Trip Report Polar Bear Babies
Guest blog from Beate Reissmann
Every year in Feburary / March the Amazing Views photo expedition to the polar bear babies in the Wapusk National Park takes place. At this time of the year the polar bear mothers leave their dens with their babies after hibernation. A truly unforgettable and impressive experience. Only a few photographers have the privilege to attend this annual spectacle in the Canadian Arctic. Accommodation is in a very secluded lodge not far from the border of the largest polar bear area in the Canadian Arctic.
Beate Reissmann was part of the photo expedition in March 2020 and has summarized her wonderful experiences in the Canadian Arctic in this guest blog and shows her fantastic pictures taken during the week.
Participant photo expedition polar bear babies in Wapusk National Park, March 2020
“And there she is…!”
On the horizon line there is a small elevation, next to some small crooked trees, I see something, only a few hundred meters away, she curiously sticks her nose in the air. We are all excited in the van, can hardly believe it. There she is, the polar bear mother we have been waiting for so long. The van in front of us has already parked, the first photographers are putting up their stuff. My eyes are glued to the butter yellow spot on the beautiful white snow and then there are two little white bears climbing around on mummy. “Go,go,go…” the words of Daisy tear me out of my admiration. “Go out, put up your tripod” I hear behind me. I’m still a little dazed because I can’t believe what I’m looking at. It’s real, I see a family of polar bears. With trembling fingers and a beating heart I set up my tripod and the camera, press the shutter release. The first pictures are in the box. The female bear is very relaxed. She has made herself comfortable and starts to suckle the little ones. A breather for the photographers, because she lies slightly turned with her back to us and we cannot see very much. It takes a short moment to understand what is happening here. I am only a hundred metres away from a mother bear. With my own eyes I can see her very well. The last three days of endless waiting and despair at not having seen anything are simply forgotten. Now the moment has come and I am enjoying it.
The bears are perfectly adapted to the extreme environment, they have their insulation layer with them. We humans must protect ourselves with several layers against the icy cold winds of the Arctic and walk around like Michelin men. The foot warmers in the insulated shoes are worth their weight in gold and with the thick borrowed parka & trousers I feel comfortably warm wrapped up. Unbelievable what all is needed to survive here. A lodge without water connection, everything must be brought by land, drinking water, food, firewood, fuel for the vans and the power generator. Once a year for five weeks, the effort is done by an incredibly great team of the Watchee Lodge for a small number of guests.
In nature it is much easier, the bear just turns on her back and the bar is open no matter where she is. How impressive! The fat and nutritious mother’s milk is especially important for the cubs to grow fast to be able to walk the 70km to Hudson Bay. There the mummy will find something edible for herself again in the form of seals for several months. A long way for the three-month-old bears.
Seven wonderful hours we could watch the bear. Sleeping, playing, and eating phases alternate. This time compensates everything, the great uncertainty of some participants to be on time at all, because snowstorms, overbooked flights and unforeseen events block or change flight routes. Three days, eight hours of waiting in a cramped van (although the atmosphere was always relaxed and fun), the very bumpy drives criss-crossing the arctic tundra in the far north of Canada, a physical and mental test, and now – simply everything is forgotten. My heart is still beating faster than normal, I just cannot believe it. I stand here and see it with my eyes. Many others had to come here a second time to experience these unique moments. This is nature, there is nothing on order. It requires a huge portion of patience, happiness, and positive energy. The female bear is very relaxed, she even changes her location three or four times and we had wonderful different scenes. That evening only beaming faces could be seen in the lodge.
