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Big, powerful polar bear at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Big, powerful polar bear at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

By George Williams

“The kindness of everyone at the lodges.”

That was the first thing Peggy Peregrine-Spear said to us when asked about her polar bear safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge last fall. We were expecting something related to polar bears, wolves and wildlife, but the “Polar Bear-A-Palooza” did come later.

Peregrine-Spear was part of a group on a specialized polar bear photo safari led by Canon Explorer of Light Charles “Chas” Glatzer and his clients. The trip was a blend of Churchill Wild’s traditional Fall Dual Lodge Safari and Polar Bear Photo Safari, with expert instruction from Glatzer.

Polar bear with Peggy Peregrine-Spear, Charles Glatzer, and their group at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Polar bear with Peggy Peregrine-Spear, Charles Glatzer, and their group at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Peregrine-Spear doesn’t consider herself a professional photographer, but her beautiful polar bear photos immediately caught our eye when she posted them on her Facebook page.

“I’m not at Chas’s level,” said Peregrine-Spear. “I have had some photos in magazines and have sold some prints on my website, but I wouldn’t say I’m amazing or anything. There’s a lot of exceptional wildlife photographers out there. I just do it because I love it.”

Now retired, the 60-year-old University of Wisconsin-Green Bay graduate comes by her wildlife photography skills naturally, having spent most of her life with animals. She’s originally from Wisconsin, where she raised, trained and bred Norwegian Fjord horses.

“My husband Mike and I raised our two girls there,” she said. “We also had miniature goats and miniature donkeys, chickens and eggs. It was like a hobby farm. And then when they finished high school, we moved to Utah. It’s beautiful here.”

Polar bears doing a little roughhousing on the Hudson Bay ice at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Polar bears doing a little roughhousing on the Hudson Bay ice at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Peregrine-Spear has now transferred her natural understanding of animals to wildlife photography. “I’ve always gravitated towards animals,” she said. “And now that we live in Utah, the focus has changed from domestic animal training to just observing wildlife behavior and photography.

“I’ve always had a way of understanding what’s going on with animals. And I found it really interesting with some of the polar bear behavior we saw at the lodges, the way the guides worked with the polar bears, and their responses.”

Peregrine-Spear had been to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge before with her husband, but not Seal River Heritage Lodge, and she got a bit of surprise when she arrived at Seal River.

“I was hoping and praying that I would have a really great trip with lots of sightings,” said Peregrine-Spear. “On my first trip to Nanuk I saw a few polar bears, but the weather and the bears had other ideas. They were hunkered down and they did not want to interact with us. But on the second trip, there were polar bears everywhere!

Polar bear audience at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Polar bear audience at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

“When we flew into Seal River there were two females playing on the runway. So when we landed, we didn’t get into the lodge for about an hour and a half. We didn’t have our camera gear, but they brought it out to us so we could photograph the bears. We saw bears every single day at Seal River, and multiple bears, not just one bear. I mean, I have a shot where there is one-two-three-four-five-six bears in it. They just all showed up at the same time.

“And then at Nanuk we had the wolves. That’s why I wanted to go back to Nanuk so badly, because I really wanted to get some shots of the wolves. And I know they’re not always there. We were just hoping some would come through the property.”

Peregrine-Spear had seen enough on her previous trip to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge to know the bears and wolves were there, but she wanted more, so when a friend mentioned she was taking a Churchill Wild trip with Glatzer, she jumped at the opportunity.

Relaxing day for a polar bear at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Relaxing day at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

“I have a friend, Julie Robideau, who had done workshops with Chas before,” said Peregrine-Spear. “She said she was going in the fall, and I just hoped there would be room for me. It was a great opportunity to be able to go to both lodges and especially be able to attend with Chas, so I seized upon it.”

The longtime friends roomed together at the lodges, and thoroughly enjoyed their time together.

Julie Robideau (left) and Peggy Peregrin-Spear at Seal River Heritage Lodge with polar bear friends.

Julie Robideau (left) and Peggy Peregrine-Spear at Seal River Heritage Lodge with polar bear friends.

“The wolves were out at Nanuk this time,” said Peregrine-Spear. “We had a couple of days with a black wolf and then two other wolves. A grey wolf and a kind of whitish wolf. But the black wolf came close to the lodge. The other two we saw intermittently, on the runway and down by the beach.

