Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Minus Fifty

The wind is howling, it is -54º Celsius....and 25 seemingly crazy photographers are standing outside, huddled up, shivering and facing severe frostbite. In front of them cameras that are certainly not built for these conditions and hence suffer from the electrical equivalent of frost bite. Not much talking is going on, as talking creates condensation and everybody is focused on three yellowish, furry blobs in the bushes ahead anyway.
All of a sudden extreme clicking noises interrupt the collective moaning and excited Ahs and Ohs buzz in the air. An occasional swearing can also be heard, as batteries die of cold in just the wrong moment.
What happened? Three polar bears, a mom with two cubs, just woke up from their afternoon snooze in Wapusk National Park.

At the beginning of March I spent 10 days at Wat'chee lodge, close to the Wapusk National Park, and one of the very few places on earth where one can observe female polar bears with their 2 - 3 months old cubs. They just emerged from the dens where the cubs were born in and after a few days of transitioning into a life outside the den, they will be off to the frozen Hudson Bay to hunt.
These few days are the only time window where the bears can be detected and photographed.

On my first day out and about it was extremely cold and windy, but we also were extremely lucky as our trackers found the bears despite the strong winds.

We only had a few hours with the young family and it was photographically a bit challenging, not only because of the weather, the three were a bit hidden in the bushes and mom was wearing one of the research collars. But nevertheless, seeing the bears, no matter the circumstances, is always an absolute amazing experience. As they went off into the distance we finally could thaw....

How cold is -54º Celsius? Too you can see below, even my eye lashes had icicles on them. From time to time I had to go into one of the nearby trucks since the eye lashes kept freezing together which made seeing just a tad difficult. I was not the only one struggling, read what a fellow photographer, Tin Man Lee, has to say about: How cold is -50?

The following days the weather calmed down a bit, winds were still strong, but nothing compared to the first day.
To give you a feeling of the omnipresent tundra winds I made this short video clip:

 Make sure you watch the video clips in the HD setting! (click on the little wheel at the right bottom and check mark HD)

A normal day at the lodge would start around 7 am with a hearty breakfast. After checking and getting our equipment ready we would start dressing in layers, and more layers and even more layers until 25 moon walkers could be seen trying to awkwardly climbing into the trucks that would drive us out to Wapusk National Park.

Wapusk is the Cree word for "white bear", a fitting name considering that it shelters one of the largest known maternity denning areas for polar bears.
A lot of research was and is done here on polar bears, hence the bear with the collar. The image below shows an early research joke!

Long before we would start from the lodge, 2 trackers on skidoos were already scouting the area. These men were simply amazing. It is one almost impossible thing to stand out there at these temperatures, but now imagine driving a skidoo....while scanning the ground for tracks. Every day I was anew in awe over their skill and perseverance.
Most days we would take different routes and also keep out eyes open for any signs of the bears....if we were lucky we would find some bear prints in the snow...

After about 2 hours we would all (3 or 4 trucks) meet in a central location around Fletcher Lake...and wait for the radio to crackle, or a single skidoo to arrive. Both could potentially mean that a polar bear family had been found.

The trucks are converted trucks or vans that run on caterpillar tracks, the only way to navigate on the frozen tundra. Although practical and efficient, it's a bit bumpy.
Let's go on a ride together...

  Make sure you watch the video clips in the HD setting! (click on the little wheel at the right bottom and check mark HD)

To avoid cabin- or rather truck fever I took advantage of the good weather days and took little walks around the trucks. Not too far, mind you, the radio could crackle any minute...

And there were some macro treasures to be found.

Desperate for some wildlife, we all jumped out of the truck one morning as one unsuspecting ptarmigan nibbled on some dry willow leaves.

And then, finally after 4 bear-less days we saw another mom!
Although the female was not super active, the two cubs gave us the most adorable show ever. Polar bears are supposed to be the most dangerous mammals on earth and yet, their tender loving care for each other seems unrivaled.
I still have not edited all of the images and I promise a polar-bears-only blog in the near future with many more images!

Needless to say, after this absolute photographers heaven followed another two days of....nothing. Well, not true entirely, let's say no bears.
On my second to last day we had a beautiful sunset,

and while we were shooting away, indulging in the rich colors, our best-ever driver, Frankie, waited patiently for us.

Alpenglow tundra style...

Barely back at the lodge, I just had peeled myself out of my many layers, as someone mentioned the Aurora outside....and back into the layers it was. Most of us hastily grabbed a bite to eat and out we were again... witness and photograph one of the most stunning Aurora light shows I have ever seen!

Here a time lapse of the Aurora:

  Make sure you watch the video clips in the HD setting! (click on the little wheel at the right bottom and check mark HD)

These are the same 83 images that I used for the time lapse, this time layered over each other to reveal the star trails

After this amazing night, we had another spectacular day with the bears. It was the same family as the one three days ago and this time we could enjoy and photograph them for about 5 hours.
Pure Cuteness!

  Make sure you watch the video clip in the HD setting! (click on the little wheel at the right bottom and check mark HD)

Exhausted and sad to leave, but a once-in-a-life-time experience richer, I had to get up very early the next day to catch the train back to Churchill and the civilization.

A big THANK YOU to all the people who make Wat'chee lodge such a welcoming and great experience - you are truly amazing!