Arctic Adventure - Photographing Caribou and the Aurora
In the Northwest Territories
by Dr. Robert Berdan
July 2, 2010
View from the float plane while flying over the Tundra with lakes extending out to the horizon in all directions
In 2007 I took my first trip to the Arctic and I somehow knew it wouldn't be my last. As we flew over the North West Territories north of Yellowknife, I could see millions of lakes stretching out to the horizon. It made me feel small as I realized Canada's north is a really big place. The pilot of our twin otter float plane assured me if there was any engine trouble there were lots of runways below us. The landscape was dotted with only a few trees and rocks of various colour with no obvious signs of civilization for hundreds of kilometers. On landing on Point Lake about 250 Km north of Yellowknife I surveyed the landscape of rolling hills and was anxious to see more. We were greeted by friendly faces in blue jumpsuits and invited up to the cabin where we were offered coffee and fresh baked goods. After settling into our cabins we were briefed about safety and reminded the only way out was by float plane and it had just left. There was no cell phone service though their was a two way radio for emergencies. On this visit my job was to take photographs of the camp, activities and landscape for a new web site I was building for the Petersons (www.petersonspointlakelodge.com) and I was excited to be there.
Petersons Point Lake Lodge as viewed from a hillside overlooking Point Lake
The lodge was an oasis in the midst of a vast wilderness area. Our cabins were fitted with comfortable beds, a large table and an oil stove. In the main cabin was a meeting area, kitchen and lounge with a small store and overflowing book case. I took several books to read in my spare time including one on lichens of the tundra and one on the expedition to find the Northwest passage led by Sir John Franklin in 1819-1822. It wasn't hard to imagine in spite of the natural beauty the Tundra could be a difficult place to survive in if you were not prepared and the early explorers describe this firsthand in their journals.
Inside view of Cabins with 4 beds, oil stove and table made for comfortable living quarters.
Around camp I found more then a dozen species of Lichen which also serve as the main food source for the caribou. Some species of lichen like Black Tripe served as survival food during the British expeditions though it caused stomach cramps and I could envisage how hungry the men would have to be to eat the stuff, but then they also ate their boots. I suggested we try some Tripe to see what it was like, but no one had the stomach for it including myself.
Bearberry and map lichen cover the boulders on the tundra which form many colours in the Autumn
There are two main ways to get around the tundra; one is on foot and the other via boat. The outfitters use 16 foot aluminium boats to take their clients out hunting and fishing and are able cover great distances this way. Point lake seemed to stretch forever though the distant shore was visible across the way and featured numerous towering cliffs. Safety is always a concern and were reminded although the water is clear and drinkable it is also bone chilling cold and the bright orange floating coats we had to wear in the boats were not to save us, but rather so our next of kin could identify our bodies should we fall in. Northerners have an interesting sense of humour, but there point was well taken. The lake was long and narrow and the wind can sweep up quickly making the waves dangerous. Because of this they had erected several emergency shelters in case an expedition might be interrupted by the onset of severe weather, after all we were in the arctic and it can snow anytime of the year. The emergency shelter I saw was made of corrugated circular steel and the door had a bed of nails on the outside to deter grizzly bears from trying to break in. There were fresh grizzly and wolf tracks all around the shelter. Inside they had a stove, food, blankets and several bunk beds, but no windows. Outside the shelter we found some caribou antlers and a Perigrine falcon flew overhead.
Egan Wuth and his daughters proudly show off their catch - note the orange safety coat.
Back at camp we had dinner and I requested permission to explore the area on foot by myself. Generally visitors are not allowed to leave camp without an armed guide. My host, Jim Peterson however sensed my desire to explore and gave me a pistol which fired bear bangers and he showed me how to use them. I headed out alone and tried to keep our camp site in view when ever possible and I always scanned the regions around me with my binoculars as I felt it was better to see a potential threat before it saw me. The tundra is unlike any other environment I have ever visited. It has rolling hills, small shrubs, and rocks covered in colourful lichens. It is a geologists and photographers paradise. It also became apparent why caribou often graze on the upper ridges as there is always a constant breeze to keep the mosquitoes and blackfiles at bay. On top of one of the hills there were several inuksuit (plural form of inukshuk) rock figures built by members of the camp and other visitors. Similar stone structures in the past may have been used by people of the Arctic for navigation, markers for hunting grounds or food caches.
