Arctic Documentary Project and Polar Bears

Posted Mar. 24th, 2022 by Daniel J. Cox

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears has taken me back to Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay. I just came back from Wat’Chee Lodge in the heart of Wapusk National Park, a place I haven’t been since 2008. It’s here that I hoped to find mother polar bears exiting their dens with their tiny cubs in tow. For those who don’t know, the Arctic Documentary Project falls under the non-profit umbrella of Polar Bears International, an organization I’ve dedicated myself to for the past 20 years.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
Making my way to the train headed to Chesney. Photo courtesy Kieren McIver

Taking the train to Chesney

Getting here isn’t easy. It begins in Winnipeg where you fly to Churchill. From Churchill you board Via Rail to take the train 40 miles south, a two-hour ride, where they drop you off in the middle of the bush. No idea why it takes so long to travel 40 miles, but it’s obvious the train isn’t moving very fast.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears

Eventually you stop. There waiting along the rail line are special large-tracked vans waiting to pick you up, and the Spence brothers welcome you to a small dot on the rail line known as Chesney. Why Chesney? I have no idea.

Wat’Chee Lodge – a bit of history

Long before Wapusk National Park, there was the Spence family. Mike Spence is the longtime mayor of Churchill, and he’s done amazing things for that little town in the middle of nowhere. His family has been in the area for decades. They originated down the coast in York factory but eventually moved north.

What is now known as Wat’Chee Lodge was started in 1994 but was originally a military post from the 1960s. Mr. Spence received permission to trap in the area and took the small building over as his cabin. The name Wat’Chee is a Cree word for “a high spot on the hill” which pretty much tells you all you need to know about where the lodge sits.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
A pile of wood is waiting to be split in the front of Wat’Chee lodge.

Mike tells me the cabin (now lodge) has been in the family since the early 70s’. Mr. Spence Senior worked the land to help supplement his family’s income. During their time in the bush, they came to realize this was a very unique and special place for polar bears, for it’s here that a large number of the female bears from the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population come to den and give birth to their cubs.

Getting across the tundra requires special vehicles and a feel for the land.

What makes Wat’Chee special

Wat’Chee sits within the area now known as Wapusk National Park. Mike tells the story of how his father was out on the land when he realized this area was special for the number of polar bears he was seeing. His first encounter with a mother and cubs came one day as he was running his trap line. He quickly shot the mother, began the task of removing her hide, and finished by collecting two very scared baby polar bears. The cubs were shipped to Winnipeg, and from what Mike recalls ended up in a zoo.

Not a happy story, but it’s what a trapper would do back in those days. His father was only doing what trappers did in those days. Thankfully today most polar bears are protected and ALL are protected within the Park boundaries. Even better is the new business model the Spence family has pioneered.

Starting the business of seeing baby polar bears

With the idea of getting people out to witness firsthand mother and baby polar bears, Mike and Morris Spence went to their father with a business plan. They explained to Mr. Spence Senior that they wanted to clean up the little cabin, make it a bit homier, and offer to bring people out to view polar bears. Mike tells me, “Dad thought we were crazy, but he signed the agreement we put together that gave us the official ok to start our business.” And so Wat’Chee Lodge was born.

Keeping a minimum of 100 yards from a mother polar bear and her cubs

Mike and Morris – the Spence brothers

Mike and Morris are family, and it’s this close connection that shows in their day-to-day operations. From what I can see, Mike runs the business side of things with time in the field as the lead driver of the three customized vans.

Mike’s in charge of getting people into the field in the specially built tracked vans.

Morris is the man on the land. He’s a big, quiet, gentle guy that doesn’t say a lot. But when he speaks it’s always worth listening. He rides a snow machine for hours in freezing cold temperatures, searching for the tracks of a family of bears. Both have their role and without the other, there is no Wat’Chee Lodge.

Lead polar bear guide Morris Spence rides his snowmobile in search of moms and cubs in the denning area of Wapusk National Park, Manitoba.

Early days on Fletcher Lake

The Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears introduced me to the early days on Fletcher Lake, going back to the early to mid-60s’, a time when research was being done to try and understand more about the polar bear denning area. There’s still a short tower topped with a small camper that biologists used to safely observe bears in the area. Here they were safe from the bears, but more importantly they were in a somewhat protected environment from the weather. It was a great way for them to see up and down Fletcher Lake where many females would den.

“This trailer was hauled out on a sled with a track vehicle and placed at Fletcher Lake by Nils Øritsland around the early to mid-70s. Nils was interested in observing several polar bear maternity dens in the area that he could see from this higher vantage point.” I received this information from my friend Dr. Ian Stirling who’s considered the world’s foremost authority on polar bears. You can purchase his most recent book Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species.

