Another Phenomenal Season of Cape Churchill Polar Bear Photography

Posted Nov. 29th, 2010 by Daniel J. Cox

November 17, 2010

Aerial of Winnipeg Landscape

Aerial view as we fly into Winnipeg

On my way to Winnipeg. It’s a beautiful, clear blustery day in Churchill. Winter has finally arrived. Not as cold as it should be by 5-10 degrees but the wind has blown in from the north making it’s presence known with chill factors cold enough to get your attention. Today was supposed to be the blizzard of the century, so said the guys from Hudson Bay Heli.  Sadly it never arrived. It’s just windy. One could possibly get the impression mother nature is loosing her steam.

My two weeks of PBI volunteer work has mostly ended. I may be recruited for help dismantling the houses and packing the gear that spends the winter in Churchill. But for the most part I’m now on the clock for Frontiers North and Tundra Buggy Adventures. My trip to Winnipeg will be short. I’m heading south to greet the guests who will accompany me back to Churchill to photograph the polar bears. I’ve been doing this now for about eight years for Frontiers North and have loved every minute of it. They’re a great company and I’m thankful to be a part of such a great team.

The trip I currently lead for Frontiers North is known as the Cape Churchill Adventure. It’s the photographic tour I’ve been a part of every year, minus one, since 1988. The first ten years I was a paying guest. In the mid 90’s I drove a buggy for three years and in the late 90’s I began my stint at what I fondly call my role as “Photographer in Residence” for the Cape Churchill photographic tour. It’s been a great gig and has given me the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people, many who have become friends. Robert Buchanan of Polar Bears International, who I consider one of my closest, is one of those individuals. Robert and I met during my first trip to the Cape back in 1988.

You can see still images from the trip at the following link: Churchill Polar Bear Season 2010

Galleries of additional images you may enjoy.

PBI Hosts Martha Stewart in Churchill

Portia signs books in Churchill

Celebrities Visit PBI in Churchill

Dr. Steven Amstrup’s Talk on Polar Bears

Native Knowledge and Global Warming Film at the Churchill community center

PBI Media Day

So many things have changed since my first arrival in Winnipeg back in 1988. The following is an account I wrote for the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Witness project back in 2008. I thought it would be appropriate to share it here as well.

World Wildlife Fund Climate Witness Project

My observations of how the climate has changed is based mostly on my travels north. I first started visiting Churchill back in 1988. On my way to this exciting, subarctic community I wold always stop for the night in Winnipeg. On arrival my first year, the weather was cold and blustery. There was already 1-2 feet of snow on the ground and I can recall it vividly due to my nightly adventures that took me from the hotel to find a place to eat. This was common for the first ten to twelve years. However, its no longer like this. Last year the sun was shining, there was not a trace of snow on the ground and the temperatures were well above freezing. It was a beautiful fall day.

My first realization of how things were beginning to change came sometime in the late 90’s but it became really obvious in 2003 or 2004. First was a change in the dates we were able to get out to Cape Churchill to see the polar bears. Our trips used to start November 3. This year, 2008, that same trip isn’t starting until November 17th. Our vehicle to get out and see the bears needs frozen coastline to travel over. It’s no longer freezing hard enough to get to Cape Churchill in early November.

In years past, at the end of the of our adventure to Cape Churchill, the bears have always been gone. The ice has frozen, the temperatures are typically well below zero F and the bay is mostly covered with ice. This season when we departed from Cape on November 26, 2008 the bears were still there, the bay was mostly still open and many individual mothers with cubs looked tired, hungry and more skinny than I can ever remember.

This change in temperature is more comfortable for me as I travel but it effects the polar bears I’m going to photograph dramatically. Each additional week they can’t get out onto the ice to hunt means less body fat and less healthy body conditions. Today, polar bears of the western hudson bay region are getting smaller and lighter as witnessed by the scientists studying them. If the trends continue it is predicted that this population of polar bears will die out and polar bears on Hudson Bay will be a thing of the past within the next 20-30 years.

