As the eye sees it: A polar bear on the tundra.

This post is of a slightly different nature than usual: over the past two months I have spent a considerable amount of time with bears: black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears.  Every situation is different – the roadside encounter, alpine surprises on the trail, or actively tracking them on the tundra.  Regardless, respect for an animal’s territory is always of paramount importance to minimize their stress level.  Wanting to get too close is unrealistic, and actually getting too close is dangerous for all and unnecessary.  While I am grateful for the serendipitous moments of seeing these bears, it has been tinged with the disappointing realization that most humans lack the pragmatic skills and sensible expectations that should govern such an experience.  On a recent episode of Contemplative Creative (Episode #7: Street smarts in the field) I mentioned my feelings on this, but I thought it would be worth taking some time to use visuals to illustrate my point here.

In large part I believe this stems from the fact that we don’t spend much time in the wilderness anymore, and our understanding of wildlife encounters tends to be based off of experiences at the zoo or the consumption of imagery online.  The reality of the matter is that you will probably not have an intimate wildlife encounter at the same proximity that tourist pamphlets and Instagram photos seem to promise.  We see a lot of great photos these days that get us closer to animals than we safely can in the wild; please remember this, and don’t get out of your vehicle and approach wildlife with your camera phone.  It sounds dumb, and it is, but yet I’ve seen it happen way too many times this summer.

Wildlife is wild, and it is always good to remind oneself of this after being away from it for a while – myself included.  I’ve just returned from spending some time up in Churchill, Manitoba, photographing arctic fox, caribou, eagles, beluga whales, and the apex predator that is the polar bear.  It is not uncommon to encounter a hungry bear on the street in town, never mind on the Hudson Bay’s bedrock coast or the tundra.  To simply go for a walk you need a shotgun to be safe.  This is a sobering reminder of human mortality and our place within the ecosystem.  It is also a source of hopeful optimism: the wild spirit of animals still exists in this remote wilderness.

I thought I would share a couple photographs to try and illustrate the difference between what the naked eye sees versus what I am able to capture with my camera.  Take it as a behind the scenes look of me on assignment in Churchill, and a gentle reminder on the reality of wildlife encounters.

Fresh polar bear tracks next to tundra buggy near Churchill

Tracking animals takes a lot of time and skill, and luck.  Despite the amount of effort you put towards it, wildlife encounters are never guaranteed and it’s best to curb your expectations to avoid disappointment.  If you have one particular animal as your goal, you tend to close your eyes all the other amazing things along the way.

Polar bear at water's edge on the tundra

This day in particular, after seven hours on the tundra we finally came upon this lone polar bear.  This is an image I composed with some pretty hefty gear: a Nikon D800 w/ a 70-200mm lens and a 2x teleconverter.  Effectively this puts my focal length at 400mm; a place where I can make out a lot more detail looking through my viewfinder than with the naked eye.

Polar bear in the distance (shot from camera phone)

Can you spot the polar bear?  For perspective, this is a photo of the same scene taken with a camera phone just a few moments later.  Note for scale comparison that both photos contain the tower on the horizon and the white polar bear against blue water.  This view is more akin to what the human eye would see.  Can you imagine how close you would have to get to snap a photo with your phone with the same perspective as the previous shot?  Too close.  Please, just invest in a pair of binoculars and purchase a photo from a professional who has captured the scene ethically and better than the average Joe is capable.