Polar Bear Blog

Churchill Wild guest wins NANPA award for rare northern lights photograph taken at Seal River

Award-winning photograph of northern lights blanketing full moon over Hudson Bay. Taken by James Heupel at Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Award-winning photograph of northern lights blanketing full moon over Hudson Bay. Taken by James Heupel at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

by George Williams

It’s extremely rare to capture a full moon rising behind the northern lights, but Churchill Wild guest Jim Heupel did just that at Seal River Heritage Lodge in 2014, and he has now received an award for his extraordinary photo.

Heupel’s photo won the Judges Choice Award in the Scapes category of the 2016 Showcase Photo Contest organized by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). Additionally, his photo will now grace the cover of the 2016 issue of Expressions, the official journal of NANPA featuring the top 250 photographs. These images also appear online at NANPA Showcase 2016.

“I was elated with the win,” said Heupel, a retired United States Air Force (USAF) veteran who began taking photos professionally in 2007. “I took the photo on November 12, 2014. It was a cool frosty evening. I think it was -20 degrees Celsius. We’re used to getting these kinds of photos at two or three in the morning, but this photo was taken at 10:46 p.m.

"And how's your day going?" ~ James Heupel photo.
“And how’s your day going?” ~ James Heupel photo.

“The northern lights started out as three narrow bands curling around the moon but they kept getting wider and wider until they squeezed together to form a curtain over the moon. The fog on the bay also added to the photo. The judges (William Neill, John Nuhn and Joe and Mary Ann McDonald) said that a rising moon was rarely photographed with the northern lights. William Neill also commented that by placing the horizon low on the image, it captured the sweeping motion and immensity of the lights. They said it had an otherworldly quality to it. That makes you feel good.”

Heupel, who turned 70 a few months ago, started taking photos at the age of eight and continued to pursue his hobby as a tourist with his family before joining the USAF, which also provided photo opportunities in faraway places including Thailand, Japan and Germany. Heupel retired from the USAF in 1997 after 27 years of service and kept himself busy as a full-time volunteer until his wife of 48 years, Jackie, told him he needed to take up a hobby again, something he would enjoy.

In 2007 Heupel became a professional photographer focusing on wildlife.

Since then, he has traveled to Africa to photograph the big cats; Antarctica to take shots of penguins, sea lions, elephant seals and whales; Ecuador to snap hummingbirds; the Galapagos to photograph marine life and birds; and Alaska four times to photograph grizzly bears, mostly on the remote seacoast edge of Katmai National Park, across from Kodiak Island.

Polar bear couple at Seal River Heritage Lodge. James Heupel photo.
Polar bear couple at Seal River Heritage Lodge. James Heupel photo.

Heupel has also been to Svalbard in search of polar bears.

“We went on a polar bear tour to Svalbard but the Arctic ice had receded and we saw very few polar bears,” he said. “We were treated well, but we were on a boat. You had to wear a heavy survival suit, because if you fell in the water it would kill you. So even when we did get on land I felt like I was walking like the Michelin tire man.

“We would go out on a Zodiac with a guide and a rifleman with a high-powered rifle. The rifleman would exit the boat first and check the coastline to see if it was safe before we could get out. We had to keep the Zodiac running 40 metres from land if there was a polar bear on shore. Otherwise the guide said the polar bear could get to us. I guess they’re considered a lot wilder there. It would have been better if the Arctic ice had been closer. We knew after that trip we would have to go to Hudson Bay to see the polar bears.”

Heupel discovered Churchill Wild years prior to his Svalbard trip through their resident photographer Dennis Fast, who was marketing Churchill Wild’s on-the-ground polar bear tours at a NANPA trade show.

“We wanted to see polar bears on the ground and Churchill Wild was the only operator that offered those types of tours,” said Heupel. “We’d been talking to Doreen (Booth) at Churchill Wild for a few years regarding maybe getting a group to go and it just sort of worked out that there was an individual slot available.”

Heupel booked it.

“I had a wonderful time and the food was fantastic,” he said. “I was initially concerned about the polar bears being aggressive, as compared to grizzly bears. The grizzlies were more interested in feeding on salmon than they were in us, when I was photographing them in the summer and fall. But the Churchill Wild guides were great at reading the body language, reactions and emotions of the polar bears. We were out photographing on the ice near the Lodge one day and a polar bear came up over a ridge and cut across right in front of us, about 30 yards away, to get to the shore line. We had nowhere to go but to just stand still. That made me nervous, but the guides told everyone to stay close together and be cool. The track that bear took was lovely.”

Heupel met and photographed polar bears on numerous occasions after that, but also said he took some excellent shots from inside the fenced compound at the Lodge.

"Hollywood Bob" playing at Seal River Heritage Lodge. James Heupel photo.
“Hollywood Bob” playing at Seal River Heritage Lodge. James Heupel photo.

“We caught ‘Hollywood Bob’ playing,” said Heupel. “And we got two bears play fighting while the bay was freezing. And there were Arctic foxes everywhere. The guides did a great job of keeping them interested. The whole opportunity was exceptional. There were no problems at all. Churchill Wild’s years of experience doing the walking tours made it a safe way to see polar bears at ground level.”

Back at home in Texas, Heupel is now preparing for his fourth gallery showing as a professional photographer, with 28 images.

“It’s in Fredericksburg,” he said. “One of the top 10 tourist spots in Texas. People love the photos, but it’s a tough way to make a living. I did have a few good sales from the previous show though. And I have one fine art gallery carrying my photos.”

Heupel’s next scheduled photography trip will be to Antarctica with his son, who is working on his  PhD in marine biology, and who also happens to be a photographer. After that, he’s thinking about going back to Hudson Bay for more polar bears.

“I’m definitely trying to figure out how to get back to Churchill Wild,” said Heupel. “Maybe to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in August. They really look after you. If you don’t have what you need, they make sure they can get it for you when you’re there. It’s a wonderful opportunity for any photographer, amateur or professional. I went on my own but it worked out well. I made several friends and had no problems. I think you should stress to people that if they are thinking of going on a Churchill Wild trip on their own, they should just do it.

“The whole opportunity was exceptional.”

Polar bear lies on the icy ground, waiting... James Heupel photo.
Polar bear lies on the icy ground, waiting… James Heupel photo.

2 comments:

  1. Beautiful photos! Congratulations on win!
    I love looking at all the pictures, I had a wonderful time on this trip, scenery and food! Awesome….I”d love to return someday!!!

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