NATURES VIEW: Of Tundra Buggies & Polar Bears

Story and photography by Jim Clark

My first experience with the apex predator of the far north: Part I—Planning the Trip

Polar bear in the Canadian Arctic, near Churchill, Manitoba. (c) Jim Clark

Polar bear in the Canadian Arctic, near Churchill, Manitoba. (c) Jim Clark

Somewhere I read that once you gaze into the eyes of a polar bear, it will change your life. Just a couple weeks ago, I did indeed gaze into the eyes of the foremost apex predator of the far north. In fact, for a week I looked into the eyes of several polar bears during my first-ever trip to Churchill, Manitoba. The experience is something that neither I nor my wife Jamie and son Carson will ever forget.

Being around bears is not new to me. I spent six years in Alaska, and part of that time, I worked up close and personal to these magnificent beasts as a member of a grizzly bear research team. Heck, I was even attacked by one and lived to tell about it. But that’s a different story for another time. During my photo shoots and workshops to Yellowstone and to my home state of West Virginia, I have photographed grizzlies and black bears. Polar bears, however, became the essence of a bruin photography experience.

During the Churchill trip, I served as the nature photography instructor for a contingent of members from the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife. So how did I prepare for my first-ever trip to the Canadian Arctic to photograph polar bears? Well, I’m here to tell you that now. I followed the advice that I give to my workshop students: Do your homework, read as much as you can, and use your personal and professional network to gather advice from those who have been there/done that. My network extends far and wide, including my friends and colleagues who are members of NANPA.

Thanks to my contemporaries and NANPA members Richard Day and Charles Glatzer, I received a ton of helpful suggestions to better prepare for this journey. Each of these photographers has at least 13 years of experience leading workshops to the Canadian Arctic. From what to expect when arriving at Churchill to what to wear and what equipment to lug up there, these two fellas generously gave me great advice. Their suggestions for exposure and such were much appreciated as well. An invaluable benefit as a member of NANPA is the networking opportunities it provides. (I’m proud charter member number 5.)

Richard’s and Charles’s suggestions for equipment included: a wide-angle zoom for landscapes, northern lights and scenes of the village of Churchill; a telephoto zoom that can be handheld (I opted for an 80-400mm zoom); and the largest telephoto lens I have, which for me is a 600mm f/4.

Polar bear at the Hudson Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba. (c) Jim Clark

Polar bear at the Hudson Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba. (c) Jim Clark

The super telephoto lens helped to narrow the angle of view, which made photographing from the tundra buggy appear as if you were at eye level to the bears. And it sure did help to have a strong and athletic son to help lug this stuff, especially the 14-pound 600mm lens. A beanbag was much more valuable to have than a tripod for photography from the tundra buggy. But the tripod came in handy when it came time to photograph the northern lights.

Combined, Carson and I captured close to 17,000 images during the trip. For the actual experience I had photographing these magnificent and highly imperiled creatures, stay tuned for Part II, which will appear in a future eNews. It was indeed a memory for the ages.

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.

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