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#12 Churchill, Canada.

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

Polar bears have been an animal that I’ve wanted to see for a long time, even before I picked up a camera. I mean who doesn’t want to see these iconic animals. With a shift of my focus not only to wildlife, but wildlife in the polar regions it was a good place to start this project.

Unfortunately real work; the one that pays the bills, makes it incredibly hard to try and reach the remote places that polar bears call home, as I only ever have short windows to do so. I found a window to go and see them in Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world. Perhaps not the most photogenic place to go and photograph them, but for my first time, I would be happy just to see them. Going in fairly early October it was slightly too early in the season for full on winter up in Churchill, and in fact it was a lot warmer than I had anticipated. My suitcases was rammed full of cold weather stuff as well as flip flops and swimming trunks. In the space of 7 weeks I travelled from home in the UK to Russia, Singapore and Japan before flying to Canada for the polar bears, as in my head it was sort of on the way to Mexico - any excuse will do! From Mexico it was only a short hop to USA before flying home.

I won’t even go into details about the logistics of trying to fly all my gear around and trying to dodge excess luggage fees, that’s a mission on its own. Flying across the date line is always a bizarre feeling, spending 20 odd hours travelling but technically arriving before you set off is something I don’t think my mind will ever comprehend, but it certainly makes travel a lot easier; well apart from the jet lag. I was fortunate enough to be able to stop at Banff on the way over, as I had a couple of days in hand before I needed to be in Winnipeg to start the the trip north to Churchill. Typically the day I arrived was also the day that the park shut most of the roads to the main things I wanted to photograph. It was a last minute addition to the trip and I’m disappointed that I didn’t do as much research as I should have done. Regardless it was nice to visit the park, as it’s a place that has been high up on my list since I picked up a camera. From Banff it was just a short hop over to Winnipeg, and by now I was pretty much over my jetlag.

I booked this trip through Frontiers North as you struggle to find a bad word about them, and I wanted to stay in their Tundra Buggy Lodge (pictured to the right, one of those windows was my bed)! This meant that my travel from Winnipeg to Churchill was all taken care of. As someone who makes in the region of 70 flights a year i’ve done most things when it comes to air travel, however I’ve never done an internal charter flight before. Driving straight up to the plane and boarding with no checks is pretty handy, and something I could become accustom too! After a fairly short flight we touch down in Churchill and have a few hours after lunch to explore. A couple of flying visits to the newly built Polar Bear International base and the Inuit Museum filled the time relatively quickly, and before I knew it, it was time to head off into the tundra. The decision to stay on the Tundra Buggy Lodge, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Rather than travelling back and forth to the tundra each day where the polar bears are mostly located, you slept out there.

There’s no real way to explain what it is, other than perhaps a huge sleeper train carriage on extremely big wheels that can basically go anywhere! The light was starting to slowly disappear on our drive in the afternoon to the lodge but we still managed to see 2 polar bears as well as an arctic fox in the setting light. Although it was too dark for photos, it was probably a good thing, as it meant I got to enjoy seeing a polar bear for the first time without the stress of trying to photograph it at the same time! Once we arrived at the lodge it was time to take our bunk beds and get settled before dinner. Dinner takes place in a big glass section of the buggy, and as you are tucking into amazingly delicious food polar bears will often walk around and you get a glimpse of them whilst eating, likewise from your bunk window at night. A pretty surreal experience.

Unfortunately the weather was particularly warm, around the zero degrees mark, which disappointingly meant no snow or snowy conditions to photograph in. I’m not going to lie, at first, and I guess still now to a certain degree that frustrated me. Everyone goes with a certain shot in mind on these sort of trips, and all mine had snow in it. But once you get past that, it actually makes for some unusual shots instead. The majority of polar bear photos you will see are all similar with white backgrounds, this just meant you had to get a little more creative and look at it slightly differently.

We had 2 full days out on the tundra looking for polar bears, we were fortunate to see a couple of different bears in that time. The other downside to the warmer weather was that the bears weren’t particularly active, although zero degrees might be cold for us, for a polar bear it’s not. They would spend most of the day lying down to conserve energy whilst they wait for the sea ice to form, you have to appreciate they haven’t had a proper meal for several months by now. Along with the polar bears we got some sightings of arctic hare, ptarmigan and also a really nice sighting of an long eared owl, which no one could recall seeing in these parts for 30+ years.

Although shooting from the buggy does not give you the angle you would ideally want for photograph, this trip was as much about seeing the polar bear as it was to photograph them for me. The fact I got a handful of photos that I’m happy with is just an added bonus. I already have a couple of other polar bear trips lined up for the future, so this is only the start of photographing these incredible animals, and hopefully these relatively usual backdrops will start to create a nice portfolio of polar bear shots. Two days goes incredibly quickly when you spend it doing something like this, and as soon as it started it felt like it was over, my biggest wish is that I could have stayed longer and didn’t have to rush down to Mexico City to do some real work!

Within the space of two weeks of me leaving Churchill, winter came in hard and the sea ice had formed and the bears were gone, perhaps my decision to go early wasn’t too bad after all.



zacharytknowles

October 2019

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