I sometimes get asked what it is like to go on a photo tour or workshop to a remote area. Below is a trip log from my recent trip with Chas Glatzer and 5 other photographers to a remote lodge on the coast of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba Province, Canada. We spent four nights at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, one of a group of remote lodges in the area owned by a family company named Churchill Wild.
Trip log - Nanuk STL
Travel to Mn.
Overnight at Molly’s
To the airport on 9/25
Fly to Winnipeg.
Overnight at the Grand Hotel.
Dinner with group at hotel with folks from Churchill Wild.
Met Don Tilton, my roommate for the trip.
6:30 flight to Churchill.
45 minutes into a 1 1/2 hour flight the captain comes on and says there is a maintenance issue and since there are no maintenance employees in Churchill we need to return to Winnipeg.
After about a 45 minute delay we load up again and take off. We arrive in Churchill at noon. Because we were late, one of the bush planes scheduled to take us to the lodge was sent somewhere else. This meant it would be two trips to the lodge.
We were on the first one, but we needed to wait for the second to arrive before we could go out looking for photography subjects. Result, no photography on day 1. Cloudy skies so no northern lights. 34 frames.
Woke up early to get out on safari at first light. Just before 7am we wandered into a pack of wild wolves. Had to jack the camera iso to 13k to get an exposure. There were about a dozen members of the pack of which I saw 8 or 9. This was incredible experience, though perhaps not a great photo op. I have wanted to see and photograph a pack of wolves in the wild since I got my first shot of a couple of wolves interacting in Yellowstone years ago.
As it turned out that would be it for the morning. Back at the lodge by 10am.
Lunch and then out in the Rhino’s around 2pm.
There were a lot of Canadian and Snow Geese getting ready to migrate south and the skies were sometimes filled with waves of birds. Not much in the way of photo ops. The blast offs seemed to all take off away from us. I don’t recall any noteworthy flight shots, but did notice a lot of “happy clicks” since there wasn’t much else to shoot. (“happy click” is one of those moments when you have to hit the shutter, even knowing the image will go to the trash)
Around 4pm we pulled into a place moose were known to visit and our guide, Alfred, tried to call one in. No luck. Returned to the lodge around 5:30.
From inside the lodge compound a black bear sow with two cubs was spotted walking by. Got a few shots through the fence but they were skittish and once there were several photographers they quickly moved on. Nice to see, not much photography.
Spent the time around sunset working the pond in front of our lodge. Worked on starburst and in camera HDR’s. Happy with a couple.
After sunset the pack of wolves visited the lodge. Quite an experience listening to them communicate with their howls. Took a lot of pictures but the light was lousy. Shot my first picture at 102,400 iso. Didn’t think I would ever use this setting. It was quite noisy but made a great image and memory. Wolves are a fascinating subject.
Stopped shooting around 8pm as there was no light. Was able to record a minute or two of the pack howling.
No Aurora photos tonight. Cloudy sky.
9/28 Day 3
First light. Out with the Rhinos early. Wolves on the runway at 7am. Photos from 7:08 until 7:11, when they went into the brush. Was able to expose 50 frames. Maybe one or two picks. Great start to the day!
Set up at the bend in a river waiting for moose. Stayed for an hour with no luck. Got a call on the radio that the other Rhino were on a moose. Not too far away. We packed up and headed over there. Took my first shot at 10:05 and last at 10:12. It was a big moose with a great rack in a beautiful setting and good light. A first for all of the elements! May have my “moose photo of the trip” in this bunch.
Back to the lodge for lunch.
Back out after 1pm. Bad news. Our Rhino blew a wheel bearing and was unable to limp back to camp. So all of us got into other vehicles and the entire group had to return to camp. A few words about the Rhinos. They are custom made all terrain vehicles and in some ways a marvel of engineering. The allow us to easily go through terrain and cross streams, function on the muddy tidal flats and give us a good shooting platform. But, when they break the whole show comes to a grinding halt. Since there are normally bears in the area, safety dictates that there be no risk of anyone being left out at night so they don’t take a chance. There is enough transportation on each excursion that if one vehicle breaks down everyone can get back to camp.
So, we returned to the lodge and a couple of guys went back with parts to repair the wounded Rhino. The result - no photography that afternoon.
Back at the lodge, we fooled around, had dinner and were preparing for bed with the expectation that we might get awakened at 2am for northern lights as the skies had finally cleared. But there was a big surprise: The aurora borealis came early. All the lights in the lodge were extinguished around 830 and we witnessed one of the more incredible sights I have ever seen. Everyone was on the decks and eventually out on the runway for the next couple of hours witnessing and composing images. The colors were spectacular, the intensity was high and the movement mesmerizing as they danced across the sky. This was one of the highlights of photography for me. Since we were frustrated for the afternoon, it picked up everyone’s spirits. 75 frames.
