Elite pet photographer Ellen Zangla and 2021 Young Wilderness Photographer of the Year Meline Ellwanger were on the Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge this spring. They wanted to photograph wolves at close range. Neither expected polar bears.
They got both.
The newly minted roommates barely had time to drop off their bags before bounding into the bush to discover a mom and cubs, and magical encounters with wolves would later take their breath away. When they caught it, we interviewed them, and both said it was their best wildlife trip ever.
This is their story.
Churchill Wild: How was your first day at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge?
Meline Ellwanger: Oh my God. We landed, and immediately the guides came to us and said, ‘Pack up, get your cameras, we’re going.’
Ellen Zangla: Mel and I dumped everything on the floor, got what we needed, and we were out because the chance to see polar bears was amazing.
Churchill Wild: And what did you see?
Meline Ellwanger: We saw a mom with two cubs. And we were very close.
Ellen Zangla: They were playing, they were nursing. We were super close, and it was a nice clear day.
Churchill Wild: So you were able to get some good photos?
Meline Ellwanger: Yes. And it was amazing because the whole group was so good, so willing to share. It was nice to see that no one was fighting for their spot. Everyone was willing to switch out for everyone because we were in the forest and there was a narrow view. There was one spot that was particularly good, and one person would be there, and then they’d ask, ‘Do you want to go? And we’d switch.’
Ellen Zangla: We were super lucky though too that the polar bears were still there. And she was gone the next day. She left. She made it out to the ice with both cubs.
Meline Ellwanger: We were also lucky that she was so relaxed with us. That was something I really loved about Churchill Wild. They never harassed or pushed the animals for the shot. If they saw any signs of the animals being stressed, they were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to back off and leave.’ And with the mom and cubs, she was sleeping, she was so relaxed. Totally cool with us.
And with the wolves, you know, we had one encounter where we had this lone wolf and we were like, ‘Oh, she has a cool colour, let’s try and approach her.’ But then she walked the other way, and the guides were like, ‘Okay, she’s stressed out, we’re going to leave her.’ She’s going that way and we’re going the other way, which was really nice to see.
Ellen Zangla: We were also fortunate that the mom and cubs were in an area that was relatively clear. She could have been much deeper in, and we would not have been able to get that close. And I 100% agree with Meline, and I say this in my pet photography too, I never want to stress a dog for a shot. If they’re showing signs of stress, you have to respect that.
Churchill Wild: You guys are obviously animal people.
Meline Ellwanger: Oh yeah. I mean, for me, it’s just like, second nature.
Ellen Zangla: Yes, this is my world, too, even though these are wild animals. I don’t want to stress them just to get a shot. It’s not worth it for me. And that’s what I really, really cherish about Churchill Wild. The care they have for the wildlife is immense.
Churchill Wild: Have you been on a lot of wildlife trips?
Ellen Zangla: Yes, I’ve been on many wildlife trips. Not as many as Meline, not as international, but I do travel a lot with one of my girlfriends who is a pet photographer in Minneapolis. And I’ve done some other organized trips.
Churchill Wild: Have you been to Africa or any of the other wild places?
Meline Ellwanger: I’ve been to Africa. I don’t even know how many times. Probably more than 10 times. I’ve kind of stopped going to Africa because the tourism has gotten really bad. It’s a place where people push the animals to get the shot. They have no respect for the wildlife. They just want to get really close and harass the animals. So I’m not having fun there anymore. It changed a lot after Covid. So many people have rushed there.
Ellen Zangla: If there’s a sighting, then everybody’s there and they’ll block the animals so that they can’t get out. And because everybody wants their shots.
Meline Ellwanger: That’s a chapter I’ve kind of finished and I think now I’m very into the Arctic. This trip has like expanded my love for the Arctic a lot.
Ellen Zangla: Cold weather photography is the best. Because of what you get to see. I like the frozen landscapes. I love the snow. I love the starkness of it. It also has the types of animals that I want to see, like wolves with their full coats in the winter. Just everything about it.
Churchill Wild: So you’ve photographed wildlife in Yellowstone. Anywhere else?
Ellen Zangla: I’ve been to Yellowstone. I’ve been to Alaska. I do more traveling in the US. I’ve been to Minneapolis and Wisconsin to photograph owls and sandhill cranes. And to North Carolina to photograph red wolves, but they were far away, and they were nervous and collared.
Churchill Wild: And Meline, have you been any place besides Africa?