Patience is being tested
The next morning starts very confidently. We had a female bear and we could easily pick up her scent. Everything is ready, we get into the vans, but soon we learn that the trail is not to be found anymore. Apparently, the bear has gone back into the den of birth. Nearby they found an inhabited cave. The vans stops respectfully at a large distance from the cave and we all set up our cameras and wait. After three hours: nothing. It is lunchtime and the tripods are orphaned. More and more inattention is spreading, some are sitting in their vans, only our troop was ready near the camera. And then just after 3:00 in the afternoon, a bear’s nose was spotted. Click click click click… after 30 seconds the mother bear decided: no, no exit for the cubs today. And again, nature won, after six hours of waiting, we trot off. I realized that every moment is precious because it does not mean that it will return.
Waiting is rewarded
The sixth and final day has arrived and the hope of watching a mother bear once again is there. Packing the vans one last time, wrapping yourself in several layers of clothing, being 100% on the job in your mind, not to forget anything about the equipment, enjoying the morning routine once more and then off we go, out into the wonderful white world of the bears. We drive to the birth cave again, which is not a good precondition. Because if the mother feels threatened, she stays in the cave. But luck is on our side, remarkably close by they discover another female bear with two babies. When we arrive with the vans, the female bear is still moving. We watch her from the cars until she comes to rest and feels comfortable. After some time, we have a new chance to take beautiful pictures. And since it is the last day, “Fill the memory cards!” Now we are already familiar with the motif placement, I take pictures from above or below, what does the horizon line do, where are disturbing backgrounds like trees, sometimes a few meters to the right or left is enough. Daisy has used the evenings and trained us. We could discuss several topics together, ask questions, discuss pictures, and learn a lot. On site we can ask questions at any time, Daisy gives us a deep insight into the life of a wildlife photographer. With the one or other funny story from her, even waiting times were wonderfully bridged. And now is the last day and we watch a female bear with her little ones. One of them is highly active, always has something to do, much to the delight of the photographers. Sometimes it annoys its sibling, sometimes it climbs on mummy or just hangs on. In these moments, the cameras only rattle in high speed mode.
Hopefully, there is a good and sharp picture, these are my thoughts. After three hours I realize that my camera does not work properly anymore. Apparently it is too cold and the shutter does not work fast enough. These are technical problems that can occur, there is nothing you can do about it. Also my other camera seems to have problems with the cold. Just at the moment when the most beautiful activities are going on, I can only hope that some pictures have become. Nevertheless, I am incredibly happy to be able to experience this. I am grateful for the people who made this possible. After another four hours with the bear family, she sniffs in our direction a few more times, says bye-bye in her own way and then turns off and disappears into the vastness of the Arctic Canadian tundra. In my thoughts I wish her good luck and success with her offspring.
My photo equipment for this trip
- Photo backpack Lowepro 350 AW
- Canon 5D IV
- Canon 7D II
- Canon 500mm f4
- Canon 70-200mm 2.8
- Canon 16-35mm 2.8
- Canon 24-70mm 2.8
- Tripod Manfrotto
- Youngnuo remote shutter release
- various batteries and memory cards
- 2 external hard drives and laptop
My conclusion of the journey
The trip to Churchill is an incredibly special and unique experience. The extreme weather conditions, the simple accommodation in the lodge and the certainty that nature makes the rules here challenge the physical and mental side. It takes a lot of patience, understanding, attention, consideration and responsibility for other guests, the lodge team and not to forget yourself. The love and fascination for nature, respect for the animal world, a good portion of happiness and positive energy are in the foreground. Whoever expects a walk here will be disappointed. Temperatures far below zero degrees pose a great challenge for man and technology. Only if nature is gracious and allows it, you will get a deep insight into the first days of the polar bear babies in their natural environment, the arctic tundra. For me this was one of the most beautiful and intense experiences in my life.
The organisation with Amazing Views in advance and Wat’chee Expedition on site was perfect and very well prepared. You can always contact the Amazing Views team if you have any questions. Many thanks for that.
The company of Daisy is perfect. She has years of experience in the polar regions and knows what is important. She is always on hand and a reliable contact person for technical or interpersonal questions. This was my second trip with Daisy, and I am happy for her input and her exciting stories from her wildlife photography life. Thanks a lot.