he was the day before. He walked out along the bay, but then cut back to a small group of trees that stand just north of the tie down site. The snow and wind were strong, so he appeared content to sit and relax in the shade.

Something changed his mind and he got up and shook off. He walked towards our vehicle for a headshot, then he was off again.

We got back to the center with enough time for a shower before dinner. A last great dinner, then it was time to download and edit some photos before lecture. The research director for the center came in to present some of their projects and results, then our guide shared some northern poetry with us. The power went out thanks to the high winds and first snow storm of the year so a group of the students, the professor and myself got together and chatted about the trip, the Arctic, Rocky Mountain College and life in general.

Some of us went to chat in the Aurora dome until 24:00h, but then it was clearly time for bed.

October 18th
Our last morning in the Arctic came far too soon, but it was inevitable, so we had our usual 07:00h breakfast, but only our guide and myself showed up from our group. After everyone made it down to eat some food we packed up and headed to the airfield, taking the long way. During the night snow accumulated and some of the water began to freeze, a great sign after a long warm summer for the bears. We found a pair of willow ptarmigan in the snow, so we had to do some shooting. We then continued to see what we could find on our roundabout way to catch our flight. We spotted a distant bear near the Canadian Eskimo Dog tie down site, but we did not have time to try and get close enough for more photographs.

As we turned around, we noticed that we had a flat tire. As I am sure you would guess changing a flat on a gravel road, in the snow, with high wind and polar bears roaming around is not a great idea. We decided to drive to the airfield with the flat, and got our gear ready for the flight back to Winnipeg, MB around 12:00h.

Things were delayed, as usual, and we did not arrive in Winnipeg, MB until 14:45h. As we stepped off the plane, we all were relieved to get our first glimpse of the sun in a week. Sadly four students did not get their bags on the return flight, so we had to deal with that before we could start the long drive home. Fortunately, this time my bags made the flight. I don't know what I would have done with $10,000+ sitting in a bag on an airfield in the Arctic.

The professor started off driving, and this time we got through the border quickly, had a beautiful sunset and easily and made good time all the way to Fargo, ND. A number of the students and myself were born and raised in the Midwest, where we all fell in love with Culver's, so we stopped and had a great dinner before parting ways with our guide.

October 19th
I took over driving around 22:30h and kept us on course until we arrived in Billings, MT just before 4:30h safe and sound. We did have three deer run out in front of us on I94, but I saw them coming and stopped the van well before the deer, only waking two people up.

The return trip took less than 14 hours, so I guess we can't complain.

It was a great trip and I am already planning my next trip to photograph polar bears.

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If you have questions, ask. I published the camera information with each image and have added full keywords to share just about anything you would want to know about the images.

Happy shooting


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your report Dave. It sounds like you had a great time and you sure have some great photos to show for it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I read with great interest the article in Outdoors section of the Billings Gazette (24 Nov 2011). I have also read the blog and your apprehension in getting through the Canadian border entry. I wonder how much hassle your guide Jim Halfpenny had in getting through Canadian Customs with his shotgun and the battery of questions he faced.
    Alex Murray (Billings MT) gca_murray@yahoo.com

  3. wow, i so love your pictures, i love this animal