Meline Ellwanger: Yes, I’ve traveled all over. I’ve been to Antarctica, Alaska, Finland, some places in Europe. I’ve been very lucky to travel a lot. I used to be super into Africa, the warm weather. I thought shooting in cold weather was kind of rough. It’s exhausting, it’s cold, and it hurts. But you know what? It’s the best. It’s just such a different scenery. I mean, the light, there are so many different minimalistic things you can do with your camera.
Churchill Wild: The light. You can get all kinds under cold and snow conditions. So you’re both appreciate different kinds of light?
Ellen Zangla: I’m a professional photographer. I have to be into light. I do almost all my pet photography outside but still use supplemental lighting for my portrait work. I also do a lot of action pet photography, which is very similar to photographing wildlife in action.
Churchill Wild: What kind of cameras do you use?
Ellen Zangla: Canon R5.
Meline Ellwanger: Nikon Z9.
Churchill Wild: Which is better?
Meline Ellwanger: They’re both good mirrorless cameras.
Ellen Zangla: I’ve always been a Canon shooter but used a DSLR before switching to mirrorless a couple of years ago. Mirrorless is better.
Meline Ellwanger: Yes, it’s different. It’s better. The technology is much faster, more accurate.
Ellen Zangla: You don’t get the shutter shake, and they’re quieter.
Churchill Wild: So day one was the polar bear. That was obviously awesome. How was the first time going out to see a polar bear?
Ellen Zangla: The whole time the guides are cruising and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Please still be there. Please still be there. Please still be there.’ Then when you’re walking, and you’re hoping, but we didn’t have to walk very far. If they were deeper in the woods, we might not have been able to see them.
Meline Ellwanger: I’ve seen polar bears with cubs before. And every time, it’s just so special. Getting a glimpse into these apex predators’ lives is incredible. You see their soft side, the mom nuzzling with the cubs, and it’s really special. And for me, I always think, ‘I’m one of a handful of people that get to witness this.’ There’s a very, very small pool of people that have ever done this.
Churchill Wild: About 5,500 people have walked with polar bears at our lodges.
Meline Ellwanger: I consider myself lucky. That’s even rarer.
Ellen Zangla: Seeing cubs that young is really rare. And being on the ground with them is even rarer.
Meline Ellwanger: It’s crazy. Basically impossible.
Churchill Wild: So, after day one with the polar bears, you come home for your first day at dinner with everyone, How was that experience?
Meline Ellwanger: Dinner was awesome. You get to meet and talk to everyone.
Churchill Wild: Who was in your group and where were they from?
Meline Ellwanger: Christoph and Fabienne Jansen from Switzerland, Frank Ennekens from Belgium, Andrew Goldberg of New York, and Siyu Liu and Wei Du from Pennsylvania. I’m from Germany and Ellen is from Virginia. And Jad (Davenport) is from Colorado.
Churchill Wild: And how did the other people feel about it, did they enjoy it?
Ellen Zangla: I think everybody had the best trip ever.
Meline Ellwanger: Yes.
Churchill Wild: So the group gelled quickly?
Ellen Zangla: I think so.
Meline Ellwanger: I think we clicked very fast. Everyone was very passionate about what we were doing, which was great. And at dinner, everyone’s talking and Jad’s telling stories. Everyone was telling stories. We were all having such a good time, so we clicked very fast.
Ellen Zangla: What was nice was that everybody had the same goals. Sometimes you might be on a trip where you’re going to be standing outside at minus 40, right? Some people might see the bears and want to go back after half an hour. No one was like that on this trip. Everybody wanted to stay out.
Churchill Wild: Did you get hungry out there? Did they have cookies and coffee for you?
Meline Ellwanger: They had everything.
Ellen Zangla: Yes. Everything. But when you’re out there shooting and you’re so focused, when you’re working outside, it’s like when I’m doing my dog photography. I don’t think about food. I don’t get hungry.
Churchill Wild: So you saw the polar bears the first day, what about the wolves? What happened the next day?
Ellen Zangla: We went back to see if the mom was still there, and she was gone. She made it back out onto the ice with both cubs. They saw the tracks.
Meline Ellwanger: We saw one wolf that day, when we were driving back. She was sleeping, all curled up 10 metres from us.
Ellen Zangla: She just looked at us…
Meline Ellwanger: And then went back to sleep. I mean she literally did not care about us being there at all. She opened her eyes, looked up us at once, and then just went back to sleep. Jad put it nicely when he said, ‘We found a sleeping wolf and we left a sleeping wolf.’
