So long Churchill. It’s been fun.

As I start this post, it’s after midnight on Friday (Saturday, technically) and I’m somewhere high up above Manitoba on my flight back to Winnipeg. I should have been in Winnipeg by now, but our flight was delayed around 3 hours – we didn’t leave until after 11 pm and won’t arrive until well after 1 am. It is now Saturday night and time to finish this.

Thursday was an eventful day. No bears (we had white out conditions in the morning), but we did have a dead battery in the vehicle I was riding in. This was on a day with bitter cold winds like nothing I’d felt before. Fortunately, it happened while we were at lunch, so most of us stayed warm inside.

In the afternoon, we went to see the dogs at the Canadian Eskimo Dog Foundation’s facility. There are only around 400 Inuit/Eskimo dogs left in the world and they are trying to preserve the breed – one of the oldest in the world. They are sled dogs – super strong and rugged with a ton of stamina – that can pull a loaded sled fire 10-12 hours without trouble. They are built for strength and endurance, not speed. The foundation’s founder Brian Ladoon, who recently passed away, was not without controversy, but there’s no question they care about the dogs. Although not pets, most of the dogs were really friendly and loved attention. Unfortunately, the bitter cold and wind let me to spend more time photographing the dogs from the warm car rather than with the dogs.

Yesterday was a good animal day. Still no bears, but we saw a few foxes (red and arctic) and some ptarmigan. There was even an arctic fox scampering around in town, just a few feet away from us.

Yesterday was also the day I finally ate it in the snow – twice – and ended up with snow in my boots as a result. While trying to get into position to photograph one fox, my foot went right through the snow. Not just my foot, but my leg was buried up to my knee. I nearly dropped my camera with the $2000 rental lens attached (thank goodness it was insured!). I needed help from one of our guides to get up that time (fortunately, it didn’t scare off the fox). Ironically, I got some of my best photos of the whole trip from that vantage (see the red fox below). Later in the afternoon, the group was calling me over to take a group photo. In my rush, my foot again went through the snow – not as deep this time, but still enough to cause me to fall face forward. When I got up and took another step, I fell again. Thankfully, everyone was too busy to turn their cameras on me and capture the moment (a risk when traveling with photographers). 

This afternoon I met up with a local photographer, Walter Potrebka, who I was introduced to by one of the guys on my tour. We went out to shoot Snowy Owls, like this famous one. Walter says it was one of his best days owl-spotting ever – he saw 15 today, around 8 – 10 of which were while we were out. I thing I got a few pretty good shots. We also saw a fox and some deer, as well as a coyote way off in the distance. 

I’ll admit, I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see more bears from a closer distance (most were just a quick glimpse from the helicopter at 300 feet). After all, that was the purpose of the trip. But I did get pictures of a few bears and I saw and photographed a lot of wildlife and realized I like that much more than landscape. (Now to figure out how to afford the right equipment.) I also really enjoyed spending time with this particular group of people. If you ever have a chance to take a workshop/tour with Leighton Lum (he has some good ones planned), Kelsey Eliasson, Fred Lemire, or Karine Genest, I definitely would recommend them. 

All in all, I really enjoyed the trip and have no regrets. (Well, I may have a few when I step on the scale back home.) 

These two were my favorites of the dogs
Ptarmigan
Arctic Fox
Red Fox
Snowy Owl
Hedwig!

Where are you, polar bears?

Today was…

That’s it. It was.

We went out on Tundra Buggies – giant behemoths that must be based on some sort of military personnel carriers – to look for polar bears. We did spot one, and I did get a couple of decent pictures of it, but that was all we had to show for about 7 hours of sitting cooped up in the metal beast with about 3 dozen other people. Once again, the winds whipped up the snow and visibility ranged from poor to nearly white-out conditions. So even if bears were around, we wouldn’t have seen them. A lot of people on the buggy just fell asleep.

Tomorrow should be interesting. I’m told we are going out in helicopters. Eep!

This is a tundra buggy:

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This is the inside of a crowded buggy…

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This was our visibility most of the day:

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But we did see this bear, at least:

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Brrrr….

Greetings from the frozen north – Churchill, Manitoba. And I do mean frozen – temps have been in the single digits with wind chill making it feel like -15° or so. Still, I can’t complain – a month ago, I wasn’t even sure I’d be healthy enough to make this trip (who am I kidding – I told the gastroenterologist that I had no intention of missing it).

I am here with some other folks hoping to shoot polar bears – with a camera. Unfortunately, just before we arrived, the wind shifted to be from the north and the Hudson Bay had a major freeze. To the polar bears, that signals that it’s time to move on, and it appears most of them have.

We got lucky on our first day and spotted two different bears. I got some great photos of the first one. It was getting dark when we came across the second one, and it was a good distance away, so my photos are pretty grainy. We also saw an arctic hare. There were a couple foxes during the day, too, but they were moving too fast to photograph. I did get a picture of one’s butt, tho. (continues below the pix)

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Day two was… let’s call it an adventure. We drove around in blizzard conditions hunting for bears. At times, it was basically white-out conditions. We did spot some ptarmigans (aka snow chickens and related to partridges) and I got some good pictures of them. There were also some other small birds flitting around in some trees. (continues below)

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While we were at lunch, we got word that a mama bear and cub were spotted. We rushed out and did manage tho find them. Unfortunately, they were just too far away to photograph, even with the 150-450 mm lens I rented. Besides, the wind was so strong that my hands nearly froze the minute I left the car (seriously, this weather is intense!). Still, it was cool to see them.

Today was day 3. The weather conditions were better, relatively speaking. Temps were still single digits and the wind was brutal, but the snow wasn’t falling, at least, and the sun was shining most of the day. Alas, still no bears. We got in a few landscape shots and did manage to see a couple arctic hares, at least.

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Tomorrow, we will be on a Tundra Buggy that will be looking for bears in the conservation area / national park (private guides operate in a different area closer to town). The reports are not terribly promising – people we spoke to today saw 10 bears on their trip, but they were all out on the ice already and sounded like they were out of camera range. So we’ll see…

In the meantime, I’ll just soak up some rays while the sun is out…

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