Story and Interview by Jad Davenport, National Geographic Creative
Photo Essay by Dr. Virginia Huang
It’s a very elite club of explorers who venture into the Arctic during the beautiful – but brutal and unpredictable – winter. The guests that joined us at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge on this year’s Polar Bear Den Emergence Quest in March were no exception. Among the small group to take on the challenge this year were a French wildlife photographer based in Japan, a museum curator from Easter Island and plastic surgeon Virginia Huang from Washington State.
The challenge is huge. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge sits in the heart of a wilderness 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. And even though it boasts one of the highest den concentrations of polar bears in the world, you can’t just drive up to the pre-flagged dens and wait in heated vans for the bears to emerge. You have to hunt for them as they make their perilous journeys from their inland dens to the sea ice of the Hudson Bay, along the way dodging a gauntlet of wolf packs.
Over the course of two weeks, Churchill Wild co-owner Mike Reimer and tracker Albert Saunders put in long days on the snow machines searching the interior forests for bear tracks. Meanwhile, along the coast, guides Andy MacPherson and Josh Robson, and myself as a photo guide, towed guests on wooden Komatiks (Inuit cargo sleds) behind snow machines. We also brought along a drone, a new and indispensable tool for both searching for tracks and evaluating animal approaches.
During the two weeks, we saw and photographed dramatic snow-dune landscapes, caribou herds (on the flight up), packs of black wolves, an army of red and silver foxes, a ghostly arctic fox, flocks of ptarmigan, a herd of moose and several great gray owls. The most exciting encounter was a wolverine that came right up to the lodge deck and sniffed around.
Eventually the ground and air tracking paid off. We were fortunate to have an hour-long encounter with a mother and twin cubs. We photographed her first from the Komatiks as she emerged from the forest and checked us out. After she had left the treeline and we could move without spooking her, we found her again from the drone, set up on the coast and photographed her leading her cubs onto the sea ice.
As my editor at National Geographic once said, “Getting one pretty shot is easy. The magic happens when you give the reader the whole story.” Dr. Virginia Huang captured that magic. A plastic surgeon in in Vancouver, Washington, she’s a veteran of several other trips to Churchill Wild lodges. Virginia embraced the challenging conditions – the long days on the snow machines, the -30F temperatures, the tedium of scanning the coast through binoculars for hours.
Her wonderful image of the mother bear and two cubs in the snowstorm was one of my favorites. But it’s her complete photo-essay that truly stands out – the nightscape of the Aurora Borealis with a lone figure in the Nanuk tower, the image of two wolves greeting one another, the portrait of Mike and Andy consulting their GPS, the dreamy landscape of the snow dunes rolling off to the sunset, the ptarmigan half-hidden in the willows. Enjoy Virginia’s photo-essay and interview below!
Den Emergence Q & A with Dr. Virginia Huang
Dr. Virginia Huang is a plastic surgeon in Vancouver, Washington. She is an avid wildlife photographer, having traveled all over the world including Africa, the Galapagos, the Pantanal in Brazil, Patagonia, and Borneo. National Geographic Creative photographer Jad Davenport interviewed Virginia after the Polar Bear Den Emergence Quest and below is what she had to say. Thank you Jad and Virginia!
Jad Davenport: What inspired this trip for you?
Virginia Huang: I was inspired to take this trip for the challenge of it. It is not called a “Quest” for nothing, I knew the conditions would be harsh and there were no guarantees of seeing the mother polar bears and their cubs. This was going to be an expedition that few have done or would be willing to undertake. Nevertheless, I trusted the Churchill Wild team because I had been on a trip with them to Dymond Lake Ecolodge.
Jad Davenport: What surprised you most about Churchill Wild and the Arctic in winter?
Virginia Huang: I was surprised by how quickly the weather conditions could change. I was also surprised at the wide variety of wildlife we were able to see that is able to survive such harsh conditions.
Jad Davenport: What equipment were you shooting with?
Virginia Huang: I was shooting with the Olympus OMD EM1 Mark 2 and it performed wonderfully in these extreme conditions.
Jad Davenport: Any piece of clothing, travel or photo gear you particularly loved?
Virginia Huang: The sleds were a great way to safely transport photographers and all of their gear in relative comfort.
Jad Davenport: What was your favorite photo you made on this trip and why?
Virginia Huang: My favorite photo had to be the one I took of the mother polar bear and her cubs. It showed the interaction between the mother and her cubs as well as their playful nature.
Jad Davenport: What’s your advice to people considering going on this trip?
Virginia Huang: Follow all of the advice that Churchill Wild gives you about clothing, it is vital to your comfort on the daily excursions, be sure to bring plenty of chemical hand warmers. This is an expedition and many factors will be beyond Churchill Wild’s control, however, they will do a fantastic job of managing the logistics in a very difficult environment. If you love a challenge and seeing a wide variety of wildlife (in addition to the polar bears), this a the trip for you.
Jad Davenport: What was the hardest part of the whole experience?
Virginia Huang: The hardest part of the experience was trying to keep my hands warm while taking pictures.
Jad Davenport: Can you describe a typical day on the shoot?
Virginia Huang: The typical day begins with a gourmet breakfast followed by loading the guests and their photography equipment into the sleds and going out by snowmobiles in search of wildlife. The scouts usually have gone out earlier and will give guidance as to where we will go based on their sightings. Many times we will have lunch out in the field. Our guides usually built fires for warmth at lunch time. We would get back by sundown and have a happy hour followed by a gourmet dinner and wine.
We would crash in our beds totally exhausted but would somehow summon the energy to get up if the Northern Lights put on an appearance. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is very cozy and I was amazed to learn that Stewart and his staff were hauling 500 gallons of water a day for the guests as the well was frozen this time of year. Hard to believe we had hot showers and flush toilets in a lodge that was located 220 km from the nearest town!