My work as a photojournalist gives me the opportunity to document the arctic and the many changes it’s currently going through. It’s my goal to spend the next several years recording these changes and the effects the warming climate will have on the wildlife and people of the far north. All of this work will be under the umbrella of the conservation group Polar Bears International. You can find out more about this extremely hard working and effective organization backed by some of the worlds foremost authorities on the warming arctic, by visiting their web site at www.polarbearsinternational.org or visiting my web site at www.naturalexposures.com. I’m confident that my work through PBI will help encourage people around the world to begin making the changes needed to stop the human contribution of Co2 into the atmosphere.

All PBI scientists are adamant that there is still time to change the outcome of a warming planet. Hope is within reach by way of all of us individually doing our part to use less electricity, less carbon fuels, conserve more and recycle virtually everything. The green economy of a new world could provide many jobs and cleans the planet at the same time. I look at it this way. Most all of us insure almost everything. We insure our life, we insure our car, we insure our home, our health and lots of other worldly things. Why not take an insurance policy out on the planet? What do we have to loose by doing so? In the end we’ll have cleaner water, more breathable air, purer rain and a better quality of life. These things, along with our governments encouragement of new, green technologies are the key to a sustainable existence on this beautiful planet we call earth. Our time is short for making these changes if they are to be effective. The results of not doing so will be nothing short of catastrophic for the species once known as homo-sapiens.

Daniel J. Cox

You can follow this link to the original post of the Climate Witness Story for WWF

The piece above was written back in 2008. Sadly, the climate continues to head in the direction it was moving back then. This year for the first time we will not be going to Cape Churchill. At least that is the word currently around town. The tundra is not frozen and like the bears we need ice to make the trip happen.

Eider Ducks

Eider ducks float on the open waters at the mouth of the Churchill River that should be frozen by now

When I arrived in Churchill two weeks ago it was warm beyond belief. As I mention in the Climate Witness essay, the fall season has changed dramatically since I first came north in 1988. In the past five years I’ve arrived in Winnipeg to weather that was more typical of what should have been happening a month earlier. This trip, once again, the land was barren and brown. Not a flake of snow in the air or on the ground. In the past I was always consoled by leaving Winnipeg behind, arriving in Churchill, then stepping back in time to a climate of howling winds and driving snow. This year that didn’t happen. I exited the plane to weather in the mid 40’s, rain pelted the window as we drove from the airport back to PBI Central. It was the first year my heart had to make peace with mother nature, she was letting me down. And now I hear there will be no Cape. No Cape trip reminds me of the feelings I had when Santa Clause told Rudolph and the elves there would be no Christmas. It just doesn’t seem right.

November 18, 2010

Ed Nahin is all smiles as he boards the plane for his third trip to Churchill.

My time in Winnipeg is past and this morning found our group taking breakfast at 6:00am, preparing for the flight to Churchill aboard the Nolinor chartered 737. It’s a luxurious plane by northern standards and cuts the trip to an hour and a half from the big city to the edge of Hudson Bay. The air was crisp as we exited the hotel. There were snow flakes, some the size of a nickel, blowing in the wind, falling to the tarmac, making a considerable  attempt to take back the winter. We boarded our bus and made our way to the air field.

Upon arrival in Churchill we were greeted by the north one can never forget. This is what I remember. It was cold, the wind blowing hard enough to remove your hood if not synched tight. Finally winter was upon us. We all made our way through Churchill’s one room, aviation facility. Locals waiting for tourists, tourists waiting for planes, a combination of people coming and going, many with smiles, all with the memories of the earths largest carnivore. This is after all the greatest place on earth to experience polar bears in a close and personal way.

