I awake at 4am and try not to disturb my room mates. There is no running water here, so a trip to the bathroom means pit toilets and putting some cold water in a bowl to freshen up and brush teeth. I go back to bed and doze until finally at 6:30am the others stir and the day begins.
Breakfast is rustic but delicious and talk of the possibilities of the day circulate the room. Then our guide delivers the news. It is -54C and we are delayed one hour. I will soon find out that “Hurry up and wait” are the normal routine. I am now wearing 5 layers, am overheating and can barely move.
Feet: light socks, wool socks, hot shots, larger wool socks, Baffin boots (4 layers inside)
Bottoms: long johns, fleece pants, hiking pants, goosedown pants
Top: t-shirt, long johns, polar fleece, down sweater, goose down parka
Hands: battery heated gloves, fleece mitts, seal skin snowmobile mitts, handwarmers
Head: balaclava, necktube, toque, fuzzy hat with ear flaps, parka hood.
Camera & lens: down vest strapped on with bungie cord
There are six of us that finally load into a van that runs with tracks instead of tires and is equipped for extreme weather. Because I am new and do not know the ‘system’ I am stuck in the back seat again. The torture of riding for two hours in the back seat, bouncing over drifts and tundra cannot be described. The guides, who drive ahead on snow machines, have found a bear and 2 cubs near a frozen lake. The terrain is rough and even the cat-vehicles struggle to get through. Finally we see the bear and she is nestled down in a bear bed in the willows. The bad news is she is wearing an ear tag and tracking collar, but at least we have a bear. Many guests to the area will stay for 10 days and never see one. This is not the average tundra-buggy scene, but a hunt for female bears with cubs just emerging from the den. It is not a guaranteed find.
We all bale out of the van and are instructed by the guides where we are permitted to stand. We are warned that we must react immediately if the guides say to abandon shooting and get back in van. Though I have been extremely close to black and grizzlies in the past, I know that this is a completely different situation. Black and grizzly bears are 20% carnivorous, while polar bears are 100% carnivorous!
This however, is the least of my worries. I scramble to get my gear set up fighting against a 60km gusting wind that threatens to blow away various pieces of clothing and equipment. I finally get my lens hood on the lens, tighten the down jacket around it with a bungie cord and get my tripod the right length and balanced in the snow. By now everyone else has been shooting for 5 minutes and I am still fumbling around trying to get the new snow out of my lens hood. Nothing like this is possible with mitts on so I am down to a single layer of thin gloves that I can feel my gear with, but pretty soon I cannot feel my fingers so it is not much good anyway. Finally I get myself sorted out but the bears have stopped playing and are now quiet.
I am surprised, actually, at how close we are. Well not that close, but it seems like it through 800mm. The sleeping bears fill my frame easily and I take a couple of test shots and all is well. We wait with great anticipation for the bears to awake. They have been out of the den for a while, but still need frequent naps. And we wait, and we wait. We entertain ourselves by taking photos of one another with our second cameras. Our goose down gear protects us well, but we are hardly recognizable as only our eyes are visible peeking through the layers.
Finally the cubs begin to stir and with great excitement I return to my tripod, camera and 800mm lens. I press the shutter and it fails to work. Instead of a click, a squeaky whining noise emits from my Nikon D4. I check the battery and it reads as full. A few more attempts and the shutter begins to work, but no images are recorded. Digging through 5 layers of clothes, I locate my back up battery in a warm inner pocket in layer number 2. Every little movement is a struggle and also requires the removal of two layers of gloves in order to grasp anything larger than a tripod. The backup battery gives the needed boost and the camera begins to record images, but no other functions are available. I cannot change my exposure compensation, switch to video, or review images. I have to trust that the electronics will do their job.
The cubs are lively for only a few more minutes and now my opportunity for cute cub shots is again past. And so I wait some more. Another hour goes by and now the wind is even stronger and I am forced to stand sideways to the wind in order to tolerate it. Since we are facing the wind I cannot remove my lens hood to reduce shake or my lens will be covered in snow. When the bears finally stir again, I am shaking with cold. The shutter is so stiff that I can only work it if I take my hand out of the mitts which is extremely painful and frostbite becomes a real concern. I try to pull my immense parka hood over the camera so that I am not facing directly into the wind, crack open two more packs of hand warmers and I survive for another half an hour. My camera view-finder fogs up each time I put my balaclava-covered face up to it. And eventually the entire back of my LCD screen is covered in ice from my breath.
The sun is now low in the sky and the snow picks up the darker blues and purples of the evening light. The bears are in the shadow of the snow drifts and willows, so getting clear shots is almost impossible, but I have to keep trying. As the day draws to a close she organizes the cubs and wanders off across the tundra, with the cubs playing along behind. I have never been so glad to see the back end of a bear!
Frozen and spent, I pull my batteries and cards out and put my gear into plastic bags to prevent icing and condensation and climb into the van for the bumpy two hour journey back to the lodge. As I undo my goose parka I realize that my D750 is still hanging around my neck. Too late! The cold camera is covered in frost instantly and who knows how much damage is done.
At the lodge wood stoves are burning and dinner is being prepared. This hardly seems relevant to me, as I peel off some layers, grab my laptop and review the few images I was able to get. About half of them have the shutter through the middle, the rest are okay, but not great. It could be worse – at least I have a few images and only a small amount of frostbite on the tip of my nose.
I store my bagged and frozen camera gear under the bed in a cool spot, to be left to thaw until morning. The clothes and boots are pulled apart and hung above and around the wood stove for drying. Tomorrow is another day.