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Sunday 29 November 2009

Last Days at Hudson Bay (Adventure Concludes Day 8-9)

It's our last full day at the Seal River Heritage Lodge. I think we all sense how special this trip has been. There are lots of bears around and we continue to photograph them.Polar Bear - click for larger

It's difficult to work like I normally do. I see amazing things like the way the light hits the landscape. But I can’t just pick up my gear and react to it like I usually would. To head out of the compound, I need guys with shotguns and must go as part of a big group. It's a difficult way to work but very necessary!Hudson Bay - click for larger

A bear has been lying down just outside the compound. It's so close! We all take turns photographing it through the fence. I start with a 16-35mm wide angle lens and then switch to a 24-105mm. I have never imagined being this close to a wild Polar Bear. Andy warns me that they can move very fast. So I show him the back of my camera. He smiles. I'm sure he gets it. We can't help but shoot!Polar Bear - click for larger

Everyone was very accommodating of each other. It was so nice to see people working so well together.Photographers - click for larger

Photographing Bears - click for larger

Polar Bear - click for larger

Polar Bear - click for larger

I can't tell you how it feels to take these images. It feels privileged. Privileged to be in a place like this and to be so close to such a wonderful species. We spend the rest of the day much the same way we have since we got here - shooting. In the evening, Dennis puts together a selection of our favourite images for a slide show. Later we have dinner and head outside to enjoy a bonfire.

The next morning, I go outside and just kind of soak the place up. There are bears around and I shoot a few frames but the ship is pointed towards home. It's over. Or is it? I'm scheduled to fly out on the first plane. But currently, Churchill is fogged in and the plane can't take off. I hear the cook's father died 2 days ago and she is anxious to get home. I give up my seat to her so she can be on the first plane out if it comes. We sit and wait. I email home and let Lori know that I may not make it out today. I have a flight booked home tomorrow around noon from Winnipeg. It will be complicated if I don't make it out but what a place to be stuck!The Lodge - click for larger

The plane finally makes it out of Churchill. The first group heads out to the airstrip to meet it. We watch as two polar bears stalk them. Terry and Andy drive the bears off with snowballs and rocks. But the plane just sits there. We head into the dining room for lunch and hear that Churchill is fogged in again. That's why they didn't take off. They come back in for lunch. Riley has to stay and guard the plane with a shotgun because the bears are so curious they could damage it. Everyone wonders if we will make it out today. After lunch, a call comes in that the fog has cleared so off they go. After a quick trip the plane comes back for the next group. We walk out and are on our way. The plane flies low out over Hudson Bay. It's the most direct route and we make it to there without any trouble. We meet up with the rest of the gang, and have dinner in Churchill. Then we get on a plane back to Winnipeg. In Winnipeg John rents a car while I sit and listen to Scott and Robert banter like they've been married for 40 years. I'm laughing so hard I'm crying listening to them. Man we had fun!
The Gang - click for larger

Till next trip…

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Thursday 26 November 2009

A Dream Come True: (Adventure Continues Day 5 –7)

We get up at 6:30am even though sunrise isn't until after 9. So we have a leisurely pace in the morning. Breakfast is at 7am. The food is so good! The staff here are all friendly and very good at what they do. They are always smiling! We chat it up over the great food and thoughts of what will come of the day. A polar bear sits just outside the dining room window. After breakfast, Mike informs us that our bags will leave Churchill at first light. That's a relief. It will be nice to have a change of clothes, ski pants, and of course my tripod!

We put on our parkas and go outside. An Arctic fox walks by. Unfortunately, it’s too dark for a good photo.
Arctic Fox in dim light
Arctic Fox in dim light

The light comes up a bit more and I get a good shot of a Ptarmigan.Willow Ptarmigan - click for larger

Bears are walking by and the light is starting to get nice.Polar Bear Sitting in Sea Lyme Grass - click for larger
Polar Bear at Hudson Bay
So much is happening so fast and all at once. I'm taking pictures constantly. It's surreal to be this close to polar bears. So far we have been working within the fenced compound. The bears come close. Really close. It feels like we are zoo animals and they are coming up to look at us. They are so beautiful but you know they are deadly. The compound is large and has 2 platforms to shoot images from.Seal River Heritage Lodge - click for larger

Most of the fence is "Buffalo" fence with large enough openings to line up our camera lenses and shoot through. But we need to be very aware of where the bears are. They can move very fast and the fence openings are large enough for them to get their head or paws through.Polar Bear with Head through Fence - click for larger

George Duck from Thompson, Manitoba is the night watchman.George - click for larger

In addition to guarding us at night, George hauls water for lodge use during the day. One time when George headed out for water I heard shotgun fire. I asked Terry what was up. He said that George is out alone. When you are alone out there the bears will stalk you. George was firing his shotgun in the air to scare off the bears. I tried to use a lot less water after that.George on ATV - click for larger

