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by George Williams

Award-winning filmmaker, journalist, photographer, and expeditionist Tomas Koeck  was at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge last fall during the Hudson Bay Odyssey capturing footage for a new wildlife documentary entitled Flyway of Life.

The project was in collaboration with the National Audubon Society, Canon USA, Churchill Wild and Sacred Heart University, which Koeck will graduate from with a master’s degree in media arts later this year. We interviewed the talented 25-year-old from Connecticut about his experiences at Nanuk, his new film, and life in general. Read what he had to say below.

Polar bear out for a stroll in front of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Out for a stroll in front of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Churchill Wild: How was your trip to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge?

Tomas Koeck: It was fantastic. We got everything we needed for our film, and it was a great experience with the people up there.

Churchill Wild: How did you find out about Nanuk?

Tomas Koeck: I reached out to Travel Manitoba after watching a feature on the wolves up at Nanuk. They got me in touch with Adam (Adam Pauls, Churchill Wild CEO) and Jackie (Jackie Storry, Churchill Wild VP Director of Business Development). I explained the details of our non-profit project and we worked it out. Adam and Jackie were great to work with. The whole team up there is just fantastic. I think they liked the premise of the project, and it was a chance to make the most of this northernmost point of the Atlantic Flyway and how it relates to birds and wolves.

Churchill Wild: Can you tell us more about the Flyway of Life Project?

Tomas Koeck: It’s about the Atlantic Flyway, which is the migration path that birds use. They fly from Costa Rica or even further south, up to northern Manitoba. For the past two years, we’ve been hopping along the Atlantic Flyway, visiting different hotspots on the migration route, looking at different ecological relationships between the animals and the birds, sometimes focusing solely on the birds and other times on the effect we have on the birds. So the Nanuk portion is a balance of the birds and how the wolves are creating a very healthy ecosystem for the birds in northern Manitoba.

Nanuk is the furthest north we’re comfortably going to go. It’s that solid northern point for the Atlantic Flyway. The birds follow the flyway routes for various reasons. They’re following either coastline, food, forest type, etc. Different birds travel along the shore. For example, you’ve got different plovers, like golden plovers, which travel from the southern USA along the coast and all the way up to Nanuk. When they get to Hudson Bay, that’s an example of a coastal habitat. So you have birds like these following a specific type of habitat. There will be some birds, like warbler species, which may continue going up to Alaska, but as far as probably the majority of the population, Nanuk is a stopping point. They’re staying there until it’s time to head back south.

Northern Manitoba along the Hudson Bay coast is a magical area for birds, where you get a ton of different species going up there for the season and departing back to the south in the fall. It’s one of those northernmost points, so it’s super interesting. It’s also interesting to look at the different ecosystems.

We don’t really have wolves in New England, for example. So we’re asking, what do the environments look like in terms of being healthy when you’re that far north? Wolves are controlling moose populations, they’re controlling beaver populations, depending on the pack of wolves you’re looking at. For example, moose populations, if left out of control, just like white-tailed deer, can go overboard and predate a lot of the vegetation on a much larger level than they do when their populations are stable. That vegetation is utilized by many different species of birds and animals to travel through, feed on, and do all sorts of different things. It’s all connected. So that’s one of the interesting relationships we’re looking at with Nanuk.

Churchill Wild: Where can we watch Flyway of Life?

Tomas Koeck: Our plan is to have our initial release in April 2025, and we’re going to play it in select theaters and venues around the eastern United States. We already have a couple lined up. For example, we have a really beautiful historic theater in Fairfield, Connecticut, that’s going to be a home base for the big premiere. Then we’re going to have some photo galleries, and we’re planning to release a photo book as well—all sorts of good stuff.

Once we get through that route, we’ll be working with different streaming services. We have a great team involved. It’s a bit of a family affair, and I don’t like to take family handouts. But I have an uncle named TC Schultz who will be in charge of this process. You can see all the people involved in the project on the website.

