Musings From A Fellow Adventurer

Howdy, I’m Greg Cook and Laurie has turned her blog over to me for a post. I am a landscape, wildlife, and sports photographer. I have been shooting since 1973 when I bought a Nikkormat Ftn while overseas in the Navy.

For the past five days our small group has been shooting in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area east of Churchill, Manitoba Canada. It is my second trip to this beautiful area and the opportunities are endless. Last year I shot close to 16,000 images in five days trying not to miss anything.

Experience is something you get right after you need it. This year I was able to concentrate on quality and not quantity. Even so, I shot 12,750 images. While the primary subject here is the magnificent Polar Bear, we were fortunate to photograph an Arctic Hare, several Arctic Foxes, Ptarmigan’s, and a Gyr Falcon. The stark beauty of the frozen Tundra provided many landscape opportunities also.

The shooting conditions are cold and challenging without a doubt. The air temperature on our last day was -20 degrees. It takes some serious preparation for a trip like this but the rewards will leave a lifetime impression on you.

Watching two polar bears spar is an amazing experience. The power, speed, and agility these bears display while challenging each other is staggering. The challenge in photographing this event is image sharpness. Not only does the shutter speed have to be relatively high to stop the action, but depth of field needs to be considered to capture the entire bear.


Nikon D3s, 600mm f4 lens with 1.7 tc, 1/200 sec, f11, ISO 640


Nikon D3s, 600mm f4 lens, 1/800 sec, f8, ISO 640

CAUTION – Polar Bears in the view finder may be closer than you think! This medium size bear, both curious and hungry, decided to stand up and lean against the Tundra Buggy. The distance between his nose and my camera was less than 16 inches. We stared at each other for 20 seconds before he growled, signaling to me that it was time to put some additional space between us. I had anticipated this shot based on previous experience and stopped the lens down to f19 to increase the depth of field for the extremely short focus distance.


Nikon D3s, 24-120 f4 lens @44mm, 1/90 sec, f19, ISO 640

On the fifth day of the trip we experienced strong winds, blowing snow, and temperatures as low as -20 degrees. Two Arctic foxes were spotted in a snowbank taking shelter from the wind. Wanting more than a shot of two “furballs”, we waited for two hours in the sub-freezing conditions to see the foxes. Battery life became an issue as we were constantly focusing in order to get the shot.


Nikon D3s, 600mm f4 lens with 1.7 tc, 1/1000 sec, f9, ISO 500

Shortly after the foxes became active this Gyr Falcon flew into view. With only seconds to open the window and start shooting, I was glad the camera was setup in 51 point 3D dynamic focusing mode. The contrast between the dark falcon and light background enabled the camera to “lock up” the bird quickly and capture the image.


Nikon D3s, 600mm f4 lens with 17 tc, 1/800 sec, f9, ISO 500

Wildlife photography is a lot like fishing. On any given day you don’t know if you will get skunked or catch the big one. For the past five days mother nature has offered her best wildlife and challenged our skills with intense winter weather. Without a doubt we caught a “big one” every day.

Stay tuned for more musings from fellow adventurers in the future.

In The Far North… Polar Bears Day Five

We awoke to blowing wind and snow with temps dipping into the minus with the wind chill. So, with an extra layer or two, off we went for our final day of polar bear photography. Interestingly, two of the same five bears we had photographed for the last couple of days were still hanging around the area and we stopped for a few shots. One bear seemed to want to move on but, the other guy kept cutting off his exit. So, they both laid down for a nap. We decided to let sleeping bears lie and moved on. There seemed to be some activity at Gordon Point so we headed in that direction and found two Arctic Foxes curled up in the snow. They would look up occasionally and then tuck their noses back into their tails to get out of the blowing snow. We waited for about an hour when one finally got up, stretched, pooped and then rolled in the snow. Shutters were clicking like mad all the while…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

After both foxes had moved on we did too in search of more subjects. The cold weather was finally beginning to get the winter freeze on the bay and the bears were beginning to congregate along the shore. They would wander for a bit, looking out to the open water, then lay down as they waited for the first opportunity to move out on to the ice for the winter. We spent the afternoon working the bears, enjoyed a nice break for lunch where Bob surprised us with a lovely wine and cheese snack and then began our bumpy journey back towards the buggy launch. As we neared our final destination, one last bear headed our way and we stopped for a few last clicks…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

All too soon our time in Churchill has drawn to an end. It has been an amazing week with more bear sightings than I can remember from past years and a great variety of other subjects to aim our lenses at. Just before packing my camera away, I couldn’t help but make one last click, a fitting end to an incredible journey…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 24-120mm f4 VR

As we arrived at the buggy launch and gave our thanks to Buggy Bob, my thoughts are already turning to next year. Many thanks to our intrepid buggy driver, “Buggy Bob”, the best guide in all of Churchill and to a fun loving group of fellow adventurers whose enthusiasm helped to make it a week to remember.