Inukshuk overlooking Point lake and the Peterson's Lodge
In mid August it does not get truly dark during the night time and the first few days I didn't want to go to sleep. I would sit on the porch in front of my cabin until 4 or 5 am until I simply could not hold my eyes open anymore. After the third day I had to take a late afternoon nap to catch up on my sleep. On one of the nights, I saw and photographed the aurora above my cabin. I had seen and photographed the Aurora earlier in the week from my hotel in Yellowknife and I although I have seen the Aurora when I lived in Edmonton, I had never seen a light show like the one I experienced in Yellowknife. To my pleasant surprise the Aurora can be viewed in the Arctic even in late summer. The Aurora is one of the most amazing natural events I have ever seen as the lights dance across the sky. (See my article on how to photograph the Aurora).
Aurora over my cabin outfitted with Solar Powered lights - more recently the cabins have enclosed porches in front of the cabins.
The faint pink cloud (spot) over the cabin on the left is the galaxy Andromeda visible to the naked eye.
The week I visited the lodge they were training a new fishing guide and I was able to join them. When I was a kid I was crazy about fishing, though I never caught any big fish and my interests turned toward photography where I seemed to have better catch rate. We went fishing for lake trout and after 5 minutes of casting I pulled in the biggest fish I had ever caught - I am guessing it was around 20 lbs. Not really big by their standards, but big enough for me. I released the fish and we continued to catch and release lake trout for a couple of hours. We took several of the smaller 5 -10 pound lake trout back to eat. I watched and photographed our guide Egan fillet the lake trout and prepare them for our cook. At dinner in addition to the fish, I was treated to some Caribou sausage which had a flavour I had not tasted before. Caribou meat is dark, rich and contains three times more protein than beef. Spending time out doors always stimulates my appetite and there was always plenty of food.
Egan Wuth preparing lake trout for dinner.
My second trip to the lodge came two years later in September of 2009. I lead a small group of photographers out onto the tundra along with our guide and protector Egan who was always armed. I chose to come in Autumn for several reasons. First the cold kills most of those pesky bugs and the tundra turns a fire red colour. Caribou bucks also sport their large antlers and show off their finest fur as they ready themselves for winter and begin to migrate south where some of them pass by the lodge. The caribou come from two main herds, one being the Bluenose east and the other the Bathurst herd. Members of a herd are defined by the region where their cows have their young. Caribou are the life blood of the arctic and many natives and outfitters depend on them. In the past few years the numbers of caribou have declined in most of the herds though the reasons are unclear. Hunting was suspended in 2010 until further notice. Many outfitters have been left scrambling to find alternative ways to make a living. Eco-tourism is one way outfitters might be able to recoup some revenue, though it may not be enough to replace the revenue lost from hunting. The main impediment to bringing tourism to the Arctic is that everything has to be flown in and out and with the price of fuel continuing to rise, it's not cheap to visit these remote areas. However, to put prices in perspective I have friends that have spent between 10 - 20 thousand dollars to visit and photograph in the Antarctic. The Canadian Arctic is certainly closer and cheaper to visit. Other good news is return flight costs to Yellowknife from Calgary via Westjet have dropped substantially in the past couple of years to a few hundred dollars. I typically drive my car only because I can carry more photographic equipment and I want to have a vehicle to get around with in Yellowknife. Having my own vehicle also allows me to take pictures along the way and sometimes the journey can be as exciting as the destination.
Caribou bull showing recently shed antlers covered in blood.
The photography workshop started on September 5 and the first two days we explored the area around Yellowknife, driving out of town via the Ingraham trail we stopped at several old gold mines. In one area littered with mining artifacts we had a cross fox taunt and pose for us. The Ingraham trail heads out of town for about 70 km and passes through many small lakes ideal for spotting moose, black bear, and lynx. We stopped at Hidden Lake Territorial Park and hiked about 2 km to Cameron Falls. Along the way we visited a culturally modified tree where natives placed offerings in the bark. During the evenings we headed out of town to nearby lakes with wide open skies to photograph the Aurora. On one evening we photographed the Aurora at Amanda Peterson's home on the shores of a small lake. We had a roaring fire nearby, coffee and a variety of snacks while we were entertained by the symphony of the Aurora Borealis.