Gray wolf in fall colours. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Gray wolf in fall colours. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Churchill Wild: You’re pretty young to be going on these adventures. How did you make that happen?

Tomas Koeck: I’m very fortunate. I was interested in biology at a very young age. My parents have always been interested in nature, and a lot of my family is into the sciences, but I found that when I started studying biology in college, rather than studying science and nature in a lab, I much preferred to tell people about how interesting nature was. That’s when I picked up a camera, made a leap of faith, switched my major, and went full into media documentary production. One thing led to another.

I got some great endorsements from different camera brands through my work. For example, Canon USA endorsed me. They send me gear, and they’re part of a lot of the projects. I made a lot of great relationships with different scientific institutions and organizations like the National Audubon Society and went on assignments for PBS Nature, Smithsonian Channel, and National Geographic. So a lot of great opportunities have allowed me to film quite a few different animals, from great grey owls to great white sharks. I do a lot of shark filming, so I’ve been truly fortunate. It’s been a great time so far.

Churchill Wild: How did you get these major endorsements?

Tomas Koeck: I’m definitely a bit of a hustler. This is my passion, and I think about natural history production 24/7. Getting the Canon endorsement was big. Their gear is high end, so being able to utilize their gear and showcase their brand in a positive way where they feel that they’re getting something out of it is very rewarding for both parties.

Churchill Wild: What kind of cameras do you use?

Tomas Koeck: I use all mirrorless cameras. It’s the future right now because you can film cinema-quality footage from a tiny little mirrorless body. I’ll never forget the Smithsonian Channel assignment. Everyone was filming with those big red cinema cameras, and I showed up with my little Canon EOS R5. They weren’t laughing at me or anything like that, but they were wondering, “What’s this guy doing?” But at the end of the day, looking through all the footage, they looked through my footage and loved it. Two weeks later, they swapped some of their cameras for R5s on different assignments. It just goes to show that bigger isn’t necessarily better, especially in the natural history film industry, where you’re always on the go and often on long expeditions to get to places. Having a tiny weather-sealed body on your camera is fantastic. For much of my wildlife filming, especially at Nanuk, I used the Canon EOS R5, the Canon EOS R3, and a nice Canon EF 600 lens. It was a lot of fun, and the gear nowadays is just so nice to the point where it makes things a lot easier for everybody.

Churchill Wild: Can you tell us more about the Canon cameras you used?

Tomas Koeck: They handle both really well, especially the R3. And we were filming in full 4k. Sometimes we were filming in 8k, which is like a raw image. But this time it’s in video format, and it allows you to colour correct very well. There’s a lot of dynamic range. You can also shoot in 8k full internal raw, which allows you to get a lot of information out of that video. You can also film in slow motion. And the autofocus is absolutely fantastic. It all helped me make sure I got the high-quality images and film I needed for Canon.

Canon was very impressed with the images and footage we got. A big thanks to everyone at Nanuk who put in the work to help us get the material we needed. The first thing I realized about Nanuk is that we were working with exceptional professional guides who really understand the wildlife, and they work hard to get you those special shots. They set you up in a good place where they know the sun will be and where the animals are going to be coming out. They work really hard to try and put you in the best position to get the money shots you came up there for.

You have to be at eye level and at a certain ethical distance. That’s the other big thing about Nanuk, the people were really ethical. Ethical wildlife photography is particularly important to me because I’m endorsed by the Connecticut Audubon Society for being an ethical nature photographer. That’s hard to get. When you’re an ethical nature photographer, it opens a lot of doors for you because people trust you. Trust and honesty are super important to me. I don’t like cutting corners. So being able to go out with these guides and relax, knowing that they were going to do what’s best for the animal, made things a lot easier and more enjoyable.

Churchill Wild: Is all your photography done at ground level? What’s the difference?

