- Photo Essays
Things can get pretty wild this far north. And I’m not talking about the nightlife.
But for today at least the weather is behaving itself. It’s minus 13 degrees Celsius with wind-chill out on the sub-Arctic tundra near Churchill, Manitoba but the skies are clear and the barely-there dawn light is perfect.
And with such magical light, any photographer venturing out into this remote wilderness has only one thing on their mind: polar bears.
(Actually, the fact that it is absolutely freezing is kind of on my mind too.)
But below-freezing temperatures and polar bears live side by side in this world and I figure that before too long the distraction of photographing the bears will help me forget all about the cold.
A brief geography lesson for those who have no idea where or what I am talking about…
The small grain-port town of Churchill is in the remote north of Canada just south of the Arctic Circle. It lies on the edge of Hudson Bay and is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of polar bears.
Each fall, polar bears congregate here and play a kind of waiting game with the seasons. Hungry from their summer fasting they wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze to become their winter hunting ground. Climate change and global warming is taking its toll though and each year the bears wait a little longer for the ice to form.
A decade ago the bears would be out hunting on the ice by the first week of November. These days, it is more likely to be the end of November or even the beginning of December. (In 2011, the polar bears of Churchill began heading out onto the frozen Hudson Bay by 22th November.)
And each fall people travel to Canada to see these majestic creatures in their natural environment. This is no easy feat. There are no roads into Churchill: you can only arrive by plane or train.
This is no cheap family holiday or your typical romantic getaway (although what a great idea for something a little off-kilter), but if a fascinating nature fix in a remote place is what you are looking for, Churchill certainly delivers: and then some!
Being here feels as though you are on the very edge of civilisation, experiencing the bare bones of the earth…in the best way imaginable. And I guess, in a way, you are.
I was told by a friend who has taken this trip that there would be a great deal of waiting involved. I am the first to admit that I am not so good at waiting, for anything. One of my pitfalls as a photographer I suppose.
And polar bears like to sleep. A lot.
But this morning my less-than-patient nature is not put to the test: I only have to wait fifteen minutes. The bears are far from sleepy and my camera gear gets the workout it is designed for. The excitement inside the polar rover as we head out onto the icy tundra is palpable. We are all here to see polar bears.
And see them we do: two bears partially concealed behind some rocks are soon basking in the dawn light right beside the polar rover. And later, we watch in wonder as another two bears spar playfully right before us. The day is over before we know it.
If today was all we had, I think we would have all walked away blissfully happy.
I am typically a fine art photographer: black and white street photography and colour travel photography is what I know. I have never tried wildlife photography. This three-month trip driving through America and travelling through Canada has been all about pulling myself out of my comfort zone as a photographer, pushing my abilities and trying something new.
I think I’m starting to getting the hang of it….