Polar Bears, Churchill, Manitoba
by John Knight
After a chance meeting with John Marriott in early 2008, my wife and I had the opportunity to join a 6-day trip, organized by John, to Churchill, Manitoba to photograph polar bears with 6 other photographers.
Our group traveled to Churchill either directly by air, or by train from Winnipeg or Thompson. The rail trip from Thompson to Churchill was part of our adventure. The train is often late, and scheduling is unpredictable because the track bed, which crosses a black spruce landscape with bog and permafrost, is rarely flat, level or even. As a result, the train sways excessively from side to side, and must travel slowly so that it doesn’t come off the tracks.
Churchill is uniquely situated at the mouth of the Churchill River on Hudson Bay. It is close to an important denning area for polar bears south of Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park. Each fall, when the sea-ice forms offshore, the counter-clockwise currents in Hudson Bay, and northwest winds, drive the sea-ice onto the east-west oriented shoreline between Churchill and Cape Churchill. It is here that many polar bears wait for the sea-ice that will carry them offshore during the winter in search of seals, their main food source.
The best way to see polar bears is with one of the two local tundra buggy companies (www.greatwhitebeartours.com or www.tundrabuggy.com) between mid-October and mid-November. It is best to go for several days, given the variability of the weather conditions, lighting and daily bear activity. If you’re on a trip with other photographers, request a buggy driver that has some interest in photography, and the same driver each day.
We were picked up at our hotel each day before sunrise (our choice) with our bagged lunches, and driven to the buggy launch site, about 30 minutes east of Churchill. After a forty-five minute drive north, we spent the day traveling on designated roads parallel to the shoreline until after sunset. During the day, we typically saw about two dozen bears, as well as a few Arctic foxes, hares and ptarmigan, all dressed in their formal ‘winter-whites’. We saw one Snowy owl in the distance, but did not see any gyrfalcons.
It is worthwhile spending some extra time in Churchill to see the place during the day, and taking advantage of the wonderful windblown snowy landscapes along the shoreline with a rental vehicle, e.g., Cape Merry, Miss Piggy, local rural roads.
It was the trip of a lifetime for us, but you must go prepared for the cold and wind!
Optimal Time: Early to mid-November when there is snow on the ground, and book early.
Likely Weather: Temperatures can vary from 0°C to -25°C, plus wind chill. During our trip, day-time temperatures ranged from -18° to -24°C with overcast skies and blowing snow. WINTER conditions!!! We had one day of sunshine.
Clothing: With such a range of winter temperatures and wind, it is important to dress in layers, paying particular attention to your feet and hands.
Camera Gear: Everyone in our trip shot either Canon (7) or Nikon (2 + the driver) DSLR’s with some combination of the following gear:
- at least two DSLR camera bodies with lots of memory cards and batteries
- a 500 mm, f4 or longer lens with or without a tele-extender
- 100-400 mm or 200-400 mm short telephoto
- 24-70 mm or 24-105 mm normal lens
- bean-bag or Kirk window-mount, and a tripod
Having one camera with a 500 mm lens, and another with a 70-200 mm or 100-400 mm lens, was a good idea, so that you could adjust quickly to whatever bear activity was happening. There were also good opportunities for scenic shots.
Challenges and Learning’s:
- Hands and Feet: With the windows typically open for shooting, it got very cold inside a buggy from the cross-draft. Hands were particularly vulnerable when you’re holding your gear on or over a window ledge exposed to the wind and blowing snow for extended periods of time. Good gloves were essential when shooting, but make sure that you have a pair of warm over-mitts handy. Some people used hand and feet warmers.
- Batteries: With sustained exposure to cold temperatures, it was important to keep batteries warm, and to have extras in a warm inside pocket. Not surprisingly, the BP-511A batteries for my Canon 5D and 50D did not last as long as the pro batteries used in the Canon 1D Mk III’s or Nikon D3’s.
- Snow/frost on Lens: Periodically after shooting out the window in blowing snow, a lens could become covered in snow. Try using a bulb blower to remove the snow and a soft lens chamois. Do not use your breath to blow the snow off, i.e., the bears won’t wait while the frost thaws (or not) on your lens.
- Exposure: With snow, and the light-colored coats on the bears, foxes, hares and ptarmigan, it was necessary to increase lens openings by about 1 to 1-1/3 stops from the metered reading on the subject, depending on the situation. It was also important to check the in-camera display and histogram periodically, and make adjustments as needed during the day.
- Focus: The low light levels and low subject contrast pushed the auto-focus capabilities of both Canons and Nikons. Most found that using the centre focus point worked best.
- Movement & Image Sharpness:
- Overcast skies and low lighting conditions were common, so using higher ISO’s of 800 to 1200 was necessary to stop the action and/or get a sharp image.
- Using a 300 mm or longer telephoto lens required support. Most individuals used bean-bag supports during our trip. One person used a Kirk window support with a ball-head. Other times, we used a tripod on the COLD, WINDY open back deck of the buggy. Whatever was used, extra care was needed to keep the camera and lens steady in such challenging conditions.
- Although the buggy’s engine was shut off during shooting, some subtle movement still occurred from others carefully walking about or positioning to get a shot.
- Downloading and Backing-up: Bring lots of memory cards, and room on your laptop and external drives to back-up your images from each day. Once the sparring action starts, you will be surprised at how many images you will take in a day, and there’s no place in Churchill to purchase more storage space.
- Daily Image Review: Check your images after each day. Compare your results with others. And, make adjustments as necessary.
John Knight is a retired geologist who has had a keen interest in nature photography for many years. Both he and his wife, Sherrill, enjoy the outdoors and nature during their travels across Canada from coast to coast to coast with their sea-kayaks. Recent trips have included Newfoundland, Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii), Churchill and Norway.