Tomas Koeck: Yes, I refuse to shoot otherwise. If I were in a buggy filming a polar bear, I might take some pictures just for fun, but none would be feasible to show to Canon. I want something that’s National Geographic quality. You want images that catch the eye more than other work out there. I’m a competitive person, constantly striving to get better images. Filming and photographing at ground level is essential for me because it’s my style. It offers a view people aren’t used to seeing. You never know when a polar bear or wolf might do something unique, allowing for spectacular images.

Black bear. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Toma Koeck photo,

Black bear. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Toma Koeck photo,

Churchill Wild: What type of footage and photos did you get?

Tomas Koeck: The bird species were fantastic. People take them for granted, but Canada geese and snow geese are fascinating species. Seeing them in such high volume was interesting. We saw a lot of shorebirds like plovers, but also eagles, different birds of prey, and owls.

And we saw polar bears every two or three days. It was my first time seeing many things. The only northern footage I had before this was in Grand Superior National Forest, and it was cold. Most of my previous footage was in the south and the tropics. We saw polar bears every few days, but the crazy part was the black bears. In New England, you mention black bears, and everyone loses their mind, but up there, we saw black bears every morning and evening. It was just insane. I had to pinch myself because at one point, I’m looking at a black bear and I look away, thinking, “Oh, cool,” and then realize, “Wait, that’s a black bear.” They’re not the rarest bear in the world, but seeing them every day is unique. It was really cool.

And last but definitely not least, we saw wolves. We got some great wolf footage.

Churchill Wild: How were the guides at helping you get the shots you needed?

Tomas Koeck: The guides I had were Tyler Warkentin and Adam Reimer. Both were an absolute joy to work with. They complemented each other in different ways. Adam was a real naturalist. Both were naturalists, but Adam knew everything about the different plants, the shrubbery, and how the coastal systems work. With my interest in ecology, Adam was the perfect guide to talk about all these various aspects of the environment. Tyler was very dedicated. We had the goal of getting a moose, and we spent morning after morning, evening after evening, calling for moose and not getting anything. Then, on one of the last days, we got a big, beautiful bull moose. Both guides were great to work with, and just downright good people too. It was a lot of fun.

Big, beautiful bull moose at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Big, beautiful bull moose at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Churchill Wild: Was there any particular polar bear experience up there that stood out for you?

Tomas Koeck: There were tons of great polar bear encounters, but the one that stands out to me was when we were least expecting it. We were looking for moose. Tyler and I were hanging around a river, and our guides were always scanning, looking around to make sure polar bears didn’t sneak up on us. Suddenly, Tyler points out a polar bear walking around the river. The bear starts rolling around in the grass, sniffing and having a good time. It was really cute and interesting behavior. If you want to see wildlife do something special, you have to wait. But when they do, it’s always fascinating. This polar bear behavior was something you don’t expect to see. People usually think of polar bears as fierce and dangerous, which they are, but seeing them act like cuddly creatures was funny. That interaction stuck out in my mind the most. Photographing polar bears at ground level is a rare experience.

Churchill Wild: Did you have a favorite wolf interaction?

Tomas Koeck: Oh yes. My favorite wolf was one the staff called Scarface. He was one of the pack leaders, with a scar on his eye and a beautiful silver coat. He was like something straight out of Disney. He was fascinating to see, though he wasn’t as readily available as the others. He was always in the background as a leader. Seeing the pups interact with the parents was really cute, too. They looked like little dogs, which was neat. There were about 15 in the pack, and every interaction with the wolves was magical.

Churchill Wild: How did you find the accommodations, food, and service?

Tomas Koeck: It’s important to note that I didn’t sleep in the main area where all the guests were staying because I was there for so long. I didn’t want to take a spot for a potential guest. So I slept in one of the small cabins, which I thought was great. I’m a rugged guy. The accommodations for the guests were top-notch — beautiful, rustic, and high-end, but not so you feel taken out of the environment.