Catching a polar bear

When biologists are studying polar bears, they often have to capture them to get the data they need. That data basically consists of bloodwork and other tests that might be similar to what we would do if we were getting an annual physical.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
Back in the early days of polar bear research on Fletcher Lake, biologists would use snares to capture a bear. This is a photo of an old snare trap on the shores of Fletcher Lake.

First day on the land

It’s a relatively warm day. The temperature registers at 10°F as we board the van. Last week they had -25°F and the week before that -40°F. So this morning felt downright balmy. Not much to report on this day. Lots of waiting, but no bears were found

Our tracked van makes its way across the frozen tundra.

Greeted by northern lights

After a day of mostly waiting with no luck, we were given an evening display of beautiful auroras. The Churchill region is one of the best places on the planet to view the aurora borealis. I’ve been told that over 300 days of the year there is aurora activity over Churchill. Although I’m at Wat’Chee Lodge, we’re only 40 or so miles from Churchill.

Northern lights, aurora borealis
A glowing tent under the aurora borealis. Shot with the Lumix G9 and the Leica 12mm F/1.4. Exposure was 15 seconds at F/1.4, 800 ISO. No this was not my accommodations.

Tech notes

For northern lights, I chose the Lumix G9. Part of the reason is I’m just more familiar with the Lumix system than with my Olympus. Being familiar with your camera is very helpful when shooting in dark situations. I also wanted to give the Starlight AF a try. Starlight AF in the Lumix system is nothing more than making sure your autofocus sensor is in the middle of the frame and then pushing the button for autofocus.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
Auroras over the trail that leads out from Wat’Chee forest.

The key is to make sure your AF sensor is in the middle of the EVF/viewfinder. It cannot find stars at the edges of the viewfinder. I’ve tried starlight autofocus in the past and it’s never worked very well. But it’s been at least two years since I last tested it and apparently there’s been a firmware update to improve its effectiveness dramatically. It now works really well.

Having this feature with an autofocus lens is super helpful. With a manual focus lens, I would normally just set the lens at infinity. With AF that’s not nearly as easy and reliable. AF lenses for some reason have a large amount of play, and though it will tell you it’s at infinity, it’s often off enough to ruin your picture. The lens I used was the Leica 12mm F/1.4 which gave me an exposure of 8 seconds at F/1.4 with ISO 800. Keeping your exposure below 20 seconds is essential to keep the stars from moving.

Excitement on our second day!

We begin our second day as we did the first. Great breakfast and then off to search for moms and cubs. Once again we drive to the south end of Fletcher Lake and wait for the call from Morris. Eventually, the radio crackles, and across the air comes the message he’s found a family of polar bears. Next comes GPS coordinates.

I take notes and then Mike plugs them into the Garmin device that guides the way. Off we go as fast as the land allows, which based on the Garmin is a mere 4mph. Yes, it’s rough country and no contraption by the hands of man can match the punishment inflicted by frozen tundra. Steel and rubber are no match and easily break with a pounding from ice and snow.

An hour passes and the anticipation is hard to contain. We crawl slowly to the edge of the berm along the shoreline. We delicately rise beyond the rim to see Morris and James waiting for our arrival. The family of bears is stationary and laying quietly on the backside of a drift, snuggled into a daybed. This mom has two cubs and they are white.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears

More white than any white you have ever seen. You can’t explain the white of a newly emerged polar bear cub. It’s so pure, so clean, so incredibly, well, just perfect, unadulterated white. And there among the white are three black dots. Two eyes and a perfectly black nose. Such contrast inspires adorable, endearing, lovable sweetness. Polar bear cubs are probably the cutest creatures I have ever witnessed.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
A mother polar bear with triplet cubs makes her way from the denning area. Gusty winds blowing at 40-50mph create the soft effect of blowing snow.

This family, like all polar bear families that emerge from their dens, is headed to the shores of Hudson Bay where she will finally be able to hunt again. It’s not an easy journey. The distance is 30-40 miles if they take no detours. This mother most likely has been without food for almost nine months, since when they’re off the ice they eat virtually nothing.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears

Generally, the ice melts out from beneath their paws on Hudson Bay early to mid-July. The female will be forced on land throughout the summer and into the fall. Around the end of November, she’ll make her way to a den, inland from the coast and there she will snuggle into the earth. Sometime around the end of December or maybe the first of January she will give birth to 1-3 cubs. The cubs will mature until the end of February or possibly mid-March and eventually they rise with their mother from the frozen tundra, beneath a pile of drifted snow.

Photography in cold conditions

Taking pictures in cold climates can be a challenge. But it’s not impossible as long as you have the right gear. Several days during my time at Wat’Chee we experienced temperatures as cold as -25°F with winds blowing as hard as 60km/h giving us a windchill of -43°F. With temps like this, the tears from your eyes will freeze.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
Meline Ellwanger with frozen tears created by howling winds as she photographed polar bears in Wapusk National Park. Her hat from Alaska says it all for her love of the North.

