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Christoph and Fabienne Jansen of talk to National Geographic photojournalist and Churchill Wild Director of Wolf Programs Jad Davenport about their experiences with polar bears, wolves, other wildlife, and the ecolodges at Churchill Wild. The Swiss couple have travelled all over the world and extensively throughout the Arctic, but have returned to the Churchill Wild ecolodges time and time again for 17 polar bear safaris. Watch the video or peruse the transcript below to discover why…

“It just felt like coming home… like a magical place…”

Transcript: Jad Davenport interviews Christoph and Fabienne Jansen of

Jad Davenport: You’ve travelled all over the world, you’ve been to many different places, especially around the Arctic. What draws you back to Churchill Wild and what draws you back to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge?

Christoph Jansen: We’ve travelled the Arctic a lot, but we have never been to a place where we’ve had such close and intimate wildlife encounters. But it’s not only about the wildlife, it’s also about just how Churchill Wild operates. I mean, it’s very personal, very family oriented. The first time we arrived at one of the lodges, it was not here, it was up at Seal River Heritage Lodge, we just felt like it was like coming home even though we hadn’t been there before. And so, we always had that experience of it feeling like a magical place.

Jad Davenport: And what is it about Nanuk in particular? I know you go to Seal River, but what is it about Nanuk, the Kaska coast?

Christoph Jansen: Well, Nanuk is special in a way that you have lots of variety from the landscape, with the wildlife. You are in the Boreal Forest, but you are also on the coast of Hudson Bay. So, you have all the animals that live in either of those landscapes, and that’s really just fascinating to see. And not only in winter or November, but also in the fall or summer. Every time it’s a different drink menu when you come here, it’s always different.

Jad Davenport: You guys have been a huge part of the wolf program, you were here since the beginning, you were part of the inspiration to set up the wolf program. Tell me a little bit about how your relationship with the wolves started and what the wolf program means to you.

Christoph Jansen: To be honest, we didn’t really know that we had such a connection to wolves before we came on our first Den Emergence trip to Nanuk. We were actually looking for polar bear mothers and cubs. But as soon as we spotted the wolves and as soon as we had our first wolf encounter, we almost didn’t care about polar bear moms and cubs anymore. We were so fascinated by the wolves, it’s some kind of very special connection when a wolf looks into your eyes, it’s just very special.

It was back in 2019, when we had our first wolf encounter. We definitely knew that we would want to see more wolves. We would also want to understand more about those wolves, about how they live in this harsh environment. So that really makes us come back.

Jad Davenport: Do you feel after this amount of time that you have a better understanding of wolves, that you’re starting to recognize wolves, that you’re anticipating behaviours, where the pack is travelling?

Christoph Jansen: It’s always difficult to really identify the wolves because their fur changes. You cannot always get a very good view depending on lighting conditions, depending on the weather. But what we definitely can tell are some behavioral aspects; if the wolf is curious, if it is more afraid, if it’s investigating us, if they’re playing, if they’re rather… fighting is probably not the right word, but if it’s just for play.

You can definitely tell more about their behavior or also if it’s likely that the wolf is coming close or if it’s just minding its own business. That definitely helps to develop that kind of understanding over time, when you see more and more wolves.

Jad Davenport: You’ve travelled all around the Arctic, almost circumnavigated the Arctic. Have you had other experiences with wolves around the Arctic? Is this unique for you?

Christoph Jansen: Well, actually, the wolf encounters around here are really pretty unique. We have never seen wolves in other places in the Arctic. Although there are wolves in the Arctic, they are very hard to see. And even if you could see them, they would probably be very far away. So not really like around Nanuk and the Kaska coast, where you have the opportunity to really get close to the wildlife and also have wildlife that is not afraid of humans, which to us is very special.

Jad Davenport: You’ve been huge participants in not just the citizen science that we’re developing, but also in helping develop with your ideas. You know, we (Jad, Christoph and Fabienne) zoomed and we came up with ideas. What is the citizen science component of this, being a field naturalist? How does that feel for you and what do you like about it? What does it add to the program for you?

Christoph Jansen: What we like about it is that it is not just about observing wolves for our own pleasure, but also kind of trying to contribute to a deeper understanding of the wolves living here. I mean, we are curious people ourselves, so we want to know, we want to understand, we want to know why wolves behave the way they do. What they feed on, how big their range is, how often we have chances to see them, at what time of the day we are more likely to see them. So, we like to understand those things ourselves for ourselves. Being part of getting a deeper knowledge about these very remote wolf populations is definitely something that is extremely exciting.

Jad Davenport: What aspects of the actual program have you enjoyed? Like hands on stuff, trail cameras, we haven’t done much with scat but are there certain aspects that you enjoy? You were busy, you know, just an hour ago creating a huge map for us. Are there some things that you enjoy doing in the field that wouldn’t be part of just going out to view wolves?

