November 24, 2012

Canadian Arctic, November 4-18, 2012

As I sit here, after editing over 12,000 photos from this trip to the Canadian Arctic...I find it hard to put this experience into words.

Let me start by saying that there are around 750 photographs from the Low Canadian Arctic online here. If you don't feel like reading this insanely long trip report you can just jump to the photographs and enjoy them. Make the jump to go through the online gallery. I really do appreciate any comments/criticism you leave; you can even give your favorites a simple thumbs up, so I can get your opinion on the winners...thanks and enjoy.

Bear at sunrise
A male Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) looks around as the rising sun breaks through the clouds illuminating the world with its colorful glow. Captured with a Canon 5D III and 70-200/2.8L IS II in aperture priority mode with an exposure bias of + 1/3 at ISO400, f/8.0, and 1/400th of a second. The camera was handheld.

Last year, while on my trip to Churchill, I knew right away that it was a place that I would visit again – as soon as I could. Luckily Pete Zaluzec, a friend who was on the trip with me last year, decided the same thing, so we began planning this trip while still on last year's trip. Pete and I met up a few times on other trips over the past year to firm up our plans for Churchill 2012.

Pete and I decided that we would do the trip on our own, hire a local guide for some of it, allowing us to do what we wanted. Pete is a world-renowned sculptor who needs photographs for reference material, but unlike many artists looking only for reference images Pete understands light and shoots accordingly. When you are on a photographic trip with others, especially tourists/hobbyists, many times you end up with a group that wants to move on to look for something new rather than wait for good light.

Pete and I knew we were going to find bears and then settle in to wait for the light that we wanted, so we knew that bringing anyone else with us would only work if they cared about light like us. We decided to invite a friend of Pete's who is a famous wildlife artist, Greg Beecham.

With our group set, local accommodations made and a highly respected local guide lined up, we were ready. All three of us use Canon equipment and are obsessed with great light, so it looked to be a perfect group.

Pete does not fly, so we all decided to meet in Winnipeg, Manitoba and take the 40-hour train ride to Churchill, Manitoba. The train ride was a great time for us all to really get to know one another, as well as the handful of other folks making the long journey/ride. During the trip I had plenty of time to lecture on photography, as most of you know, that is one of my favorite things to do :)

When we arrived in Churchill we got in our Yukon XL, that was designed for life out on the tundra. We were excited to get out and find some bears to photograph. Not long after leaving town, I spotted our first bear of the trip, and Greg's first bear. We spent about an hour with the bear, and when it settled in for a second time, we decided to continue on to see what we could find. Not five minutes later I found two bears walking along the shore keeping their eye on a bearded seal that was resting on an ice flow. We continued on to the Northern Studies Center where we found a flock of around 50 willow ptarmigan foraging in the willows.

We had heard a rumor that Natural Resources was going to be air lifting a bear out of the Polar Bear Holding Facility, so we decided that it would be worthwhile to shoot that and cross it off our list on the first day. The helicopter flew in, Resources brought out the bear and readied him for the flight out, the helicopter lifted the bear off, and the show was over. It was very quick, very smooth and was also surprising to me to see how gingerly they treated the unconscious bear. I decided to also shoot some video of the bear lifting off.

After the air-show we found a red fox and continued our search for bears. We spent the rest of the night watching Natural Resources haze a sow and two ten-month-old cubs along Cape Mary towards the Churchill River. I'll leave the controversial/sad part of this off of the blog post, but I have written a bit about it with the photograph.

If I went through each of our ten days to that same level of detail it would take me a week to write the post, and you a day to read it, so from here on I'll just hit the highlights. Plus I am considering putting together an eBook where I can plug in some multimedia bits showing or explaining some of the great experiences that the trip brought me.

For the next three days we had a local guide from Nature 1st, to both guide and provide "Polar Bear Security." Our guide, Sheldon, was excellent and a pleasure to spend time with.  With Sheldon we found countless bears, raven, gyrfalcon, red fox, arctic fox and plenty of arctic hare tracks :)

We had a slow second day...well at least it started off slow. We drove the roads and back roads getting re-acclimated to the area, and figure out were we could and could not drive with the current snow conditions. As the afternoon came we had yet to find any bears that were ideal for us to photograph, so we kept searching. Driving in to bird cove, at first on two-track then on frozen tundra, we spotted a bear heading our way across the ice. We decided that we would wait with that bear for some light. She tried to break through the ice, dug around and groomed herself while we watched...then suddenly she started to walk away.

