NATURE’S VIEW: Of Tundra Buggies & Polar Bears

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Part III—Photographing Polar Bears in the Canadian Arctic

Polar bear, Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Polar bear, Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

In my previous two columns I shared how I prepared for my excursion into the Canadian Arctic to photograph polar bears. So let’s now experience the Arctic tundra and photographing bears.

Our daily mode of transportation into the Arctic tundra was a tundra buggy, which is a buslike contraption converted into an all-terrain vehicle with extremely large tires, each measuring more than five feet in height. It’s the only mode of transportation capable of negotiating the rugged, snow-covered terrain. The ride is bumpy along the designated trails, and the top speed is probably around three to five miles per hour.

The tundra belongs to the bears and other Arctic wildlife. During my four days there with my wife and son, our feet never touched the ground. Even when we returned to the tundra-buggy lodge—an arrangement of buggies, which includes sleeping quarters, a dining area, a lounge and separate quarters for staff—we remained several feet above the tundra.

Polar bears along the Hudson Bay, Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Polar bears along the Hudson Bay, Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Each morning after breakfast, we departed on our own tundra buggy to spend the day within the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Our buggy driver took us to the best locations for seeing polar bears. A photographer and naturalist himself, he knows how to maneuver the buggy in the right location at the right time. Once in place, he would shut the engine off and signal to us to put our windows down and get ready.

My lenses of choice included a 600mm f/4, 80-400mm VR telephoto zoom, and a 24-70mm f/2.8 wide-angle, while my son Carson opted for the 200-400mm f/4 VR telephoto.

To steady our telephoto lenses, we used bean bags full of rice, nestling them on top of the window sill. Our ISO settings ranged from 100 to 1,000, depending upon the lighting. We opted for fast shutter speeds, and we only increased our ISO to get the desired speed. We also used dynamic autofocus tracking, and we engaged the back button autofocus exclusively for focusing and tracking.

There was little need for a tripod except when photographing the northern lights one night. Oh yeah, don’t get too excited when photographing them like I did. I forgot to wear my gloves and one fingertip got a bad case of frost bite! Wear those gloves!

Only after the sun dipped below the horizon did we return to the lodge to relax, download images, dine, sleep and get ready for the next morning. Of course, how can you sleep when just outside your bunk window are polar bears roaming around and northern lights dancing in the sky!

The best moment of the trip occurred on the last day when a sow and her cub walked up to the buggy—a perfect ending to a unique and fascinating adventure. I hope to return and experience the Canadian Arctic wilderness once again.

In Part IV, I’ll offer up a few tidbits of natural history about this part of the Hudson Bay and why this is the place to see and photograph polar bears.

Polar bear sow and cub, Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Polar bear sow and cub, Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A past NANPA president and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim is also a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.