DPS 5-08: Polar Bears of Churchill + Lexar 300x cards & Skooba Cable Organizers

It's long been a dream of mine to photograph polar bears. Eight summers of photographing Alaskan Brown (aka Grizzly) bears made me even more interested in experiencing the even larger and more exotic polar bears. So I was quite excited when I was invited to go along on an Audubon trip to visit the polar bears in Churchill, Canada. We were extremely fortunate to have Jim Halfpenny, an expert mammalogist and tracker as our naturalist and guide. I know many of you have expressed a lot of curiousity about polar bears and about the Churchill experience, so in this newsletter I'll let you know what I learned and provide some tips if you're planning to make the trip yourself. I've also got mini-reviews on two new products I was able to try out on the trip--a Cable Organizer from Skooba and a 300x UDMA Lexar card with reader.

Photo Safari Updates: Most of our 2008 trips are already sold out, but there are still a couple slots for the second Alaska trip (July 14-21), the Southeast Asia trip (December 1-15) and the November Botswana safari (November 1-15). You can sign up for any of our trips by checking our Events page or emailing safaris [at] We hope to see you on a trip soon! Our upcoming trip to Cambodia & Burma is essentially closed, although if someone really wanted to join us and let us know in the next day or two we might be able to accomodate them.

Polar Bear approaching on Frozen Pond
Nikon D2X, f4@1/320s, 200-400f/4 @ 400mm

To save energy many of the bears often wait until the ponds are frozen to trek across the tundra to the Bay.

The Polar Bears of Churchill

Churchill and the nearby Wapusk National Park of Canada have a population of polar bears year round but late fall is when most of the action happens. Churchill is transformed from a sleepy grain port of 900 people to a bustling tourist destination with over 2000. The excitement is the congregation of bears along the shore of the Hudson Bay near the town. Polar bears would rather be on the ice hunting seals than just about anywhere else. Many of the populations of polar bears can stay on their ice fields all year, but because Hudson Bay melts each summer the bears need to come ashore. There they spread out, eat what they can, and wait for the fall freeze up. Beginning in October as the freeze gets close the bears head back north to the Bay and as many as several hundred wind up milling around the Churchill area waiting until they can get back out on the ice to begin hunting seals again.

Wapusk: Churchill's Polar Bear Theme Park

Polar Bear scanning the Bay "hoping" for ice or seals
Nikon D200 f4@1/640s ISO 400 @ 400mm

My only hesitation about photographing the polar bears near Churchill was the exclusive use of the so-called "Tundra Buggies." Sort of an oversized bus on huge tractor tires, the resulting vehicle puts the photographer way up in the air--out of harm's way but also out of position to create images of imposing polar bears. In short, you're always looking down on the bears, which doesn't make them look very large or powerful. But there are so few ways to see and photograph polar bears reliably that I was willing to give it a try. What I didn't realize is that all 18 allowed tundra buggies have only a couple roads they can use in the Park (a reasonable regulation to help keep the park from getting torn up) so that at any given time you might see as many as a dozen of them, plus one or both of the two "moible" lodges that reside in the park. The result is that the overall experience smacks more of Lion Country Safari than of wilderness. At one time there were as many as eleven very large vehicles watching a single pair of bears. I don't know if there is any realistic alternative to how the buggies operate, but it is something you need to expect and come to terms with before deciding to go to Churchill.

Bear cub investigating Tundra Buggy Tire

The Bear Experience

The good news is that the bears are absolutely worth it. They are stunningly magnificient creatures. Somewhat larger than even the Alaskan Coastal Brown bears they were unafraid to approach our vehicle, investigate us and even mouth the tires and the door handles. Of course that's not exactly wild bear behavior so we were much more excited when a pair of the young males began sparring. Their play fight carried them across a variety of photogenic backgrounds and provided us with literally hours of entertainment. Several family groups of mother with one or two cubs were also out. The mother with a yearling cub (born about 20 months ago) was completely unconcerned when her cub (pictured) came over to see if our buggy had any edible parts. But the mother with two small cubs was uninterested in having them near us and wandered off. Our driver (and hopefully all the drivers) was tuned in to the bears reactions and signs of stress. He was sensitive to not chasing bears who didn't want to be around us and not continuing to get closer to bears after they'd shown any overt reaction to our presence.

Polar Bear Cub curious about our vehicle and cameras

The Trek to Churchill

Before you can see the bears of course, the first step is getting to Churchill. Package trips tend to use charters (ours was on Nolinor) from Winnipeg, the standard jumping off point. Nolinor was friendly but their schedule seems to be quite loose so allow plenty of time. There planes also have very little room on board, so prepare to cabin check your photo gear (they euphemistically call it "valeting" your bag). Calm Air also provides scheduled service and from checking around it seems like they are fairly reliable for a small regional carrier operating in a hostile environment. Churchill Taxi can get you to and from the airport for about CDN$20 once you're there. Churchill has a huge runway courtesy of the old military base, but winds can be high so there can be weather delays. The least reliable way to get to Churchill is the train from Winnipeg. Scheduled for an already lacadasical 36 hours to make the trip from Winnipeg (600 air miles away) it has been running well over 40 hours recently due to track problems. They are hoping to have the track improved by 2009.