The rest of the day our guests explored the town. I made my way to PBI Central to talk with Kritsta and offer a hand at breaking down our temporary home away from home. Everything needed to be packed. Each year PBI rents 3-4 local condo type facilities for housing the PBI staff, journalists, TV crews, scientists, zoo volunteers and the like. It’s a major undertaking and one that requires precision and planning. Krista handles logistics and acts as the glue that holds it all together. My wife Tanya came north to her home town to volunteer as official cook. She and Stacey Dee ran the kitchen with style and grace, providing meals many will not forget. They were a huge help in providing a thankless service.

In the move to our holding facility it all has to go. Cotts from Cabelas, washer and dryer, towels, sheets, foamies and piles and piles of smurf blue PBI parkas. There are Apple towers to dismantle, LCD monitors to wrap, hard drives to pack, cords to rewind, kitchen utensils, plates, coffee mugs, glasses and bowls. Boxes are taped, sharpies used to ID contents, food is collected, freezer is emptied. It’s a swarm of activity by people who care. You can’t sleep on the floor, sometimes with four people in your room without having a purpose. Lots of excitement and the anticipation of heading back to your real home. Some having been away for nearly three solid months. The truck was loaded and we were off to pack things away.

At 4:30pm we all met at the Tundra Buggy gift shop for the bus ride out to launch. It’s about a twenty minute ride on the only road that’s even partially paved. For the first time ever I heard how the pavement came to be. Seems the Queen of England came to Churchill a number of years ago and the town felt it essential to make sure her trip form the airport to town was as comfortable as possible. To help accomplish this task the city fathers saw fit to pave the road. When she arrived she flew by chopper from the airport to town never once using the road that was so graciously laid down.

November 21, 2010

Tundra Buggy Lodge the evening before our move to Cape Churchill

Two days into the Cape trip and we’re finally heading for Cape Churchill. Thankfully the rumors around town were just that. What started out as a warm wet season has now turned more traditionally cold. We’ve had temperatures in the -20 C range for around a week and seemingly overnight the bay started building ice. Within a days the ground went from wet and mushy to hard, crusty tundra. The first exploratory buggies made their way along the coastal trail two days ago. John Gunter and Simon Gee ventured south, cautiously selecting every inch of the way, laying a GPS track as if it where the last trail for survival. The team ads knowledge every year and John’s leadership grows accordingly. This morning we depart and are away by 9:30am. A good start to what is often times a very long day.

Trundling along the coastal trail can be boring, exciting, frustrating and more. It just all depends on how our luck holds. Three years back the staff quarters broke an axel just a quarter mile from the start of our journey. The year after it broke again much further down the path to the Cape. So far this morning we are all doing well. The weather is bright and sunny, no snow blowing, no wind, a well laid route and now our desire continuing luck.

Many guests don’t believe me when I talk about the trip to Cape Churchill that took three solid days back in the 80’s. Admittedly, they were using the old inland trail, not the coastal equivalent that overall is so much smoother and less taxing on the buggies and trailers. My father in law Len Smith had blazed  the inland trail his entire Tundra Buggy career. Getting stuck came to be part of the show. Men being men was just part of the appeal for adventures souls coming north to see bears. At the time a big part of why the Cape trip took place was due to the adventure. Now an adventure means some unhappy customers so the new owners of Tundra Buggy Adventures came up with a different route, hoping to keep the adventure part of our trip to a minimum. So far today it’s really working.

11:45am and we’ve rounded Nights Hill. It’s the tallest land mass you can see for miles and miles around. Tall really is an overstatement for Nights Hill is truly just that, a hill, rising barely 800 feet above sea level. Certainly not a mountain but equally as certain is its power to hearten a tundra traveler. Nights Hill is about half way there and one third the way home. Either direction we are always happy to see this moderate bump on the landscape.

We eat lunch as our buggy crawls the coast, skirting the tidal flats of La Perouse Bay. This is the trail Len considered too rocky. And rocks there are. Most are stones of moderate size, none we can’t detour around. The flats are frozen and travel is smooth and easy. If our pace continues we’ll be to Cape in record time, hopefully in the light of day when camp is easier to assemble. So far nothing to report regarding equipment problems with the exception of the Foremosts fuel line that was remedied in less than five minutes with the heated blast of a Tiger torch.

