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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

How to See Cute Polar Bear Cubs in the Wild


  • From the comfort of your warm, cozy chair if you're practical.  As a reality check: check out this "behind the scenes" video made by ABC Nightline News which was filmed while we were in Churchill, Manitoba in March 2011.  I was thrilled that a few of my images were featured.
  • But, if you can handle the craziness of minus 50 temps with Arctic wind blowing in your face, wearing 22 lbs. of expedition clothing/boots/gloves/mitts, driving for hours on extremely bumpy tundra, staring at tiny den openings from 100 yards away, and praying for happy faces to pop out and smile at your camera, then trek on up to Manitoba near the Arctic Circle.  Although freezing your fingers off isn't fun, the experience is truly magical. 
  • I love watching polar bear babies playing and interacting with their mothers and I posted several photo galleries on my website at www.wildliferhythms.com.
  • The only place to see dens/families is at Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, Canada (south of Churchill near Hudson Bay); and, the only lodge/operator is Wat'chee Lodge.  Wat'chee means high spot in Cree; and, the lodge sits on a ridge dotted with spruce trees, often with Northern lights dancing in the sky at this time of year.
  • In the past, Wat'chee Lodge was a closely guarded secret among pro and serious photographers.  But, now that the cat is out of the bag, it's safe to open up the kimono without getting slammed by fellow shooters.  
  • This rustic lodge is open from mid-February to mid-March and there are only 25 co-ed bunk beds available (2 - 4 to a room).  With this very short season and limited number of beds, be aware that the wait list is several years long. 
  • If you request a booking via the website, you'll be placed on the waitlist and the waitlist is several years long.  In the past, you wouldn't hear back from Wat'chee until your name gets to the top of the list for the following season (around July when deposits are due).  But starting with the 2018 season, Wat'chee intends to reach out periodically to reconfirm your level of interest and availability by year.  A good way to get in before your name reaches the top of the waitlist is letting Wat'chee know that you're available for last minute cancellations. 
  • Now is not the time to skimp on proper clothing as it could put you at risk.  In order to stay warm, the initial investment for a Canada Goose Snow Mantra expedition parka, Canada Goose Rocky Mountain bibs and Cabela's Trans-Alaskan III Pac boots is obscene (in other words, a multi-year commitment) not to mention investments in adequate wool/polypropylene base/mid layers, hats, gloves/mitts and a heavy tripod/gimbal.  When available, you can rent Canada Goose parkas from the lodge.
  • There's no guarantee that you will see anything for days on end  as mama bear/baby activity can be earlier or later than your given lodge nights.  The train to the lodge to/from Churchill runs 3 times a week.  You should request at least 6 shooting days to increase your chances of seeing polar bear babies.  The owners do their very best to fit everyone in and repeat guests tend to get priority. 
  • The Wat'chee operation is a labor of love and running the lodge for only a month a year in these extreme weather conditions requires a herculean hands-on effort and investment - more than you can ever imagine.  Mike and Morris Spence - brothers who own and built out the lodge - truly want to share this special experience of seeing polar bear families in/near the dens, while preserving the natural habitat as they remember it from their youth.  
  • Mike and Morris have the most hands-on knowledge on the planet and share knowledge with various polar bear organizations and researchers.  Mike runs guest operations; and, Morris plus good friend Amak, are the best and heartiest polar bear baby trackers in the universe. The rest of the year, Mike, Morris and the small staff go back to their regular jobs; i.e., Mike has been the mayor of Churchill for over 20 years.  
  • The denning area, which became part of Wapusk National Park in 1996, is where the Spence brothers - Mike, Morris, James and Frankie - fished and hunted using traditional traplines with their parents when they were kids, with added knowledge handed down from their grandparents. The property is a refurbished World War II Navy communications base (originally used for Arctic survival training) and is located 40 minutes south of Churchill.  All essential supplies - food, water, wood, gas, building and auto parts, etc. - have to be brought in by train and driven to/from the remote drop off point on snow mobiles.  During the lodge's 5 weeks of operation during the height of the denning season, guests are driven in vans modified to operate on the harsh (aka hard/bumpy) tundra.  Running this operation for such a short window is a herculean logistic challenge given that once the snow melts, the surrounding area becomes a huge marsh with no access except by helicopter.
  • Every resource is precious and the operation is extremely well run.  Keeping Wat'chee vehicles running (and warm) in these harsh conditions is a feat in itself.  Most impressive is the hearty food that Daryl, the sole cook, is able to prepare for a hungry group of 25 plus the staff.  The lodge is kept remarkably warm with only 2 wood burning stoves for heat; and, guests conserve at the no running water, co-ed facilities by bringing their own packets of no rinse bathing wipes and personal sundries, etc.