The great room or lounge is absolutely gorgeous. You have field guides everywhere to inspire your next sighting, magazines with former stories to get you excited about what’s out there, and a beautiful fireplace to warm you up after a long day outdoors. The staff was just top-notch, helping with anything you might need and making sure you were comfortable.

And the food—don’t get me started on the food. It was absolutely amazing. I especially loved the smoked chicken. You’re getting the works with every meal: great sides, entrees, desserts, and appetizers. I don’t really drink, but for those who do, they have beverages as well. The viewing platforms were awesome. You could go up to the top of the viewing tower with a nice pair of binoculars and see a polar bear in the distance, or an owl flying around or a northern harrier.

There’s a whole bunch of different wildlife you can see when you’re not even looking for it. It’s an absolute joy for anyone interested in wildlife and northern wildlife to visit. If there’s a criterion for the best operations for a lodge, Nanuk is as good as you’re going to get.

Northern lights over Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Northern lights over Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tomas Koeck photo.

Churchill Wild: What would you say to wildlife travelers, photographers, and filmmakers thinking about visiting Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge?

Tomas Koeck: By going with Churchill Wild, you get a mix of knowledgeable guides, friendly staff, and great facilities. Everyone respects the wildlife and treats them ethically. You’re surrounded by a wealth of knowledge about the wildlife and the natural world. It’s an ecotour for anyone’s bucket list.

For photographers and videographers, Churchill Wild has been doing this for a while, and there’s a reason organizations like National Geographic and BBC go to their lodges first. I’ve seen BBC and NatGeo pieces with the Churchill Wild logo, and it’s cool to see their gear in films.

Patience is essential. You never know what you’ll get, but don’t take the smaller things for granted. The animals at Nanuk are truly wild, with no fences or tracking collars. It’s a unique experience.

Churchill Wild: From your travels so far, what have you learned about nature, birds, wolves, and polar bears?

Tomas Koeck: I see myself as still very much a beginner because everything I learn just makes me realize how much I don’t know. But to put it in a nutshell, I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned on this project is that you’re really seeing the interconnectedness of all the different aspects of nature in an environment. Sometimes I’ll see something that contradicts everything I’ve learned. Whether you’re up at Nanuk in northern Manitoba filming the wolves and seeing how the wolves are impacting their environment, or filming in the Everglades in Florida, you start seeing how everything is connected. The water influences the birds in different ways, and the birds influence the different plants and animals in other ways.

Ecology is so important for everyone to learn because everyone thinks we’ve got to control this animal or that bug. In many cases, yes, for human health, we do have to take actions like that. But I would say in the majority of cases, as consumers and as regular people, we need to understand that there’s a balance to nature that, if we push too far off balance, it’s going to impact everyone, including us. Where you have suburban areas constantly introducing new chemicals and new animals, it’s a constant chase versus if we just leave the environment the way it is, which is significantly healthier.

One huge aspect I’ve been learning about ecology is how everything is truly interconnected. If one thing gets pushed off balance, another thing will be put off balance as well.

Churchill Wild: What do you have planned for the future?

Tomas Koeck: I’m working on a NatGeo piece about sharks, which will be released in July on Disney+ and National Geographic. I’m also a member of The Explorers Club, and I try to get involved with that organization as much as possible. We have filming to wrap up for the Flyway of Life project, and I’m preparing for my graduation from Sacred Heart University this August. I’ll continue focusing on wildlife photography and video, telling interesting stories, and showcasing the beauty of our natural world. That’s my number one priority.

Churchill Wild: Owner and co-founder Mike Reimer often talks about the Nanuk magic. Did you feel it?

Tomas Koeck: It is a magical, beautiful environment with a stark beauty that’s hard to describe. The only way to understand it is to experience it yourself. The presence of amazing predators adds a unique sense, and you have the boreal forest, tundra, flats, and a huge sky. It feels like you’re on a different planet. Going somewhere completely remote, almost untouched by human influence, was absolutely spectacular.

Tomas Koeck Photo Gallery. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

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