It took us a minute or two before we saw the reason...another bear was making his was across the ice and she wanted to give him room to walk past. The second bear approached us and she decided to lie down on the ice. As this happened the third bear that we had spotted earlier in the willows continued to sleep.

We kept waiting, as our chances of having a cooperative bear when the light got good seemed to be getting better. Off in the distance I notice another bear heading our way and this bear has a beautiful, clean, white coat.

Now we had two bears together digging in the ice at the edge of the shore, a bear sleeping to our left in the Willows and another sleeping out on the ice to our right. Suddenly, almost on our cue, the two "friendly" bears started to play with one another, as the light broke through the clouds in a narrow slit on the horizon. It was short lived, and the two bears started to walk off into the willows, but we decided to follow.

As we rounded the end of the willows we could see that the two bears were sparing in the setting sunlight, and it was magical. The sparing ended, and our guide as well as Pete and Greg thought the day was over. I spotted a fifth bear making his way across the ice and was able to convince them that there was still enough light and time to make our way back to the cove and photograph this bear.

It ended up being the right call, as the light was incredible on the bear and the ice edge. The light continued to dwindle as the bear walked in front of the MV Ithaca. And now we all started to think the day was done, but what an ending we had enjoyed.

Almost beyond our belief we spotted a sixth bear making its way across the ice, then a seventh coming from the other way. The were all making their way through Bird Cove, and we were the only ones here to see and photograph it. Two of the bears came together for a "kiss" where other bears had been digging, but the real show was yet to come.

The sun had set, but my Canon 5D III and new 400/2.8L IS II had plenty of light for what was about to happen next. The two largest male bears decided to put on an after hours show, and after chatting about it, the sparing commenced. They spared long enough to both deliver great photographs, but even enough for me to shoot some video.

Towards the end of the sparing I was shooting my Canon 5D III and 400/2.8L IS II in aperture priority mode with an exposure bias of + 2/3 at ISO3200, f/2.8, and 1/800th of a second. By that point I had moved away from the vehicle to get the best angle I could on the main event, and I was glad that we had an armed guide as I was shooting with five bears in sight and at least three more that we knew were in the area. Needless to say my head was on a constant swivel, and I shot handheld because setting up a tripod would slow me down in a retreat to the vehicle; also with the shutter speed needed to stop fighting bears, I knew that I could handhold my camera and lens just fine...I love the new 400/2.8L IS II.

Our third day was, with without a doubt, the slowest day of our trip. We only photographed one bear, and that bear was inspecting an old bear trap and then showed why she had been trapped and marked recently. She was incredibly curious of the vehicle and it took significant effort on the part of our guide to scare the bear away.

We did have an okay sunrise and a beautiful sunset, but the only wildlife highlight was a Gyrfalcon that I spotted and got to photograph sitting on the ice edge. Unfortunately for Pete and Greg, it flew away before they could get their cameras ready.

The next morning started off with blizzard conditions, really near whiteout. But we were not about to sleep in or take the day off, even though we did chat about the idea. In places the sun managed to break through, but others were not so nice. For most of the morning we did our best to stay away from the worst of the storm, and even managed to find a cooperative fox with some nice light.

By lunchtime we decided that we needed to go find some bears, even if it was quite blustery. When it's blowing snow the bears just want to lie down out of the wind and rest. We found a few, and as one of them got up and started walking in our direction the sun managed to break through the clouds, but that did not stop the wind from blowing snow. She made her way past us and to the willows edge, when in about five minutes she dug a day den in a drift and all but disappeared.

With two bears resting out of the wind, and sunset coming soon, we decided to wait for better light and hope that one of the bears would get up and move. As the sun neared the horizon and broke through the clouds the female bear decided to sit up and see what the wind was doing. It was now blowing about half as hard as it had been. She must have decided it had died enough to get up and move, but not before shaking off the afternoon's accumulation of snow.

The next morning promised clearer sky, so we decided our fifth day would be about getting some landscapes. With the next three days on our own we figured we could chase the light and landscapes without a guide thinking we were nuts. We wanted to photograph sunrise over the ice, but many of the ice features we had scouted the evening before disappeared over night, so we shot what we could find. The wind and snow of the past few days had left the landscape buried in many places, but that was okay with us.

Pete has the gift for making great friends of random people he meets. On the train ride he decided to learn a little Chinese from four young women who were visiting from Taiwan. They only had one day scheduled out on the buggies and the rest of their time was spent in town, so we decided to take them with us for most of our fifth day (their last day). After we did our landscape run, we went and picked them up. Thank God for the third row seats in the Yukon XL.