One by one the rolling hotel makes its way down the shoreline. Light is getting low but still about two hours to go before dark. Traveling on and across La Perouse Bay the tower of Cape Churchill comes into view. It’s a fair ways off but the white box on top shines brightly in the setting sun against a bank of dark, marbled clouds that rise above the great bay of Canada’s Hudson. We pull onto the lake that will mark the perimeter of the camp at Cape. Driving on to the ice we skirt the frozen waters edge, a polar bear jumps to its feet as we round a corner and bolts off over the sandy esker of Cape Churchill. Obviously, he’s not seen the buggies before.

For the next two hours we rebuild camp. Arriving at 3:30pm gives us time to do a lot of the work in light of late afternoon. The past several years saw teams of buggy drivers, mechanics and guides recommissioning camp in total darkness. It was a victory to get to the Cape with light left to spare. Within a couple of hours we were all back on the lodge, a glass of wine in our hands and a delectable dinner of lasagna, salad, and the great Canadian Nanaimo bars for desert. Lots of laughter, good cheer and positive feelings. It’s another year at Cape and it is always good to be back.

November 23, 2010

It’s another sunny day. I can’t remember a Cape trip with this much sunshine since 1995 when we had nearly two weeks of continuous blue cloud-free skies. Typically we ‘re lucky to get a half day of clear weather throughout the entire trip. This year we’ve had five out of seven. The difference between 1995 and now are the temps. I can remember barely being able to stand on the back deck of the Tundra Buggy due to cold air and howling wind. This year virtually no wind and temps that are cold but not frigid. This past week seemed considerably colder than last year at this time but still way above normal.

Super sport Isabel shares her sorrow and broken 600mm

It’s always exciting to be at Cape Churchill. The scenery is considerably different than Gordon or Polar Bear Points. There are less willows, more sandy eskers and a huge lake, when frozen quickly, can be a stunning backdrop for polar bear photography. This year it seems it must have frozen fairly fast. When it does the ice is smooth and holds no snow. It’s simply beautiful with the blowing ice crystals, the marble colored surface and the setting sun on the horizon off to the west. One of our guests got so excited one afternoon she dropped her lens from the buggy. It wasn’t pretty. Her lens of choice was a Nikkor 600mm F/4 and it fell 12-14 feet onto the frozen tundra, breaking completely in half. She was an amazing sport and shared her grief by mugging for the camera. Of course I did not request the photo until well after the accident and the shock had worn off. Thankfully it was insured but it’s never easy to see a $10,000US  lens get destroyed.

The days beautiful light was tempered by a scene I will never forget. Yesterday we saw a mother bear with two little cubs. All three were extremely skinny, bones protruding from the hide of the gaunt and sickly looking adult. The cubs looked equally at risk. It was a horrible sight but it got worse. Today we found the mother lying in a snow bank taking refuge from the wind as best she could. She was very close to camp and showed no concern for the buggy as we slowly approached to get a better look. At first none of us had any idea it was the mother and her cubs we saw the day before but as another bear came by she rose from her bed of drifted  snow and charged as best she could. It was obvious this mother and her cubs were in exceptionally poor condition. Though we so far have no proof it looked as though all three were on the verge of starvation.

As the mother came back to guard her cubs, each poked their heads above the frigid ridge of icy snow. Mother tried desperately to get comfortable as she hunkered down to escape the blowing wind. She would extend one leg forward, then the next, lowering her body to retract her form. As soon as she were down back up she would raise, lifting one paw then the other. Curling up on one elbow, rolling over to the other. Back and forth she worked, trying desperately to find some sort of comfort in a land that knows no such word. Each attempt found zero solace and her discomfort was painfully obvious.