  • There is no best week to visit Wat'chee Lodge as the season could start early (when families leave earth dens and head to the Bay so that moms can feed on seals) - or late.  After emerging from earth dens, families hang around for a few days (out in the open or next to snow banks referred to as day dens) before starting the 40 mile trek to the Bay.  Since there are over 200 re-usable earth dens in the area, success means being in the right place at the right time.  
  • Researchers say that Hudson Bay's late freezing/early thawing has had consequences on the number of  bears in the area.  Less ice and fewer seal meals equates to fewer females strong enough to go into heat.  I truly believe that this is a reality. 
  • I always approach Wat'chee with the expectation that one good sighting per trip would be a win; and, that 3 days of good shooting out of 10 is a home run.  But with wildlife photography, we don't always win on every trip.  So, I'm always braced for goose eggs because it does happen.  If you're not ready for these odds, perhaps Wat'chee is not meant to be because standing outdoors in minus 40 - 50 degree temps will already test your sanity.  
  • Seeing triplets may be the brass ring; but, seeing playful cubs (twins or triplets) in nice lighting is the holy grail.  I was blessed with triplets during my first 3 visits, missed them by a day on the next 2, and had goose eggs on the last 2.  Even seeing one baby with mom - as long the cub is an animated poser - is special.
  • Wat'chee attracts experienced, diehard photographers with great attitudes (no whiners); and it's a great place for exchanging travel knowledge, making new International friends, and seeing Northern lights.  It's estimated that only 500 or so folks in the world have had the opportunity to see moms with newborn cubs in the wild, so finding/watching them is pretty incredible. I want to stress that building a polar bear portfolio should be a multi-year commitment as the right expedition clothing (base/mid layers, parka/bibbs, Pac boots, gloves/mitts, etc.) is expensive aka >$2,000, you need a sturdy tripod/gimbal, the learning curve is steep, there are up/down bear activity seasons, you can miss planned shooting days due to snow flurries and worse case, access to/from the lodge may be delayed due to severe storms. 
  • The ability to get sharp images continues to be a huge challenge, especially when winds are blowing 30 - 60 knots (35 - 70 miles per hour).  Lenses shake, viewfinders and LCDs frost up, batteries drop 50% in minutes, cheeks/fingers hurt, autofocus gets sluggish, tripod/gimbal joints get loose, and rigs blow over when you're not looking; not to mention that it's difficult to operate camera buttons and latches.  Even without the wind, it's a challenge to get low contrast subjects in flat lighting tack sharp; especially, when there are snow flurries and atmospheric shimmers between you and your target 100 yards away.  Being blessed with nice lighting can make all the difference in the world; and, it helps to stay calm when LCDs start to look like snow cones.   
  • It goes without saying that it's critical to be fit and healthy; and, you must monitor and listen to your body to avoid frostbite and other serious injuries.  It's not the time to man up or prove a thing as there's no access to nearby medical facilities; i.e., the train back to Churchill only runs 3 times a week. 
  • It takes a high level of commitment, patience and good karma to make this trip a success.   
  • Being bear-wise is important too.  It's very easy to be engrossed in your viewfinder and not hear the Wat'chee staff telling people to stick together, be still, not to slam doors, be quiet or pull back.  When Mike says to pull back, you pull back - period!  It's for the safety of the entire group as a polar bear can cover 100 yards in 9 seconds flat.  
  •  If you're still serious about wanting to see these endearing, endangered babies in the wild, then get on the Wat'chee wait list or find a tour group (i.e., Thomas Kokta) that has available spots for the 2018 or 2019 season.  You also need to get a Wapusk Park Photography Permit before your visit which the the lodge will provide.
  • This is a seasonal business and the very small team works miracles in these harsh conditions (while giving up their normal jobs for this labor or love), so tips in the range of $40 - $50/day are appreciated. 
  • Getting to Wat'chee: take the morning Calm Air flight from Winnipeg to Churchill.  Reserve a day room at the Seaport Hotel if you need to catch up on zzzz's.  Wat'chee will put you on the 7P train and after 2 hours, you'll be instructed to get off -  in the middle of no where - where the Wat'chee staff will be waiting for you in modified tundra vans.  Driving on tundra is a very slow process and it takes another hour to get to the lodge.  Bad weather can delay the train and assigned roommates are often asleep upon arrival.  So, I always re-organize my gear/clothing back in Churchill so that I'm quiet and ready to shoot the next morning.  In the past, delayed luggage was a recurring issuing on flights from Winnipeg.  But Wat'chee solved this problem in 2016 by getting Calm Air to use larger aircraft.  The vans head out between 8:30A - 9:30A (after the trackers find fresh bear tracks) and return around 7P - 9P.
  • Before visiting, be sure to review my Baby, It's Cold Outside section below as there's lots of prep work involved; especially, if you want to stay warm and comfortable.  Hopefully, I've taken at lot of the guesswork out of clothing and shooting tactics.   If I can do it, so can you!  


3 comments:

  1. Fascinating information I haven’t been experienced such information in quite a long time.
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  2. Just got back! Great post! Exactly accurate!
    Got skunked for nearly 6 days at the 11th hr cub came out! No mom though just her nose poking out! Better than nothing!

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