Once we added them to the vehicle we shifted our focus back to polar bears, and we found our share. First we spotted a bear making his was across the ice. He ended up heading into the rocks for a bit before heading further along the coast. We jumped ahead to our next access point and waited, but after about fifteen minutes everyone was a bit anxious and wanted to move on. I demanded six more minutes, and five minutes later he made his way around the point and into sight.

He approached, but then went and rested in the lime grass. We waited with renewed patience, and he rewarded us by approaching very near (near enough that I returned to the safety of the vehicle). We repositioned and spotted a pair of red fox hunting and another bear way out on the ice, but as the sun was getting ready to set we wanted to keep a subject nearby.

The bear started to head away on the ice then disappeared behind some huge piles of snow and ice. Everyone was quite cold, and the common consensus was that we should head back towards town, but being the senseless jerk I am, I decided we would wait six more minutes. A few minutes later the bear peeked out at us, crossed back to our side of the off ice and walked in the setting sunlight.

The next morning we were out dark and early, and after a short delay for an iceberg bear (ask Greg about that one) I spotted a cross fox running out on the ice. We continued on looking for bears...and we found one resting at the willows edge. The sun was about to break through the clouds at the horizon, so I made my request of what the bear "needed to do." Oddly enough as soon as I finished saying what I wanted the bear got up and walked exactly where I wanted him to, as the sun broke through. The bear then bedded back down on our side of the frozen lake. The bear was so near us that I had to shoot some bear abstracts.

The clear sky and warming temperatures were causing a rise in atmospheric distortion, so we made our way back to town for gas and lunch. While there we did a bit of lens testing using FoCal. We finished our lunch and testing in time to find a bear in the setting sunlight, but just barely ;)

The next morning we found a bear resting in a grove of black spruce, but after I made my request he went into a better scene for the actual sunrise. It's not luck if you request it...right?

By our seventh day of the trip the ice was really starting to form along the coast, and the bears were keeping a close eye on the conditions. Some bears walked along the ice, while others took a more relaxed approach to the waiting game.

That night the clouds came in and the wind changed direction, blowing almost all of the ice out to sea, with many bears still on it. We spent $300 on gas and then we found another bearded seal, but that was about it.

The next morning it seemed as if there had been an exodus of bears, with the ice, and most of the folks that we talked to found very few bears from that point on. We decided to head into the storm to find bears. I decided with fewer bears I could finally waste some time photographing the cracks in the ice.

With the help of our guide we found a handful of bears on a day that most of the folks we talked, to on the radio, found none. We even found two bears that did not seem to like one another much, charging and showing other signs of irritation. They eventually figured things out and it was time for a nap. On our way in for the night I found this beautiful tree that had been overcome by a snowdrift, so we had to make one more stop for the night.

That night with clear sky and a nice display of the Northern Lights, Pete and I had to spend a few hours out photographing the show. The lights danced above Cape Mary, then above a grove of black spruce, and lastly above Hudson Bay.

The next morning we decided to hunt for some of the smaller species on our list. We found lots of arctic hare track, but no hare, a rock ptarmigan and lastly the illusive, or at least this year, arctic fox. I even took some time to do a bit of "cold yoga," the wind-chill was around -30ºF, but it was better than being like this bear and watching television. In the bear's defense it did scrub down after, and even brushed it coat.

On our tenth and final day the wind was strong and making new drifts for use to battle, but the weathermen were wrong...yes it was incredibly windy, but the clouds were breaking and we had plenty of nice light. We even managed to find a few bears, something that few others were managing to do, even some of the Tundra Buggy folks, and they guarantee bears to their clients.

With only a few bears, high winds and our train departing shortly we decided to follow this bear's example and make tracks as soon as the sun set.

After ten days on the ground, with bears every day, we were actually glad to be heading home. And after 47 hours on a train we arrived back in Winnipeg, Manitoba where I loaded my truck and started the long drive back to Montana.

I left Montana on Saturday, November 4 and made it back home safe and sound on Sunday, November 18, 2012. I took 12,120 photographs and 60 video clips; I drove 1656.3 miles; and I absolutely fell in love with my new 400/2.8L IS II.

My travel count for 2012 is currently at 121 days away from home, and I assume I'll get a few more before the end of the year.

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

Thanks and enjoy

P.S. needless to say this trip helped boost my number of Polar Bear, Arctic Fox, Gyrfalcon and all around Arctic images.


  1. Dave, awesome adventure you had. Your impressive planning rewarded you with a great trip and images. Your daily updates made us feel like we were on the adventure with you ! Glad to hear the new 400 f2.8 was all you'd hope it would be.


  2. The photograph's links are broken. Thank you for sharing about your trip.