Ellen Zangla: We didn’t harass her to the point where she got up and left. She was sleeping. And when we left, she was still sleeping in the exact same spot. So I really liked the way Jad put it. We took some photos and then we were like, okay, she’s sleeping. Let’s just leave her alone. And then the rest of the day was kind of quiet, but there was something every day. The next day was when the wolves came to the lodge.
Meline Ellwanger: The wolves were everywhere. It was awesome. We were eating breakfast in the dining room. It was in the morning. And Adam (Reimer) said ‘The wolves are here. Just put on your parkas, grab your cameras, and come out.’ So everyone puts on their parkas and I’m the last one to go out. I just get on to the deck, at the top of the stairs, and Adam says, ‘Okay, Meline, don’t move.’ And I turn around and there’s a wolf is at the bottom of the stairs.
Churchill Wild: How far was he from you?
Meline Ellwanger: He was quite close. I looked down at him and he looked right in my eyes. You could see the blood on him. And then he kind of backed off and I went down the stairs into the compound too.
Churchill Wild: How many wolves were in the compound?
Ellen Zangla: Three. The guides said they’d probably come in off a moose kill, but they never found it.
Meline Ellwanger: And then the wolves went out on to the ice. We followed them see what they’re doing. And then they all went to sleep on the ice.
Ellen Zangla: They were only a stone’s throw from the lodge if I had a strong arm. They were close. So we went out onto the ice and kind of hung out.
Meline Ellwanger: Went out to them in the Komatik. We got out, walked a little bit, took some photos, and just waited to see if they were nervous. We got pretty close and they were happy and satiated and sleeping. So we went back and had lunch and came back. That’s when they started become a little more active.
Ellen Zangla: We’re just kind of hanging out and one would get up, and they would nuzzle a little bit or roll, you know how dogs roll around. So there was a little bit of stuff going on, but then they all got up and started mingling, and then started coming towards us. And the guide said, ‘Get up and get tight.’
Meline Ellwanger: Twelve wolves surrounded us. One starts coming and they’re literally walking right towards you. And then all of them are everywhere.
Ellen Zangla: It was surreal. This is Wednesday when this is all happening, when they’re all on the ice and then they approach and surround us. But I had a dream on Tuesday night that a huge gray wolf was running right towards us. The pack had been hanging out but then approached us kind of slowly and they started heading towards the lodge, but they weren’t super tight. One of them was off to the right howling. And then suddenly, another wolf popped up and starts running towards us exactly like I dreamed. She started howling because the pack was gone. It was like she was asking, ‘Where did you guys go?’
Meline Ellwanger: And then she ran to the pack, but she was running full-on.
Ellen Zangla: It was amazing to have a gray wolf running at us. It was more exciting than scary. She wasn’t running at us to hurt us. She was just running and asking, ‘Did you guys see where the rest of my pack went?’ But then they did reunite. They were all wagging their tails. She thought they had left her, but they would never leave her.
Meline Ellwanger: We also found a dead otter and thought the wolves had killed it, but they didn’t eat it. We think the pups killed it and played around with it. We even set up a trail camera on it, but the wolves chewed on the camera it and broke it.
Ellen Zangla: We went back to pick up the card from the trail camera a couple of days later, and the whole pack was there. They came towards us again. We met them multiple times on our way back to the lodge.
Churchill Wild: That’s incredible. Every day was filled with wolf encounters?
Meline Ellwanger: Yeah, it was amazing. We had three amazing encounters. We saw the wolves at least four times. We had the first encounter with one sleeping wolf. The next day they came to the lodge and we spent the day with them on the ice.
Churchill Wild: This was our best wolf trip ever. Even the guides said they’ve never had a trip like this before.
Ellen Zangla: Yes, even Christoph and Fabienne (17-time Churchill Wild guests) said it was their best wolf trip ever.
Meline Ellwanger: We expected maybe one close encounter with a wolf, but we had four.
Ellen Zangla: And when they were close, they were playing. It showed how comfortable they were with us. I went on a week-long trip to Yellowstone and didn’t see wolves at all. The photographer who led the trip had three back-to-back trips over about a month, and he only saw wolves once: for the first hour of the first day of the first trip. But here, it was completely different. At some points, the wolves were so close I couldn’t get the whole wolf in a shot.