Christoph Jansen: I would say probably what we enjoy most is really having the opportunity to observe wolves. Not necessarily to photograph. I mean it’s nice to have nice photographs too, but just to observe their behaviour, and the trail cams help a lot because they are there 24/7 and obviously we can’t be. So that really helps a lot to understand when the animals are moving, how the animals are moving. I would say probably that’s the part we enjoy most.

And then, hearing the wolves howling is definitely very special. And if we have a chance to record some howling or to understand why they are howling or how they are communicating with each other, that’s definitely something we enjoy a lot. Howling with the wolves is just great.

Fabienne Jansen: And when you get an answer from a wolf, that’s just magic.

Jad Davenport: For sure. I agree. You’ve got so many fantastic images of wolves, of wild wolves, there are very few photographers that have the body of work that you have, having been up here for so long. Have you tallied up how many months you’ve spent over the years up here at Nanuk?

Christoph Jansen: So far, we’ve probably spent three, three and a half months over different seasons each year. But we’re definitely planning on coming back for some more time up here because it’s interesting even when spending the same season in a different year, it’s completely different. There might in November be an early freeze up or late freeze up. Not only are the polar bears reacting differently to that, but also the other animals around here.

We’ve had trips where we have seen no moose at all, but many wolves. And then we’ve had trips where we have seen lots of moose and fewer wolves, which is kind of surprising. It’s just interesting to see not only the change of seasons or the landscape and the animals in different seasons, but also coming back in basically the same season and seeing how it is different every year. So, that really is also very, very interesting.

Wolf at the window. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. photo.

Wolf at the window. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. photo.

Jad Davenport: You guys have a fantastic body of work with photographs that I don’t think there’s any other wolf photographers out there, outside of like Jim Brandenburg, who have photographed wolves as much at close range as you have. Tell me about two of your favourite photos. Describe them to me and describe what the moment was like when you were making those pictures.

Christoph Jansen: Well, we know that we are very fortunate to have had, and get to have, these close encounters with the wolves, and the opportunity to photograph these encounters. But surprisingly for me, it’s probably not even the most tech sharp photo of a wolf that is the one that is most valuable to us. It’s probably more of those encounters that have a special connection to the wolf.

I remember our first wolf encounter which was just outside the lodge. We were basically still in the lodge just looking out of the big windows and the wolf was just standing on a snow drift looking into the lodge. And I mean, obviously we didn’t get good pictures through the window — it was just that very special moment. We were five metres from that wolf, just a window between us, and he was looking in our eyes and we were looking back, and that was so special.

"Sometimes you just have a picture that you take with your heart. That stays forever." ~ Fabienne Jansen,

“Sometimes you just have a picture that you take with your heart. That stays forever.” ~ Fabienne Jansen,

It’s not one of our best shots, but probably one of our most emotional encounters we’ve had. I mean you (Fabienne) had your very special wolf encounter with the wolf howling next to the runway, next to our snow machine, then suddenly going quiet, standing up and just walking past us and standing still for a moment. He just looked straight into your eyes. That was a very, special moment.

And you don’t get the best photographs in such an encounter, but it’s just so special. I would say those are really the most precious photos we have of wolves. We have photos where you can see every single whisker or every single facial hair of the wolf, which is great, but the most emotional shots I would say are from one of those real special encounters.

Fabienne Jansen: Sometimes you just have a picture that you take with your heart. That stays forever.

Jad Davenport: That’s wonderful guys. I get teary eyed because I remember that moment we were out there – that was special. Tell me what it’s like, you’re out in the Komatik or snow machine, and you come back, what’s the lodge itself like and what’s the experience like being here at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge?

Christoph Jansen: Well, the lodge is just great. If you imagine where you are, basically in the middle of nowhere, the infrastructure is just amazing. It’s a very cozy building, it’s a very nice building and I mean, true luxury. You get to have hot showers, you get to have warm bedrooms, you get to have three warm meals a day, very good healthy meals, homemade, all cooked here at the lodge. So, it’s really just a very unique place that would be just perfect everywhere. But being in such a remote location, it’s almost incredible that it’s even possible to have something like this in such a remote place. That’s still fascinating for us even after coming back so many times, and how it’s even possible to operate that kind of lodge in such a remote place.

Jad Davenport: Do you have a couple of favourite meals?

Christoph Jansen: Oh, we have many favourite meals, and being here for like three or four weeks at a time makes it really dangerous not to put on too much weight. I think probably your (Fabienne) favourite is shepherd’s pie. I would probably go for the homemade chili or all of the stews basically.

Sometimes you have the opportunity to do an all-day trip and stay out and even have a lunch outside in the field, which is just gorgeous. Those are the best moments, sitting around the campfire and enjoying some hot stew and hot soup. Although it’s a nice coming back from the cold and getting into the warmth of the lodge, just to warm up and get ready for the next adventure.

Jad Davenport: Fantastic. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

See more of Christoph and Fabienne’s photos at
Follow Christoph and Fabienne on Instagram @arctic_wild

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