During our time watching this family of bears fight for survival, one of the cubs twice sat up. At first it looked like normal curiously but as he scanned beyond their wintery bed his little head developed an obviously abnormal tick. Without warning his body seized in a fit of violent convulsions. The first was not as bad as the second. The second was so intense it seemed impossible he could have lived. It was one of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed in the world of nature and one that scientists predict will repeat itself much more frequently as Hudson Bay freezes later and later each winter season. This incredibly beautiful, magnificent little animal was slowly dieing and all who had witnessed it were moved beyond words. Time passed and his little head moved ever so slightly. He was still alive but we all wondered for how long he could hang on. The sun had set and it was time to return to the lodge. The next day would tell the story more completely and we would have to wait to see mother nature take its course. We were hoping for he best

November 25, 2010

It’s a fresh new day and much, much warmer. Rising from my bottom bunk in Buggy One I move to the back door, there’s not a whisper of wind, snow flakes the size of salt from a shaker fall silently to the ground. My bare feet absorb the cold as I back up to the warmth of the propane stove. It’s warm in Buggy One. The temptation to fall back in my bunk is extreme but I fight the urge to snooze and reach for my drying boot liners. It’s our last day with the bears and I’m anxious to get started.

We pull out of camp and make our way to the trail on top the ridge. Going this direction we pass the distressed mother and her family of two. I ask Buggy driver Bob if we can stop, our present distance of about 100 yards. He reluctantly takes his foot off the throttle, the engine continues to run and with a bit of frustration in my voice I ask him to shut it down. He obliges. After a couple of frames of the mother standing on the hill, alone, I request to move a little closer. Bob snaps back, “No, the boss said we’re to stay away.” “fair enough” I replied. If there’s a directive from the boss I’m all for it. Another passenger makes a comment something to the effect that, “we don’t need to see his sort of thing anyway.” upon which I respond “this isn’t Disney. This is an opportunity to bring the plight of these animals to the rest of the world”. I was not happy and unfortunately it showed. My volunteer work for Polar Bears International and my history of shooting life to death essays on the lives of several different creatures ignited my passion to record the story. However, I wasn’t here for journalism I was here to help our guests take pretty pictures. I relented and we moved on. It was difficult to watch anyway.

A group of large males hang out at the end of Cape Churchill

We drive to the point. There are large males in mass. All polar bear literature makes mention of this arctic animal being a solitary sole but this group of five certainly dismisses that notion. All of them wear facial scars their coats more gray than white. Each face tells the story of frigid winter battles for rights to reproduce the outcome being lines of black from brow to chin, edges of the scar softened by clear hollow hairs. Far out on the sea ice during the spring mating season these titans of the north become much less interested in sharing their turf. The play fighting we regularly witness here at Cape turns to serious clashes of dominance and strenth, size and agility, claws, teeth and hormones. The gashes once red and raw are now healed exposing the true color of the polar bears skin which is black and opaque as that of the deep and darkest arctic winer night.

Polar Bear family wander aimlessly waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze.

Today’s temperatures are once again extremely warm. My PBI partner BJ Kirschhoffer checked the Canadian ice charts via Buggy Ones internet connection last night and it doesn’t look like freeze up will be anytime soon. Ice was showing up just off Cape Churchill and more frozen water North of town on Button Bay. Other than that the waters of the Hudson are dark and open. Out on the tip of Cape Churchill you can see the dark grey line just beyond the frozen white, the tide comes in and water floods the shore. It’s beautiful for photography. The shore fast ice turns aqua greenish blue with cones of ice castles erupting above the frozen sea. It’s the tide that builds the castles with it’s coming and going, rising and falling. Ice forms on the rocks and with every rising tide layers of frozen liquid build one atop the other. In time the bay of Cape Churchill is transformed into a land of miniature ice cones.

Later this evening John Gunter and I discuss the starving family. Throughout the day several of the buggies saw the mother alone, walking away from one of her two little cubs that was still moving. The other showed no signs of life. John had been in touch with Parks Canada to see if there was any interest to formulate a plan to retrieve the little bears body. Based on what John told me it sounded like a lot of red tape to even get the Park Service to make it happen. It didn’t look good that we would ever know why this life ended at such a young age. The data could have been very helpful in sorting out truth from fiction but alas ignorance most likely will prevail.