This is our last full day of photography.
The Rhino wasn’t repaired over night and didn’t show up until late morning. So, we hung around the lodge. Basically another half day lost.
In the afternoon the repaired Rhino returned and we went out. Our group set up in a meadow for a couple of hours looking for moose, with no luck. On the way back we were able to shoot a pretty cool sunset with the sun melting into the earth. Got back around 7pm and cleaned up for dinner.
You may have noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned polar bears yet. That is because we didn’t see any. At this point, there were a number of folks in the group who had never seen a polar bear and they spent the afternoon driving 15+ kilometers from the lodge and were able to see one bear, sleeping on the beach. I’m glad I didn’t go as it would have been a lot of effort for not much reward. Luckily, I have a lot of good polar bear images. Of course, the guides said” “You should have been here last week. We had bears by the lodge every day” This seems to be a standard refrain around the world when the wildlife isn’t cooperating. It wasn’t that there weren’t bears along the coast, they were just too far to get to. I’ll say more about this when I summarize my thoughts about the trip.
This was another spectacular night with the northern lights. They started again around 8:30 and we got a few shots at the lodge. But tonight, the guides piled us all in the Rhinos and we drove out to a spot at the river with a lot of rocks to create both a different scene that the night before but also some cool foregrounds. We returned to the lodge around 9:30 and I continued to work the lights from our deck. At 10:30 I got tired, but at Chas’ suggestion I set up the camera to do automatic Time lapse shots and over the next half hour recorded around sixty frames that will become a video which will show the motion of the lights.
9/30 - travel day.
Today we had a few hours before the bush planes came to take us back to Churchill. A bunch of folks went looking for bears in the Rhinos, and three of us opted to get on a trailer attached to a four wheeler and see if we could find a moose near the lodge.
Turned out to be better than that.
As we left the lodge there was a black/grey timber wolf on the runway in beautiful side light. He gave us a few frames and moved on, and so did we.
Our guide had a meadow that he said frequently saw moose, so we headed over there. As we were setting up and Alfred was going to start calling for the moose, another wolf (I think the same one we saw before) walked right by us. Pretty thrilling to be ten feet away from a wild wolf!
Then, right after this, as my heart was slowing back down, a moose showed up and presented himself. He was smaller than the other one and had a smaller rack, but walked right by giving us a great photo op in a good setting.
We returned to camp around 8:30 to complete our packing for the ride back to Churchill.
Along the way to Churchill we saw a number of polar bears from the air, along with caribou.
We spent the afternoon in Churchill killing time until our flight to Winnipeg at around 9pm. We arrived in Winnipeg around 10:30 and I got to bed around 11 with a wake up at 3:45 to begin the flight home - Winnipeg to Minneapolis to Ft. Myers. The travel went without a hitch and Jan picked me up around 1:30. The dog was glad to see me and we had a wonderful dinner with friends before packing it in.
Thoughts about this trip:
Mick Jagger sang
“No you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need”
This verse kind of sums up my thoughts about this particular trip. There are two dimensions worth commenting on. First, it was billed as a photography trip. To make a good or great photo you need at least three elements: Good light, good background and an interesting subject. This trip was particularly frustrating because most of the time we had two of the elements but not the third. Unfortunately, the missing element was most often the subject. I exposed by far fewer images on this trip than any other trip of this kind.
Now, part of the reason for this is that there isn’t an abundance of subjects - if they are moose, wolves and polar bears. So, you really need to work hard and exhibit a lot of patience to get a good shot. We also had mechanical issues that caused us to lose almost two days of scheduled shooting opportunities. I said I would talk about the bears since the lodge is named Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. We saw no bears on this trip. The reason was that the bears move quite a bit and apparently had moved out of the range of the lodge in the previous week. We know there are bears in the area as we saw many on the flight from the lodge to Churchill. Just not within range of the Rhinos. In this way, wildlife is a lot like fishing. You can buy the best gear, hire the best guide and go to a proven location, but sometimes the fish aren’t there or won’t bite.
The second dimension worth mentioning is that we did get several once in a lifetime experiences. We saw a pack of wolves in the wild. My guess is very few folks have had such an experience. We were able to get a few photos for memories. We also had two nights (at a reasonable hour I might add) of Aurora Borealis image making, some of which are of portfolio grade. Also, another thing not seen by many. So, with the glass half full, I am satisfied that the trip was worth the effort.