If you are interested in joining me on an adventure of a lifetime photographing the great white bears of the north drop me a line.

In The Far North…Polar Bears Day Four

The long awaited winter seems to have arrived in Churchill with temps dipping to minus six with the wind chill, snow flurries and blowing wind. While it’s not exactly pleasant weather, I love it for the photo opportunities is provides. Manual focus was the only way to get past the driving snow to the bear.


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

We could sense the change in the bears as they patrol the shores of the Hudson Bay waiting for the freeze up so they can move onto the ice and hunt seals. In the few short days that we have been in churchill, the ice has begun forming on the bay and in a short time there will be no bears in the area until spring thaw…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

The bears behavior changed in other ways too as they seemed more interested in the buggy and even more so with us as they came in close for a better look…


Nikon D3X with AF-S 70-300mm VR

One bear in particular really checked us out standing up to get a better view of what was inside the buggy…


Nikon D3X with AF-S 70-300mm VR


Nikon D3X with AF-S 70-300mm VR

When he approached the buggy and stood up against the back deck, I leaned out the window to get a photo of him and Greg together. Talk about scale. He had to he close to nine feet tall…


Nikon D3X with AF-S 70-300mm VR

All too soon it began to get dark and we headed back to the buggy launch. The temps are continuing to drop and our last day is forecast to be the coldest yet. Stay tuned to see what photo opportunities we find.

Today’s sightings…
30+ Polar Bears

In The Far North…Polar Bears Day Three

The temps are dropping and the fresh, new snow is bringing Churchill to the arctic winter wonderland that it should be this time of year. The bears are also more active in the colder weather. We saw eighteen bears in the first couple of hours but didn’t put our cameras up to shoot until we got to Tundra Buggy camp and found a pair of sparing bears to work. They get up and spar for a few minutes, lay down to rest and then one of them gets back up, nudges the other and they go at it again. The light, dry snow would fly when they made impact…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR

They moved back and forth in the willows first closer, then farther while they did the polar dance we did the teleconverter dance; first taking it off when they got so close we risked cutting off body parts and then quickly putting it back on when they moved farther away…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

The overcast skies provided soft light and good detail. Overcast is one of my preferred kinds of light to photograph mammals as it gives you great detail and low contrast. The trade off is the sacrifice of light and the need to increase the ISO to reach a shutter speed that will stop the action. For a good part of the day my ISO hovered around 400. There was a bit of a wind which caused many bears to hunker down out of the wind. Even though polar bears are at the top of the food chain, they need to be aware of other bears in the area and wind is a killer to their senses. They have a hard time figuring out where the scent or sound is coming from. So, while we kept finding more and more bears, we passed many by as they were snuggled up against the willows mostly sleeping. This is typical of wildlife photography that there are periods of inactivity followed by intense action. Being ready is the key.
So, when we came upon four bears on a frozen lake paired off, sparing as if at a wrestling match we dropped our windows, placed our beanbags on the sill and set up for some action. The low light kept getting lower with the approaching evening and the overcast forcing that ISO upwards to 800 to capture the action. While I prefer to keep my ISO as low as possible, I’m not about to sacrifice an opportunity to capture four bears in one frame by keeping the ISO too low and getting blurred images…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

Completely oblivious to our presence, the bears continued to spar, moving closer to us as they did…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

Until they were so close that we had to pick and choose which pair to photograph. What a wonderful dilemma wondering which subject to aim your lens at…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

The sparing went on and on as one bear would tire, his sparing partner would move to another bear and they would go at it for a few minutes until one of the resting bears got up and joined in again. It was an amazing thing to watch. Unfortunately, the light kept dropping forcing the ISO upwards. By the time we finally packed it in (the bears were still going at it when we left) my ISO had crept up to 3200. I really don’t like to go that high but, with no light and such action in front of us I made the choice to raise my ISO and capture the action knowing that NIK Dfine would help with the noise generated at such a high ISO. The payoff was the last photo which looks like an arctic storm is blowing in givig the image an ethereal look…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

Today’s sightings…
1 Gyrfalcon (he flew past twice a mach speed teasing us)
1 Red Fox (likely the same guy we spotted the first day as it was in the same area on our way to the buggy launch)
30+ Polar Bears (we lost count at that point)