November 26, 2010

Today is the day we head back to civilization. Two Buggies will leave at 7:00am. One with the guests the other with their luggage. The rest of the lodge staff, equipment and crew stay behind with the chore of dismantling it all again. If luck is with us we’ll we most likely will be back in town by 2:00pm. The rest of the lodge will be in town this evening.

We’ve been rolling now for a little over four hours. Time has been good. The Buggy is full but comfortable. Two hours out we see a beautiful, healthy looking mother and her pair of two year old cubs. Cubs of this age are often just slightly smaller then their mom. We stop for a Coffee break and the family of bears make their way to our side. Cautiously they approach, the cubs more timid than their mother. I go out on to the back deck to shoot some photos and a light drizzle ignites the senses of my face and hands. Drizzle? How can it be the end of November and the moisture is not frozen? Just another reminder that beyond the shores minimal ice the water still rolls. It should be a solid, ice platform by now, but it is not. The bears were still around the camp when we left camp this morning unlike in the 90’s when we pulled up camp around a week earlier they had long since gone to sea. Not this year. Not last year, or the year before that. I can’t remember the exact year all bears were gone when we left the Cape. It’s all simply changing so incredibly fast.

November 27, 2010

Another Cape is past. It was a good season. The atmosphere at camp was exceptional. Lots of quality people spent time with us this year and the staff at the lodge were all working like a well oiled machine. Probably one of the best years I can remember.

This morning we all met for breakfast at one of my favorite restaurants. It’s a simple little place in Churchill called Gypsy’s Restaurant and Bakery. The food is always great, the service fantastic, fabulous coffee and the bakery is in a league all its own. The Da Silva family does well in this  part of the world but if they were in a larger city they would be so busy you would never get in. Actually that’ often times the case in Churchill during polar bear season. Tony and Helen and their two sons Fred and Phillip are very skilled at making you feel like you’ve just walked in the door of a home away from home.

Tony Da Silva of Gypsy’s helps Merv Gunter and Haley Shepard

Another allure of Gypsy’s is are the locals such as world-class dog musher Dave Daley. Dave put together the worlds most grueling and dangerous sled dog race called Hudson Bay Quest. In the middle of Canada’s frigid arctic winter, mushers leave Churchill and race North into the northern province of Nunuvut, their destination the arctic village of Arviat. So dangerous is this race that the local government, all native mushers themselves, have convinced Yukon Quest to change the direction of the race and now it will be run from Gilam to Churchill. Still an arduous task but running the race in the protection of the boreal forest helps insure the safety of the mushers. Dave tells me that it was only a matter of time before someone died on the trail heading north had they not changed direction.

So off we head for the Churchill airport. It’s a two hour flight to Winnipeg. The day is cloudy and there is a mist in the air. The windshield of the 1950’s vintage bus collects wet drizzle, it freezes in a sheet  of ice on the passenger side even as the defrosters fight to clear it. Our driver Simon has a clear view from behind the wheel.  Sitting next to the window I find myself gazing out the clouded glass. Muted tones of white snow, gray rocks and the dark greens of the black spruce wiz quickly past as we bounce along the frost heaved tarmac of Churchill’s only road out of town. Rain and drizzle on November 26. It makes me wonder if the future of the Hudson Bay polar bear is as clouded as my view from my seat  in the bus. Just as I’ve often thought lately. It doesn’t look positive.

So to end this on a positive note lets show one more video that is nothing but fun. I call it Cape Churchill Potato Peeling Smackdown featuring my buddy Simon Gee and Stephanie Burke from Frontiers North Adventures.

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There is 1 comment on this post…
  1. panosOn Nov. 3rd, 2013

    Great article!!!! wish you had more videos !!!

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