The gear I use to shoot in the cold

The cold temperatures aren’t really a problem if you’re dressed properly. It’s all about layers, good boots, and a solid glove system. Having grown up in Northern Minnesota gave me an appreciation for the beauty of cold climates. Some might think the following sounds and reads like an advertisement but I paid for every single item I have listed. I feel these lists are important since so few people do this kind of work in cold weather. Many have told me it’s always beneficial to hear about first hand experience as to whether these things really work or not. None of my gear is sponsored. Here are some highlights of the essential tools of my trade I use in really cold temps.

Putting on my favorite cold-weather boot the Cabela’s Trans-Alaskan.

Boots

The best boots I’ve ever used are Cabela’s Trans-Alaska. The key to this boot is the thickness of the bottom sole. The thicker the sole, the further your feet are from ice and snow. This makes a huge difference in keeping your toes warm. This boot strikes a good balance between mobility and superb warmth. There are other boots out there that advertise crazy numbers for cold weather. None of thosse numbers mean anything. Make sure you look at how thick the sole on the bottom of the boot is. If it’s not and inch or more it won’t help in really cold temperatures.

Down pants

My favorites are also from Cabela’s. However, they don’t make them anymore. Another option is the Canada Goose Tundra Down Pants.

Inner Jacket

My favorite is the Canada Goose PBI Lodge Down Hoody. This jacket is warm all on its own but I use it as a liner for the larger Canada Goose Expedition jacket

Outer Jacket

Canada Goose Expedition in PBI blue. A moderately cold weather jacket that pairs well with the Down Hoody.

Outer jacket for Extreme cold

Canada Goose Snow Mantra. The warmest, most bombproof jacket I’ve ever owned or seen. Nothing warmer and more durable than this jacket. I wore this only once in two weeks this year.

Gloves

Head Multi-Sport Gloves with SensaTEC as liners for my mittens.

Insulated Mittens

By Bergan’s of Norway. I can’t find a link to these. I bought them in a store in Lonyearbyen, Norway. But anything with insulation would be good. There are many mittens out there made for photographers that have little to no insulation. Not sure why one would bother.

Camera equipment

When shooting in extremely cold temperatures and inclement weather it’s helpful to have equipment that’s built to tougher standards. Although there are several companies that build rugged cameras, there’s only one that truly excels in seriously difficult conditions. And that’s Olympus. I switched to Olympus a couple of years ago after shooting Nikon for 35 years. The Olympus system is just head and shoulders above all others when it comes to protection against rain, snow, ice, dust, and just about anything else you can think of.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
Me shooting the Olympus E-M1X and the Olympus 150-400mm zoom supported by the new Sachtler Flowtech tripod and Aktiv 6 fluid head.

Batteries are the one major concern all companies have when it comes to shooting in cold weather. Batteries don’t like the cold, and they drain dramatically faster in sub-zero temperatures. The answer to keeping my cameras working is to keep an extra set of batteries in my pocket, next to my body, and switch them out when needed. If the current batteries start to die I simply replace them with those in my pocket. That said, I only had to switch batteries on one day of the entire two-week trip.

The lens

One of the essentials to getting great images at Wat’Chee is to have as much telephoto lens as you can possibly get. Since the Olympus system is a Micro Four Thirds camera all lenses are multiplied X2. The lens I was shooting was the new 150-400mm zoom with a built-in 1.2x teleconverter.

A mother polar bear nuzzles with one of her two cubs.

All told that gave me an effective telephoto of 1000mm. In my prior two trips to Wat’Chee Lodge I had only 600mm with a 1.4X teleconveter. The Olympus giving me the equivalent of 1000mm was exceptionally helpful. You have to stay back from the bears at least 100 meters. Even a polar bear laying down with her tiny cubs at 100 meters is not very large in the viewfinder. If she stands up that’s a different story but they are often napping. 600mm lens is just not enough.

Controlling the camera in really cold temps

So let’s talk about shooting with gloves and mittens on. I’m a firm believer that protecting your hands is absolutely essential. Many photographers use fingerless gloves or extremely light gloves in really frigid temperatures. Their reasoning goes something as follows, “I can’t feel the buttons on my camera with gloves or mittens on and I miss pictures.” My response is, “Can you feel the buttons after a couple of minutes with your bare fingers touching frigid metal?” And they typically respond with, “No, I can’t.” Exactly!

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears

Bare skin on metal can freeze within minutes depending on the ambient temperature and wind chill. Even at moderately cold temps, +5°-10° your fingers will freeze solid in 30 minutes. At the temperatures I was shooting in, it was only about five minutes before I would have frozen fingertips. We photographed one mother with cubs for two hours. When shooting with no protection or light protection a person regularly has to warm their fingers by putting their hands in their pockets. Do you have any chance of getting an image with your hands in your pockets?

