A journey to the Arctic in early winter? Who are you kidding? A few years back my wife and I were in the Yukon at the turn of summer to fall and were treated to one of the most glorious treats of nature, the change in color of the tundra to bright reds and oranges. One has to be a bit lucky to see this because fall in this sub-Arctic environment happens very fast, perhaps just a few days until winter moves in. Already in late August, early September, we were getting strong hints that it was time to head south. But winter? Why on earth would anyone want to brave that? For a photographer interested in wildlife the answer is Polar Bears!
This time it wasn't the Yukon but a small settlement on the south shore of Hudson Bay known as Churchill. This is one of the best places in the world to see the great white bear because they congregate here in late fall as the polar ice begins to form on Hudson Bay where these hungry bears access the ice and head for winter hunting grounds for fat laden seals on which they are dependent for survival. Without the seal Polar bears cannot build up the reserves of fat to carry them through the long months from say April to late November during which time they eat very little. And therein lies their plight. Because of warming global temperatures ice forms later and melts earlier keeping them land bound longer each year. This naturally throws their life cycle completely out of whack causing them over time to lose weight, give birth to fewer cubs, and inhibit their ability to nurture the cubs they do have. These great mammals, and other animals, fish and birds that share this place are "on the edge".
I went to Churchill hoping to be on time to witness this unique migration and photograph the great bear. I was there just as Hudson Bay was beginning to freeze over. Churchill is not considered high Arctic. It is in a transition zone known as the sub-Arctic where the boreal forest that extends hundreds of miles in northern Canada meets the coastal plain of the polar seas, in this case, Hudson Bay. The landscape around Churchill is largely barren consisting of low tundra, stunted willow like brush, and stunted trees. By November it is largely a black and white world interspersed with islands of evergreens, most of which show the stress of cold and Arctic wind. Yet if one looks closely there is color left over from the riot of fall, reds, oranges, sienna, ochre, greens, and blues in the water. On cloudy days the blue becomes slate-like. It is kind of like Death Valley in that the bones and structure of the Earth itself are exposed and on full display. The landscape and flora, like their fauna cousins, are truly "on the edge". And yet they survive in this raw climate, so far.
I find much to compare the Arctic zone with say Death Valley. Certainly the climates are far different, but they are both extreme and stark. Quiet and motionless one moment, the next can produce violent flash floods in the desert or howling blizzards in the Arctic. Life is fragile and tenuous. A plant can take decades to grow a few inches in height only to be obliterated in a moment with one careless footstep. The landscape can seem lonely and deserted yet somehow the vastness and quiet gives one time and space to engage the intricate workings of this vast machine, to come to the understanding that the workings of nature are all in harmony and syncronization. We are a part of that landscape and welcome in it, but carelessness, technology and industrializiation also gives us opportunity to upset that intricate balance. Consequently we must be careful not to trend too harshly on what is an easily disrupted balance.
I personally find peace and beauty in such places. At Churchill I had opportunity not only to photograph the great white bear but also a part of his environment. I found a special place where the vastness was almost overwhelming. I learned a great appreciation for the creatures that call this home and for the challenges they face in surviving their changing environment.