Our bags finally arrived with my tripod and the rest of my clothes!Airplane click for larger

After putting on my ski pants and getting my tripod, we venture outside the compound beyond any safety of the fence for the first of many hikes.Hiking at Seal River - click for larger

We have our constant companions with us - the guides Andy and Terry. They both carry shotguns, pepper spray, bear bangers and even a rock or two.
Andy - click for largerTerry - click for larger
Guides - click each image for larger

There is a bear out on the ice sleeping, another one to the right on land.Sleeping Polar Bear - click for larger

One of the guides sees a large bear raise its head from the willows. We are surrounded. It's an eerie feeling! The bears can appear and disappear at will. The land is so flat, and they are so big. How can they disappear like that? Scary!Hidden Bear - click for larger

In the afternoon, we went back out for another hike. We hike for a while and get a few images but not much is happening so we start heading back to the lodge. As we approach, we spot a bear. The light is sweet but the bear is in shadow. We all line up hoping it will move out of the shadows. And suddenly there it was, in perfect light and coming toward us.Polar Bear - click for larger

I'm smiling all over as I press the shutter. The bear wanders off toward the ice. But then he turns and I get my shot. It's THE SHOT I have dreamed about. Great light, great scene. You couldn't beat the smile off my face with a stick.Polar Bear - click for larger

We get a few more images as the bear starts to walk back toward us.Polar Bear - click for larger

He gets closer and closer, too close to photograph with a 500mm lens. Just when I start to feel really uncomfortable, the guides start to talk to the bear. Then they yell, throw snowballs, and finally launch a bear banger. The bear moves away. I'm grateful the guides are there. I'm also glad that the bear is not harmed. I want photos but not at the expense of the bear.

After that we go back to the compound and finish up the day inside the enclosure.Polar Bear - click for larger
Rolling Polar Bear - click for larger
Back inside the lodge after a great day of photos, I feel like I can relax a bit now. Any images I get after this will be gravy.

The next day brings more bears. I just love this place. I'm with a great group of people and everyone seems to hit it off. Hard to be unhappy when you’re a photographer in a place like this!Polar Bear - click for larger

Polar Bear - click for larger

We are shooting from a platform when a Gyrfalcon flies over. I react as quickly as possible and get one shot that's sharp. It's the first time I have ever seen this bird species.Gyrfalcon - click for larger

As the light starts to get that late afternoon sweetness, I want to walk outside the compound. The landscape is so beautiful here. The ice and boulders, the Sea Lyme Grass and bear prints are so beautiful. We get the guides to take us out for a hike and photograph some bears lying about. We walk right to the shore of Hudson Bay. The group is just interested in bears. But I can’t take it anymore; I have to shoot the landscape. So I stay back from the crowd.Photographers - click for larger

Thankfully Terry stays back with me and watches my back for approaching bears.

I see images everywhere.Hudson Bay - click for larger

Tracks - click for larger

Hudson Bay Coastline - click for larger

Ice on Hudson Bay - click for larger

Seal River Heritage Lodge - click for larger

After sunset, we have to walk in near darkness past several bears to get back to the lodge. We stay close to the guides.

Inside the lodge we start our backups. Another great day! We have a glass of wine and chat about our images. After we have had a couple of glasses of wine and some nibbles, a young woman comes into the main lounge and announces that dinner is ready.

She says, "By the way, as you pass the window in the hallway please be careful, there is a bear up at the window with his head and paws hanging through."

Thankfully, there are bars on the window.Polar Bear looking in Window - click for larger

After another wonderful meal, we head back to the lounge. Dennis Fast gives a wonderful presentation and slide show of his Polar Bear images. Dennis is a good speaker. He must be as tired as we are. But still after many years of doing this, he is just as happy to be here as we are. He has so many images that are so beautiful. If you get a chance, check out his book, Wapusk: White Bear of the NorthWapusk - click to view Publisher's site

I’m off to bed. More to come...

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Saturday 21 November 2009

The Seal River Heritage Lodge (Adventure Continues Day 4)

I walked up to the Calm Air departure desk in Winnipeg blurry eyed and half asleep. The man said, "Pick a bag."

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"Pick a priority bag. The flight is full and we will probably have to bump one bag."

Hmmm, camera bag, or clothes and tripod? I picked the camera bag. I would rather freeze than go without my cameras! I asked if there was Valet service for my camera bag. No was the answer. That meant I had to check my camera bag with my 500mm lens among other very expensive things. This was a bit nerve racking. I was relieved to find out that Scott and John got the same story. Robert however walked up with his camera bag with a Valet tag attached. "How did you get that?" I asked.