“So we got the three wolves and it was fabulous. And just sitting together with your group and hearing them howl while you’re all silent and everybody is just mesmerized by the sound. You just don’t know how to process that if you haven’t heard that sound so close before. And then to see the animals come within 10 feet of your vehicle, stop and acknowledge your existence, say hello, and then go on their way, is pretty amazing.”

There were also more highlights from Nanuk.

“We had a pretty interesting character,” said Peregrine-Spear. “A polar bear that really was hands on with everything. I don’t know if you saw the videos that were circulating of him, of him sticking his nose in the (300-year-old, 300-pound) cannon in front of the lodge and then pushing it down. We were there for that. And he did it a couple of times. And he’d come in and grab all the moose antlers, and then he’d be standing up looking in the windows. He was pretty funny. And he was there for quite a few days.

“It was a really great trip. We had a really fun time. And Chas always makes things fun and interesting. I’m actually doing another tour with him in August to Lake Clark to photograph the coastal brown bears.”

The advantages of going on a photo safari with an accomplished photo leader like Charles Glatzer are worth the extra price of admission according to Peregrine-Spear. “Each night he gave a technical talk, so you got to ask questions, or he’d give a lecture. And then you could ask questions about camera settings and features in your camera and composition and lightroom and Photoshop.

“He talked about a set thing, but then you could ask questions the entire time. And also, if you had any questions while you were on the trip or you had trouble in a certain setting, he was right there to help. And I actually had an accident with one of my lenses that got bumped off the bench and stopped working. So I was in a panic, and he lent me his lens for the remainder of Seal River.”

Battle scarred polar bear. Seal River Heritage Lodge (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Battle scars. Seal River Heritage Lodge (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

There was a thread of kindness throughout the trip, from the lodge staff and guides to Glatzer and the other guests in the group, which included eight people at Seal River and four that went on to Nanuk.

“There was another woman on the trip who wasn’t going to Nanuk,” said Peregrine-Spear. “And she gave me a lens that was the same as the one of mine that had stopped working, to use on the second part of the trip. I mean, it was just above and beyond. Both of them were so kind. I was very touched by that.”

Peregrine-Spear does several wildlife photography trips a year now up to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. “They’re not that far from where we live and there is quite a bit of wildlife in our area. So we have mountain wildlife and desert wildlife. I make a lot of trips to Utah and Wyoming to photograph wild horses.”

But the wildlife wasn’t the only reason Peregrine-Spear chose Churchill Wild.

Wow. Our first day at Seal River Heritage Lodge was amazing. My heart is full. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Wow. Our first day at Seal River Heritage Lodge was amazing. My heart is full. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

“My husband, Mike, doesn’t do photography,” she said. “He loves animals, just not as intensely as I do. He likes to observe the wildlife, and I thought that going to Churchill Wild, with the food and the wines and other opportunities to bond with people would be nice for him, because he likes to meet people. He came with me on the first trip to Nanuk. The second time was just for photography and it was different. This was intense photography, and that’s what I was looking for.”

Peregrine-Spear, like Glatzer, uses Canon cameras.

“I have an R3 and an R5,” said Peregrine-Spear. “They’re mirrorless, and they’re so much lighter. If you’re going to be doing tours like this, where you have to carry your gear, it really makes a difference. I used a 600-millimeter lens, and then I also had a 100 to 500. Sometimes the animals came pretty close, but the guides were really good. We didn’t walk up to anything. If something chose to come, it came. We didn’t chase the wildlife.”

But what did it feel like being on the ground with polar bears?

“I know this is bad, but I wasn’t afraid at all, not even for a second,” said Peregrine-Spear. “I was more excited about the opportunity and it was a really an amazing feeling. I never felt anything aggressive or ominous.”

Big polar bear at Seal River Heritage Lodge sacred others away. Peggy Peregrine-Spear photo.

When this new guy rolled into town at Seal River the other bears scattered. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

And the food and the service at the lodges?

“It was excellent,” said Peregrine-Spear. “Everyone there, they were all so nice. All the people that work there are so utterly kind. We spent a night in Churchill at the new Blueberry Inn. The woman who runs it, Christine, was amazing.

“The first time my husband and I went, the owners were there, and that was a treat, too. I mean, Mike (Reimer) was great. And then the second time we were there, it was a whole set of new people. And all the people that work there just went above and beyond with everything. And so comfortable and warm, with nice hot showers.”