Meline Ellwanger: Every day was filled with incredible encounters. Even yesterday was remarkable. We were following the wolves slowly, and as we arrived at the lodge, they arrived there too. It was like we were walking side by side with them.
Ellen Zangla: We also spotted them on a ridge. They noticed us and left, but we managed to get ahead of them and waited. The guides told us they were coming, and when they arrived, they were so close. I had to zoom out to a hundred mm on my lens, and I still couldn’t fit the entire wolf in the frame. They were that close.
Churchill Wild: How big were the wolves? 120 pounds.
Ellen Zangla: They’re probably a little bit bigger than that. And they had incredibly long legs.
Meline Ellwanger: Yes, they were very tall. And very fluffy. Massive.
Ellen Zangla: Very big. And their feet are huge.
Churchill Wild: You have both traveled a lot, seen lots of wildlife. What was it about this trip that was special for you?
Ellen Zangla: Wolves. Up close. When I was in the Outer Banks with the red wolves, they were really far away. The wolves at Nanuk were close, and they look right at you. I can show you so many photos. It’s a relationship. Like you’re photographing a moment with them. It’s not like a snowy owl looking at you from a million miles away. It’s like an emotional attachment, like with a dog.
Meline Ellwanger: I’ve traveled my entire life and I’ve been very fortunate to see many places that people never get to, but this was definitely my most memorable and most favorite trip ever. And it’s partly because of how ethical everything was managed. I’ve never been with a group of people that are so dedicated to what they do, that love what they do, and so knowledgeable. I could ask them anything and they’d answer. And it felt like… I know we were only there for seven days, but it felt like we were a family, even with the guides. They ate dinner with us, which made it so much better.
Ellen Zangla: I love Adam (guide Adam Reimer).
Meline Ellwanger: And Nicole (Lodge Manager Nicole Spinks) too. Nicole’s my friend. You were just really integrated with the whole staff, which you don’t get often on these trips. Usually, the staff eats by themselves and the guests eat separately. We all ate together.
Ellen Zangla: From start to finish, this was amazing. Sue (Brown) was fantastic. This is more from a business perspective because I’m a businessperson. She would answer every question. So, I would say from start to finish, the whole experience, that you guys run a phenomenal business. You can’t control what we saw. We might not have seen any wolves. We might not have seen a polar bear. But everything under your control was awesome. But everybody, the staff, were friendly, kind, polite, and genuinely caring.
Ellen Zangla: So my little diva part is my breakfast latte every morning. I can’t drink dairy milk and use it for my coffee every morning. So when I filled out my form I noted that if Churchill Wild could get any type of non-dairy milk for me, that would be awesome. So every morning I was able to have an almond milk “latte” (microwaved milk with regular coffee). And every morning when I walked into the lodge, Nicole or Jackie would make it for me, often without me even asking. And it’s little things like that that make a huge difference because it just makes you feel at home and comfortable. It makes you feel cared for, like you’re not just another guest. That’s why Meline and I got along so well because I had my coffee every morning. 😊
Churchill Wild: How was the food?
Ellen Zangla: I’m mostly a vegetarian. I eat fish but I don’t eat things like beef or chicken. And everything was great. But Nicole made these biscotti that were so good, and we both loved them. So what we said was, you know, those biscotti are really awful. We’re only eating them to make Nicole feel better. And then we’d sneak a few more.
Meline Ellwanger: I pretty much ate everything, but it was the care they put into the food.
Churchill Wild: So I guess, is there anything you would recommend for other women thinking about traveling with Churchill Wild?
Meline Ellwanger: I felt very comfortable. I’m 19 right now and often traveling internationally can be very scary. But with Churchill Wild, I felt completely comfortable and integrated. They had so much fun with me.
Ellen Zangla: If you’re into photography and if you are willing to stand outside when it’s minus 40, this is my language, but who cares. It doesn’t really matter if you’re male or female. Like, why would you not go? It never even crossed my mind to not go by myself.
Meline Ellwanger: Well, for me, as a 19-year-old, I’m often looked down upon because I’m often with older people.
Ellen Zangla: You’re always with older people.
Meline Ellwanger: I’m literally always with older people. And usually, they look at me and they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s this child doing here? What does she know?’, and so it can be really hard for me to be in groups sometimes. Not always. I’ve had great experiences with others. But with this group, they didn’t care that I was just 19. I felt so comfortable. It was like a little family. I’m so connected. Especially with Christoph, Fabienne, Ellen, and Frank. We were like a really tight group. I’ve got all their numbers, and I know that we will travel together again.