He smiled and said, "You have to be charming and good looking to get this kind of service." I mumbled that all the mirrors in his house must be broken…

We got to the departure lounge without too much trouble, had a bite to eat and waited to board the plane. It was still dark when we walked out onto the tarmac to board the very small twin prop plane to Churchill. We all had our huge parkas on. It was a little uncomfortable being stuffed into our seats with so much camera equipment in our pockets (this was to reduce the weight of our camera bags so we did not go over the limit). It was a short flight with a gas stop in Thompson and then on to Churchill.

The plane landed and we walked into the Airport. Rose from Churchill Wild met us there to help guide us onto the plane to the Seal River Heritage Lodge. She gave us the bad news about our bags. Several of us would be without extra clothes and tripods. Some people started to get upset. I just smiled and said, "Hey it's just part of the adventure. We will figure out some way of getting some images." They assured us that our bags would be at the lodge by sunrise tomorrow.

Rose asked who wanted to go first. Nobody said anything so I said "Pick Me!" We walked out to a Turbo Beaver.Turbo Beaver - click for larger

They loaded our bags and Rose asked if I would like to ride up front with the pilot. "You bet!" I already had my camera out with a 16 – 35mm lens on. I made the climb up into the front and did up the seat belt. Matt, our young bush pilot jumped in grinning ear to ear. It was a bit chilly and our breath coated the window. He quickly fired up the Beaver and pulled out onto the runway. Pilot - click for larger

The plane was in the air in a very short distance. We flew low heading north.Ron Erwin riding shotgun - click for larger

We saw lots of moose along the way. Then the trees thinned out.From the plane - click for larger

Matt guided the plane down to the gravel/snow-covered runway. We bounced and slid a bit sideways and then nicely pulled up to the far end of the runway. We were met by two men with 12 gauge shotguns and an ATV with a trailer. Terry and Andy would be our constant companions whenever we ventured outside the compound for the duration of our stay here.Plane at Seal River runway - click for larger

I had stuffed my 70-200 into my pocket before we got into the plane so I switched lenses before we walked to the lodge.

It was just a 5-minute walk from the runway. We almost made it to the lodge when we found 2 bears lurking behind the generator shed. I was photographing bears even before we got to the lodge. A very good omen indeed!Polar Bear - click for larger

After we shot images of polar bears for about 20 minutes, we walked into the compound and then made our way into the lodge. We were greeted by Mike and Jeanne, the owners of the lodge and Churchill Wild. Mike asked how the trip in was. I explained my dilemma of having no tripod to work with. He said, "I have a couple of tripods here, let me get one for you." I had my ball head in my camera bag so I was ecstatic! I quickly set up and went out to the compound. There were a couple of bears within range. The rest of the group soon joined me and we spent the rest of the afternoon photographing bears up close and personal.Polar Bear - click for larger

Once the light was gone, we went inside to do backups. We enjoy a glass of wine and hors d'oeuvres. This is a wonderful place! We each introduce ourselves and have an orientation session. They talk about safety for the bears and us and then we head off to dinner. The food and the company are wonderful! After a long day, we head to bed early.

At around 11p.m. I'm awakened by a knock at my door, "Northern Lights!" I crawl out of bed and get dressed. We head out and Scott and I share a tripod and shoot the lights for about an hour.Northern Lights - click for larger

It was a nice show and a great end to a great day!

More to come…

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Tuesday 17 November 2009

The Adventure Continued - Day 1-3

It was an uneventful trip to Winnipeg. I sailed through check in and Security in spite of my slightly overweight carry-on. I was in Winnipeg and sitting in the rental car by 10:30 local time. But I wasn't sure what to do. So I looked at the map and decided to head to Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park. It was a nice drive but not much to photograph. I shot some images in Hecla and headed back to Winnipeg. There was a farmer baling straw. I think that was the best shot of the day.Baling - click for larger

Back in Winnipeg I checked into my Hotel and had dinner in the lobby bar. There was a group just back from Churchill exchanging bear stories. Sounds like they had a great time.

I went up to my room and rearranged my gear for the next part of the trip. My friends and fellow adventure seekers, Robert, Scott and John arrived around 8pm. We made plans to get up the next day at 5 a.m. and head to Riding Mountain National Park for first light. Then we went to bed.

We drove an hour before stopping for Breakfast. It was mild and the roads were clear. Along the way we saw a few things including a Bald Eagle and a Snowy Owl. We didn’t get "keeper" images but it was great to see these birds!

Over the next couple of days we worked Riding Mountain National Park. It's so great to be out working with other photographers. We are all very passionate and driven to get images. At the same time we are all very supportive of each other. We all tried to make sure the other guys would get their shot as well.

We saw so much in the Park. Here are a few highlights:Bison - click for larger

Spruce Grouse - click for larger

Northern Hawk Owl - click for larger

Ruffed Grouse  - click for larger

Coyote - click for larger

Wetlands - click for larger

Tomorrow we leave for Churchill and then on to the Seal River. Can’t wait!

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