The coxy warmth of the fire at both lodges can feel like heaven when the weather turns, but Peregrine-Spear was always prepared.

“The weather wasn’t too bad,” she said. “At Seal River we had one or two really freezing days, but other than that, the cold weather gear that they give you is really warm. And I was never freezing, but I did bring battery operated socks and I did have the heat gloves (that Glatzer sells on his website). They’re great. And he really paid attention to the design to make them photographer friendly.

“They gloves give you have a lot of different options depending on how you want to shoot. You have an outer shell, but then there’s a zipper so you can stick your hand out while still in a thinner kind of glove.”

Polar bear on the move at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

On the move at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Any other tips for people that might be thinking about traveling to the Churchill Wild ecolodges in the fall?

“Take the winter gear they provide for you,” said Peregrine-Spear. “It’s good, and because you get a limited amount of luggage. Just make sure you have a weather appropriate clothing, like layers. There’s no dress code, at least with Chas’s group and the people that I was with. You’re more concerned about the animals and having the experience than dressing up for dinner.

“With the photography tour, you get up, you eat breakfast, and sometimes we wouldn’t even get to finish because there were animals out there. So you’ve got to be ready to go and change your clothes and have your gear ready.

“I had some issues and Chas helped me through some things with my focus, it was hard. Also make sure that you have the right equipment for what you’re doing, such as your tripod and all your accessories. It’s hard to get that information, but if you have somebody that can assist you with that it’s worth doing.”

Male polar bear yawning as he watches us at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Male polar bear yawning as he watches us at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

And the difference between the two lodges?

“Well, at Seal River the lodge is right on the coast,” said Peregrine-Spear. “And most of that trip is walking and the bears come off the water and walk right by the lodge. Nanuk is further from the shoreline. So you do some walking or you drive to a place where you can get out and walk to where the bears are.”

Churchill Wild has about a 95 percent success rate of seeing polar bear, but Peregrine-Spear understood there were no guarantees before she got there, and she hit the wildlife jackpot at both lodges.

“I knew they were there,” said Peregrine-Spear. “But I also understand wildlife photography. You never know what you’re going to see. It’s not like you can just order up the animals. I It’s nature and its wildlife. There are times when I go to Yellowstone and miss incredible experiences by five minutes. But this trip was like polar bear-a-palooza. I mean, the bears were everywhere. And we didn’t go a day where we didn’t see wildlife.”

Polar bear friends. Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Polar bear friends. Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

And what would you tell friends or other people about the trip?

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” said Peregrine-Spear. “And that I would love to go back again, at a different time of year, just to see what it’s like. Julie and I have been talking about going back in a different season, for a chance to see more wolves at Nanuk.”

There is a certain period of time during the summer, when the wolves and their pups seem to gather at Nanuk.

“Yes, we were talking with the guides about that,” said Peregrine-Spear. “We saw some incredible videos of their experiences with the pack and the puppies.”

Polar bear at sunset. Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

Polar bear at sunset. Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

And there’s also the soulful feeling you get at Nanuk.

“Just being out there where no one else is around,” said Peregrine-Spear. “It’s wild. It’s truly wild. A really neat place to be with apex predators. It’s really a cool environment, a safe environment, and you can still be part of what’s going on.

“And the people in our group, they were just wonderful. As a photographer, if I were looking for somebody with specialized photography knowledge, I’d say Chas is like a savant when it comes to photography and especially technical things. I would recommend him highly.”

And what did people say when Peregrine-Spear told them she walked with polar bears? Did they think that was crazy?

“Yes, but it’s not,” she said.” It’s not like that to me. I’m sure there are people that get frightened just to be outside of the chain link fence. I guess that never occurred to me. But I am generally not afraid, although sometimes I probably should be. I feel I have a good handle on a lot of animals, reading body behavior. And I don’t do dumb things.

“My family was just elated for me. I kept sending them little things, and they’re like, mom, we’re so happy for you. And my husband was happy that I got to go back to and have a great experience.

This trip was over the top.”

Polar bear. Seal River Heritage Lodge. So silent. Padded feet on soft snow. So observant. So beautiful. I see you. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

So silent. Padded feet on soft snow. So observant. So beautiful. I see you. At Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Peggy Peregrine-Spear)

See more of Peggy Peregrine-Spear’s photos here:

The World's Greatest Arctic Safari

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