It is my last chance to see bears today. The light is nice, sunny with some high cloud and not too much wind, but still -37C. The scouts report that a bear with two cubs has been spotted and they are just waiting for her to settle in a spot before taking us to her. An hour later they come for us and show us the way. She is sleeping in a fairly open area near a small stand of black spruce. The excitement is palpable and we all line up and stake our claim on a spot to shoot from.
Because of the location, the placement of the horizon for a pleasing composition means shooting from a very low angle. I lower my tripod to be able to set my camera and lens about 2 feet off the ground and prepare to spend the rest of my day on my knees in the snow. And as is always the case, the sleeping bear and cubs stay still for about 40 minutes. The cubs start to fidget and bother mother to nurse and finally she sits up and invites the cubs to suckle. It seems they are never full, so she pushes them away and paws herself another resting spot. The cubs are ready to roll now that they have had their feed. It is the same pair that we saw last week, but now they have been out in the world and are playful and great fun to watch. The female polar bear is both nursery and gymnasium. The cubs climb all over her, bite and pull her fur, attack each other and then run into the trees to tussle. She keeps one eye on us and the other on her cubs, but she seems to know we are not a threat.
This is the best opportunity one could hope for in terms of location and behaviour. The cubs are really active now and perform for several hours. At last, they settle in for a nap, which allows me to change batteries, cards, grab a hot chocolate, replace hand and foot warmers, and peel off six layers of clothes for the dreaded Arctic bathroom break. Ladies, you can only image what that is like in this weather with only your parka for privacy. Replacing all the layers with frozen fingers is yet another challenge.
The cubs rebound in less than an hour and are back nursing and playing again. Mother is more cautious now as another female with single cub can be seen by our scouts with binoculars. Her sense of smell is so acute she can tell from miles the approach of another bear. She sniffs the wind constantly checking and re-checking the location of the other bear. The cubs give us another amazing show and I continue to tough out the bitter cold on my knees.
By now my feet have fallen asleep and my body is shaking from the cold. Fingers are numb despite best efforts to keep shutter hand covered and my face protection is wet and frosted to my face. The lashes on my non-viewfinder eye have frozen together. Like clockwork, by 5:30pm she takes the cubs back to the forest. Fumbling to properly break down the gear and put into sealed bags is a daunting challenge that is somewhat tolerable because of the thrill of wonderful images ready to be downloaded.
We ride home to a beautiful purple sunset which transitions into northern lights, but we are too worn out to capture them and just enjoy the lightshow from the warmth of the indoors.