We didn't have a lot of snow to work with to get white backgrounds,
but the bears can look pretty good coming through the Willows also.

Churchill: A Company Town?

Only two companies have permits to operate tourist vehicles in Wapusk Park. Frontier North (Tundra Buggy Adventures) and Great White Bear (booked exclusively through Natural Habitats). Since they have a limit of 18 vehicles between them and the bears are why everyone is in Churchill this essentially allows them to control the flow of tourists to and from Churchill during the "bear season." They book most of the hotel rooms for their trips and of course they own all the tundra buggies. If you do get a choice of where to stay I highly recommend the Bear Country Inn. It's clean, quiet, has good service, a free continental breakfast and the manager Michelle Beaton makes everyone feel at home. But keep in mind that all the accomodations in Churchill are of the plain and simple variety, essentially motels with common entrances, so don't expect a fancy hotel or fancy services at any of them.

We were fortunate enough to see a young pair of bears wrestle for hours.
Photographically low, gray light was the only common frustration.

Polar Bears and Sled Dogs: The Infamous Brian Ladoon

One of the most famous photo sequences from Churchill is a polar bear playing with a sled dog, shot by Norbert Rosing, author of the new and must read book The World of the Polar Bear, in 1992. It was taken out at property owned by Brian Ladoon where he keeps his dogs. Brian is a longtime Churchill resident who has no end of projects designed to help the native population. But residents and animal rights groups have taken him to task for his sled dog teams and how they are treated. I don't know enough about the situation or about sled dogs to have an opinion, but another tourist stop and possible bear photo destination is to pay Brian to let you drive around (typically in a taxi) and photograph any polar bears who come by to see if they can get a free meal when he feeds his dogs. You're very unlikely to see any dog-bear interaction, though, as that is apparently quite an uncommon event.


If you have time in Churchill and can arrange it, there is a "metis" (literally mixture or half-breed) woman, Myrtle DeMuelles who gives a wonderful [chataqua] style presentation about her life and the life of the Cree natives and the Scotts (from whom she is descended) in the Churchill and northern Manitoba areas over the last half century. She comes from seven generations of story-tellers and she is a master of the craft. She apparently also helped rescue the craft of tufting (using Moose or Caribou hair) from extinction, and has an impressive array of native artifacts and craft samples. The talk is something of a pretext for her to promote her craftwork which she sells, but is a good way to spend one of the many hours of darkness when you can't be out photographing the bears.

Polar Bear Photo Safari, Churchill Style?

I've had many requests from those of you who've been on my other trips or who read the newsletter to lead a polar bear photo trip to Churchill. I think it would be a really fun trip and we'd all learn a lot and get some great photos. However, I don't think that the tundra buggy experience is any kind of substitute for the "on the ground" work we do in Alaska each summer photographing the Grizzly bears. So I don't see myself adding Churchill as a regular destination. But it would be worth doing as a specialty trip. If I did it we'd maximize everyone's shooting opportunities through a dedicated tundra buggy and lots of time out with the bears (package tours often skimp by limiting the amount of time you actually get to spend on a buggy out photographing bears--something you should definitely research before you sign up for any trip to Churchill). So if you're interested and would be willing to put down a deposit in early 2008 for a fall 2009 trip, drop me an email at safaris [at] and I'll see if there is enough interest for a one time trip. Otherwise you're always welcome of course on our very popular Alaska Grizzly Bear and Puffin trips.

Polar Bears weren't the only photogenic animals.
We also saw Red Fox, Arctic Fox and Willow & Rock Ptarmagin.

Learning more about Churchills Polar Bears

Without question Norbert Rosing in his book, The World of the Polar Bear, has collected some of the most stunning images I've ever seen, over many years of photographing there. For our participants to have as a keepsake, we've assembled a short photo book with some information about our trip, what we learned about the bears and how to photograph them and photos from our trip. For the curious the book of our trip is also available for purchase in both hardcover and softcover.

Cardinal Photo Safaris Update:

Grizzly bear female
Alaska bear safari

Alaska Grizzly Bear & Puffin trips, July 2009:
(These trips always fill up, so make your plans soon!)

Our 2008 sessions all sold out but we've just announced our two trips for 2009, so learn more or sign up soon. We'll have plenty of Alaskan Brown "Grizzly" Bears, as well as visit rookeries for Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Common Murres and Kittiwakes. We're also likely to have some good Bald Eagle photographic opportunities and of course scenic shots of mountains, coastline and lovely flowers. This is a great trip for couples or non-shooting companions as the lodge is in a beautiful setting on the coast with plenty of opportunity for other activities.

Leopard Cub
Botswana Safari, 2006

Africa : Botswana, November 14-26, 2009
(10 photographers maximum --
our 2008 trip SOLD OUT so book early

Our trips feature plenty of mammals & birds. We'll see lions, elephants, giraffe, leopards, cheetah and quite a few varieties of antelope along with several dozen other species of exotic animals. For more details or to reserve your space now.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Asia Photo Safari, January, 2007

Burma and Cambodia, December 2009:

We're excited about returning to Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia. The main trip will be divided between the temple areas in Cambodia (especially the Angkor temple complex including Angkor Wat) and Burma (including historic Mandalay and the plain of temples at Bagan, as well as the capital Yangon, nee Rangoon). Learn more. We'll also have an optional post-trip extension to Laos, featuring Vientiane & Luang Prabang.

