Polar Bear Mom and an inquisitive cub © David Hemmings
The train pulls into the Churchill, Manitoba station with a high pitched squeaking of the brakes and a pronounced call of the horn. All of us pile aboard the nicely appointed interior with reclining chairs as we are almost the only ones off to Chesnaye that evening. Where is Chesnaye you ask? Good question. It is an area northwest of Churchill that is a slow two hour train ride into the middle of the tundra, literally. When we arrive we step off the train and onto a small snow bank, (no station, no bathroom, no nothing), which is where we are met by our Mattrack vehicles that whisk us off for another hour or so further into the open tundra. It is so cold that I can feel the inside of my nose icing up. Thank goodness for the heated vehicles there to meet us from the lodge, right on time. After a bumpy ride we arrive at the tundra outpost lodge. This ain’t Kansas Dorothy. It is rugged looking on the outside, reminiscent of an oversized fishing hut, but cozy and warm with all the things we will need to look for and hopefully photograph Polar Bears and their cubs for the next nine days. After we are assigned our rooms, 3-4 to room with bunk beds, we organize our gear for our first venture out onto the tundra the next morning.
My alarm goes off and I rise to hit my head on the hard ceiling, oh yeah, I am in the upper bunk. A conspicuous start to the day.
Breakfast is served at 7 and what a great spread! Daryl, our head cook, really can whip up a great breakfast. It sort of feels like a mess hall at army base camp must feel like.
After eating it is time to bundle up, meet outside and load up the Mattrack vehicles to head off in search of Polar Bears. By 9 a.m. we are set up outside with our gear focused on a Polar Bear den that has a mom and an unknown number of cubs. It is -41 Celsius with the wind chill factor. We wait patiently for a few hours and then out pops mom’s head from the den to look around and sniffs the cold arctic air. Cameras start clicking and hearts start racing as we hope for mom to come all the way out. Not today, we will have to settle for images of her head poking out of the hole, but what a thrill it was to see.
In the evening we head outside near the lodge to photograph the Aurora Borealis. The sheer beauty of this natural light show defies any description. There is a surreal, cold quiet out on the Arctic tundra at night, beautiful.
The next few days we experience much of the same, each day mom peeks out to look around and she goes back into the den. In the morning we see her tracks around the den telling us that she has ventured out but has not yet left with her cubs to head for Hudson’s Bay. During these days we experience very cold temps and all of our patience is pushed to the limit. Then the call comes from one of the trackers, we have a mom and two cubs out of a den and headed out towards the bay. We catch up to them quickly and everyone sets up their gear in record time. Just as we set up, mom decides that it is time for a rest and settles into a snow bank 100 yards in front of us and we excitedly snap away for the next couple of hours. It is hard to put into words what an experience this is. To see this endangered species emerge from its den with two new Polar Bear lives and watch them interact is beyond description.
We are fortunate the rest of that day and some of the next day to have access to these three beautiful creatures as they go about their day. To see and experience the interaction between the mother Polar Bear and her cubs is an exceptional natural experience. They cuddle, play, sleep, rest and wrestle as we all watch and take photographs. We all shoot a few thousand images and are very happy to have some downloading and processing to do the next couple of evenings.
This place is the best place on earth to see this amazing species with their newborn cubs. It is out of the way, it is cold and it is rough, sort of like summer camp only it is winter and we are there to photograph Polar Bears.
It is more than worth the time and effort, an experience never to be forgotten.
A tender moment © David Hemmings
Written by: David Hemmings. David owns and operates Natures Photo Adventures and has been published by National Geographic and many other magazines and books.