Photographing the Aurora at Amanda Peterson's home outside Yellowknife
The Aurora can be seen on most clear nights between the latitude of 57-65 degrees north. Yellowknife is at 62 degrees north making it one of the best places in the world to view and study the Aurora. The Aurora can be viewed on almost any clear night from about the middle of August to middle of May. The intensity of the Aurora also follows an approximate 11 year cycle associated with the number of sunspots. The next Solar Max is predicted to occur between 2012 to 2013. The Aurora often begins around 11 pm and grows in intensity around midnight, though it can occur any time it becomes dark. The best time of the month to photograph the Aurora is on moonless nights in the Autumn when you can catch the Aurora reflecting off small lakes. Before heading out to view or photograph the Aurora around Yellowknife the first thing you should do is check out the web site www.astronomynorth.com which posts reliable up to date forecasts of the Aurora and amount of cloud cover. For more information on how to photograph the Aurora see my article on "Photographing the Aurora Borealis "Northern Lights" with your Digital Camera.
Aurora photographed outside of Yellowknife on the Ingraham Trail note the Big Dipper near the center of the picture.
After photographing the area around Yellowknife we flew north to Petersons point lake lodge. We settled in and everyone was briefed on safety and reminded to be alert at night around camp when going to the washrooms as there were fresh grizzly tracks near camp. On our first day we hiked about 8 km through the tundra in search of caribou. A good pair of water proof boots is essential as the tundra can be damp and spongy in places. The rolling hills makes it possible to sneak up on grazing caribou and our hunting guides gave us tips on how to get close without spooking them. Caribou tracks, trails and droppings were everywhere. Occasionally we would encountered a rack of caribou antlers on the ground. It wasn't long before we spotted several small groups of caribou grazing. Photographing caribou requires at least a 200 mm telephoto lens, 300-400mm is better. I also carried a tripod and one photographer brought along a monopod. Whatever camera gear you bring you need to carry it in a comfortable back pack. When we weren't chasing caribou, we photographed caribou antlers, and close-ups of multi-coloured plants and lichens. We saw a wolverine on one trip, caribou swimming across a river on another and also photographed a ptarmigan nearby the camp. On one day a small group of caribou came right into our backyard and it seemed everyday we were able to get closer to them. In the evenings, the tundra is silent except for the wind, there wasn't a single incandescent light visible in any direction. I got the feeling maybe this is what it might be like to have lived 10,000 years ago.
Caribou Bull on the Tundra
When visiting the Tundra what to bring with you depends on when you go and what you hope to photograph. To photograph the Aurora you will need a tripod, a digital SLR camera and a wide angle lens (24-35 mm F2.8 or F1.4) is best. Also bring extra batteries and your battery charger which can be used if there is generator available. Bring along more storeage media then you think you will need because it won't take long to fill them up and you won't be able to get more on site. Some photographers bring along a laptop or other portable storeage device to preview and back up their images. For photographing wildlife a 200 mm telephoto lens is the minimum, though a 300 mm or longer lens is recommended. Many photo stores will rent you a long lens for a week, just be sure you can carry it. A 300 mm F4 lens with a 1.4 or 2X teleconverter is ideal for hiking. For landscapes a wide angle zoom e.g. 17-70 mm is a good choice along with a macro lens, or a set of extension tubes will allow you to capture intimate beauty on the ground. A pair of compact binoculars is also useful to scan for wildlife. Otherwise warm clothing, a tuk and gloves is essential. The Peterson's lodge now even boasts Internet access for a short while each evening while the generator is turned on, but my recommendation is live for the moment and leave the outside world behind for a week. If your idea of a vacation is relaxing on a warm beach then the Arctic may not be a place for you, but if you are seeking adventure, raw beauty, wilderness and chance to see the Aurora that relatively few people have experienced then the Arctic is definitely the less travelled road and you will not be disappointed.
Caribou silhoutte and Aurora - composite image (DM)
[ View Video on the Aurora - time lapse | View Video on workshop - Select Quest for Caribou | View Gallery of Images ]
LInks and Additional Resources
Best Book I have read on the Caribou is "Caribou and the North ( 2008) by M. Hummel and J. C. Ray" Includes
research studies, photographs, maps of the herds, politics and the Biology of the Caribou
Purchase at Amazon.ca for $31.35
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