We just finished a second very successful 2007 trip (and about to head off for our 2008 trip) and are ready with what we think will be an even better itinerary for next December, 2009. Learn more about the trip now.

Crested Caracara
South Texas Safari, 2007

South Texas Birds, April 12-18, 2009
(6 Photographers Maximum, filling up quickly)

After a great safari this year I'm anxious to get back to "The Valley" in south Texas and join a few of you to really focus on bird photography for a week again next year. There is no better way to improve your shooting skills, hone your flight shot technique and come home with lots of great images than by spending a week with us at these awesome Lens & Land properties.

We have some great upgrades for 2008, including luxury accomodations at a brand new game lodge close to the ranches. The small trip size (maximum 6 shooters), private ranches, and full service structure (all your local transportation, room, meals and drinks are included!) make this the premier trip to South Texas for bird photography. Learn more or get your deposit in now.

Read what past participants have to say
events updated 7/26/2008

New Products Hands-On Field Tests

Data Cable Organizers, The "Cable Stables" from Skooba

Managing the array of electronics chargers, cables and cards that accumulate with digital photography is a challenge for any photographer. Keeping them organized on long distance trips is even more of an effort. Skooba, formerly known as RoadWired and makers of the excellent value-priced RoadWired Roadster Convertible carry-on has come up with a pair of cases that are designed to help. The Standard Cable Stable™ is an entry level case and the Deluxe Cable Stable is a larger case with more room for accessories. I took the Deluxe version with me on my Churchill trip and was glad I did.

My Deluxe Cable Stable fully loaded with cables, chargers for D2X and D200, flash cards, pen, sensor brush from VisibleDust and DigitalPro wallet, spare AA rechargeable batteries and my PD70X fully loaded with more batteries and a 100GB backup drive, plus its charger.

First, a little context on the idea of having a padded case for your cables and chargers. The case itself takes up room, almost by definition. So if what you're looking for is the best way to cram a large supply of cables and chargers into an already padded electronics bag, then you may not want to add another layer of padding. A variety of small, see-through, mesh bags might serve your purpose just as well. That's what I've used on most of my trips. But on this trip we could only take one piece of checked luggage--and since I needed to bring winter boots and a tripod that was my duffel--so I didn't have a convenient padded case for my electronics. Enter the Deluxe Cable Stable . I was able to store my chargers, my backup hard drive, my cables, flash cards and spare batteries in it with no trouble. You can see how I loaded it up in the accompanying photo. The only tricky part was the D2 family charger is thick enough that you have to bend the case to close it. It seems to be made for just that eventuality and the zippers still closed perfectly. If I'd only had one camera charger I could have also fit a AA battery charger. Instead I relied on the AA charger built-in to my PDX70.

All in all I was impressed by the Deluxe Cable Stable and found it to be very useful for a medium sized collection of electronics. Obviously if I'd had my full "teaching" setup with projector cables and remote plus various other spares I would have needed another case or had to deal with those separately, but for the individual photographer the cable case pro is likely to be able to hold most of the electronics that they don't already take in their camera bag.

Lexar 300x CompactFlash Card & UDMA Reader

Nothing is more frustrating than being in the middle of wildlife action and having your camera's buffer fill up. While there is a limit to how fast your camera can write out images, for me the problem has been the card writing speed. Until now. This month I have been using a Lexar 4GB UDMA 300x Compact Flash Card and it really screams. While it takes 22 seconds to write out 10 Raw files from my D2X to an 80x card and nearly 20 seconds to a 133x card, it only takes 15 seconds to write the same images to a 300x card. That's 5-7 seconds that I can be shooting the action instead of being locked up and frustrated. The cards are even more effective when coupled with Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader--a real speed daemon. Unfortunately for PC users, Windows laptops almost never come with a 6-wire (powered) Firewire connection, let alone a 9-pin Firewire 800 connection. So the UDMA reader would require both a converter cable and an external power supply, making it tricky for travel. But if you own a Firewire 800 adapter for your desktop, or have a newish Mac laptop with Firewire 800 then the combination of the 300x cards and the UDMA reader really screams. They are a great way to make you more productive both on the road and at home.

The cards are available both in 4GB: Lexar Media 4GB Professional UDMA 300x Compact Flash Card and 8GB Lexar Media 8GB Professional UDMA 300x Compact Flash Card for the ultimate in speed and capacity. The UDMA reader is currently only available in a Firewire 800 version: Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader - Card reader ( CF ) - FireWire 800

DigitalPro Tip

Starting with DigitalPro 4.3, DigitalPro can automatically help you submit your images to the copyright office. Copyright registration is more important than ever in protecting your images and most of us haven't taken the time to do it. With DP4.3 and the upcoming online copyright submission tools it is easier than ever. Check it out







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