Gloves or mittens are the only choice

So yes you’ll miss pictures when shooting with gloves or mittens because you can’t find a button or manipulate a dial. But when you’re not using any hand protection you’ll also miss pictures because your fingers are so numb or you have your hands in your pockets.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
Leaving the safety of the forest and off to Hudson Bay.

Either way, you’re missing pictures, but with protection, you’re not damaging your body. Additionally, if you force yourself to practice with heavy gloves or mittens on, you’ll be surprised at how you eventually figure the buttons and dials out. I shot on virtually all days with my mittens on my hands and missed very few photos due to camera control confusion.

Life at the lodge

Living in the comfort that Wat’Chee Lodge provides is not always possible in really remote locations. Mike, Morris, and the Spence family have done a remarkable job creating a very comfortable environment in such difficult conditions.

Wood stoves heat all the larger living areas, whereas electric baseboards heat the bedrooms. There’s a large living space with satellite TV that brings the news and hockey games for those interested.

Heading north for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears
The living area at Wat’Chee Lodge. Wapusk National Park, Manitoba

The one thing that some people miss is the lack of running water. With that in mind there are no long showers, and in fact, cleaning up requires a washrag and a bowl of hot water in the sauna. Working in remote locations is often an inspiring way to remind me of how lucky I am. Many people can’t even imagine not having a hot running shower. But in the bush that’s simply reality.

Conclusion

So that’s about it. This trip for the Arctic Documentary Project and polar bears I feel was a wonderful success. Photography has always been a powerful tool in making the viewer aware of certain issues. Producing materials for the Arctic Documentary Project (ADP) is one way I hope to be able to bring attention to the beauty of the animals, the landscape, and the people in the Arctic. With the help of Polar Bears International, we’re doing that.

Not everybody is fortunate enough to travel to the Arctic, and even fewer are able to visit the polar bear denning area. As a photographer, it’s my job to bring the images of these places back to the general public. Baby polar bears in a family unit help grab a viewer’s attention and evoke emotion.

Mike and Morris Spence on the tundra in Wapusk National Park. Manitoba. Thanks for a great time you two.

Emotion can lead to action. And action is what we need to save these animals and in turn ourselves from a warming climate. I’ve said it before, “If people don’t know, they don’t care.” My job is to help them know and hopefully make them care.

Add Your Voice!
There are 6 comments on this post…
  1. Ross HarrisOn Apr. 8th, 2022 (2 months ago)

    Thanks Dan. Appreciate the feedback. You were reading my mind regarding the weight. I have rationalized the cost of this Sachtler kit, but not yet the weight. If a perfect tripod/head system for both still photography (ball head) and videography (fluid head) exists, I have not found it yet. Every option seems to have a compromise — weight, cost, compatibility of quick release plates, etc. I suppose that is not a surprise as they have different requirements. Enjoy your new Sachtler kit Dan. I look forward to more great stories (with video!). Thanks again.

  2. Ross HarrisOn Apr. 7th, 2022 (2 months ago)

    Great story about your successful polar bear quest Dan, much enhanced by the video clips. I couldn’t help but notice the new Sachtler Flowtech legs + Activ6 head. Those are exactly what I’ve been considering. I’ve read only glowing reviews of this kit. What are your thoughts? Being able to release each leg from a single lever at the top must have been a blessing in that cold. Thanks Dan.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Apr. 7th, 2022 (2 months ago)

      You are correct. I was using the new Sachtler Flowtech legs + Activ6 head. And man what a wonderful piece of equipment to shoot from. Keep in mind that my main reason for this new tripod was video. I seldom use tripods anymore due to the amazing image stabilsation I get from my Olympus system. But for video, it’s a different story. So it kind of depends on what you plan to use it for. If for still photography I would say it’s overkill. For video, it’s a godsend. Youre comment about the leg release being such a blessing in the cold weather. And if you plan to use it in the cold it might be worth the upgrade. But for stills, I would definitely go with a more traditional ball head. The Aktiv6 is just more than a still shooter needs. I love it but it’s very heavy. Glad you enjoyed the blog and joining the conversation.

  3. MartinBOn Mar. 27th, 2022 (2 months ago)

    That’s excellent article about expedition in harsh conditions. I would become a piece of ice within one hour no matter the clothing. You’re a brave man, Dan. I am glad you were lucky with polar bear family.
    Cheers
    Martin

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Mar. 29th, 2022 (2 months ago)

      Thank you, Martin. I appreicate your input to the Blog.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Mar. 29th, 2022 (2 months ago)

      Thank you, Martin. I appreicate your input to the Blog.

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