Meline Ellwanger: But, you know, with them, it was fun because they didn’t care about my age. They were just like, ‘Well, she’s part of the group. She’s fun.’ And I could explain some stuff on their phones, which is cool.
Ellen Zangla: Yeah, and we got to learn new language.
Churchill Wild: So this was supposed to be a wolf trip, like a citizen science thing. Did you guys do any citizen science kind of thing?
Meline Ellwanger: Oh, it was awesome. We learned a lot about wolf behaviour, and tracking and identifying scat. And Jad did an awesome job. He would always stop, look at different tracks, show us when they were running, trotting, walking. Which way they were looking. And he also did that for other animals too.
Ellen Zangla: What’s great about Jad too, is that he asked a lot of questions. Like, ‘Okay, so you see this here, what do you think it means?’ And he was always super encouraging. No matter what your answer was. He was always genuine. It wasn’t put on.
Meline Ellwanger: Yes, Jad was great at encouraging us to ask questions and getting us to share our thoughts. It was a really educational experience.
Churchill Wild: Both of you felt an emotional connection with the wolves?
Meline Ellwanger: One hundred percent.
Ellen Zangla: They look right at you. They were trying to communicate with us.
Meline Ellwanger: There was definitely a connection with the wolves. We were so close, so may times. And they were so relaxed. They were engaging in all their normal behaviours, doing all the things they would even if we weren’t there. It’s just this overwhelming feeling of standing eye to eye with an apex predator.
Ellen Zangla: They’re predators and you’re prey. But I never felt unsafe. But to say that when they were approaching us, for me, at least when we were in that group… I wasn’t scared, but it was definitely surreal. You’re looking at them from such close range. They’re apex predators. They’re wild animals. And you need to be very aware of that.
Churchill Wild: You’re both very active on social media. Meline, you have 256,000 followers on Instagram. And Ellen, you had a lot of comments on your posts on Facebook. How does that happen?
Meline Ellwanger: I won an award for one of my images, which gave me a big boost on Instagram. It was a photo of some gorillas. And then I had some videos that just went viral. I know I’m super lucky with what I’ve been able to do as a young person and people just seem to like what I’m doing. They’re super fascinated by my work and by my life. Many people just really love seeing wildlife. I go to places where many people can’t go and I’m able to share the beauty of our planet with them. Some of my friends at school couldn’t believe some of the things I was doing.
Ellen Zangla: I’m more active on Facebook. And it’s different for me. I’m using it for my business. And my audience is more on Facebook. So most of my following is based on my pet photography. They love animals.
Churchill Wild: How did this trip compare to Yellowstone?
Ellen Zangla: Wow. If I could only do one of the two? It’s this trip, hands down. They were both great experiences, and they were different. We were very fortunate on this trip. We got to see the wolves frequently and really close up. At Yellowstone, we might have heard them howl once, and that was it. With Yellowstone, you obviously get a lot of variety, so we saw bison covered in snow and other wildlife.
Churchill Wild: You’ve been on a lot of trips with different roommates. It’s probably good and bad, right? How was it for you being roommates on this trip?
Ellen Zangla: Meline was great.
Meline Ellwanger: Ellen was awesome. When you’re going into a trip and you’re going to have a roommate, you’re always worried about whether you’re going to have a good roommate. When you live with another person, you wonder going in. Are they messy? Are they loud at night? Do they snore? But we met, and it was just easy. We just clicked.
Ellen Zangla: You’re also on the go the whole time, but both of us, I think, are very similar, right?
Meline Ellwanger: Yes, we’re very respectful.
Ellen Zangla: But we’re also all in on photographing wildlife. Neither one of us wanted to take a break to come back for lunch. And our motivation for being there was exactly the same.
Churchill Wild: It sounds like an incredible experience. We’re glad you had such a memorable trip.
Meline Ellwanger: It truly was. We had so many amazing encounters, so many close interactions. It exceeded all our expectations.
Ellen Zangla: Definitely. This trip will always hold a special place in our memories. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I’ve always loved wolves, so for me this was a dream come true. Even if I couldn’t have picked up a camera, I still would’ve been happy just because of the experience, the relationships with the wolves.
Churchill Wild: On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate your experience at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge?
Meline Ellwanger, Ellen Zangla (in unison): Off the charts.
Ellen Zangla: Best. Trip. Ever.