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Summer wolf pups at Nanuk. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Summer wolf pups at Nanuk. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

by George Williams

Tammy Kokjohn

Tammy Kokjohn

Tammy Kokjohn couldn’t believe it when she was told she’d won a trip for two on the Hudson Bay Odyssey at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in Churchill Wild’s 30th Anniversary contest last year. Then she lived it.

With polar bears, wolves and a rare interaction between the two.

We Have a Winner!

The 65-year-old retired owner of a dog grooming business in California goes by the name of @tammykokjohn Grandmothers for Nature on Instagram, and that’s where she entered the contest.

“I just saw it come up on Churchill Wild’s Instagram,” said Kokjohn. “I follow their page because I’ve always wanted to go there. We’d already done a Tundra Buggy® adventure in Churchill, but I’d always wanted to do a trip with Churchill Wild because I knew you could walk with the polar bears, be on the ground with them. And I love to photograph wildlife at eye level.”

Seeing polar bears at ground level was a dream of Kokjohn’s but she wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to do it.

“I saw the contest on Instagram, and I’m like, okay, I’m going to just fill this thing out and submit it,” said Kokjohn. “I never imagined that I would win, because I’ve never won anything like that ever in my life.”

Kokjohn missed the first phone call from Churchill Wild telling her she was the winner, and was curious as to why they had called.

“I’m thinking, why in the world are they calling me?” said Kokjohn “It just didn’t click in. So I called back and they said I’d won the trip. I didn’t think it was real at first. I was like, are you serious? You’ve got to be kidding me. I couldn’t believe it. All from a little form on Instagram. I was shocked. After we hung up, I’m thinking, I’m just going to wait and see if something more comes because this is just a phone call. I was still not sure I believed it, but it was real!

“I was just on cloud nine after our phone conversation and so excited, because the trip was only a few months away and I had to get things organized. They asked if I would be able to make it work on such short notice. And I thought, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t care what it takes; I’m going to make it happen no matter what.’”

Tammy and Tom Kokjohn.

Tammy and Tom Kokjohn.

First prize in the contest was a Hudson Bay Odyssey trip for two in the fall of 2023, and Kokjohn decided to take her husband Tom.

“We’ve been married for 47 years, and there’s nobody else I wanted to take more than him,” said Kokjohn. “We were kind of high school sweethearts, and we have two kids and six grandchildren now. I’m 65 and he’s 67.”

So the happy couple hopped on multiple planes and flew into the land of the polar bears at Nanuk.

Encountering Polar Bears and Wolves

“The wildlife sightings were amazing,” said Kokjohn. “I mean, it was incredible. I felt so fortunate to have that opportunity to see two apex predators, wolves and polars bears, and have great experiences with both of them.”

The highlights of the trip for Kokjohn were an interaction between a polar bear and wolves, the wolf pack and puppies, and a lone howling wolf.

“We had hiked from the lodge because we had seen a polar bear way off in the distance,” said Kokjohn. “We made our way out there with our two amazing guides. We just loved both of them. And we’re approaching the polar bear, and off to the left we saw several wolves were coming.

“Of course, we didn’t know if the wolves were going to interact with the polar bear. And they literally came so close to each other. Then they just skirted around us and the polar bear got up and watched them walk by, and it was just like, ‘Wow’. I was in awe. I didn’t know which way to look. Should I look at the wolves or the polar bear?

“I had never experienced anything like that, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?’ I think there were four to six wolves walking towards the polar bear. He was sleeping until they got closer. Then he got the scent of them, and he stood up. But you know, as they walked around the polar bear, I felt like they had a respect for each other. They walked around him and he just stood there and watched them. I had to pinch myself, it was so amazing.”

Polar bear shake. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Polar bear shake. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Kokjohn hit the triple with polar bears, black bears and wolves on her trip, and was especially enamoured by the wolf pack interactions and the puppies. The wolf pack isn’t always at the lodge, as it has a vast area to roam along the Hudson Bay coast and back into the Boreal forest, but when they are there, the interactions can be exceptional. It showed in Kokjohn’s photographs.

“With the wolves we had such great sightings,” said Kokjohn. “We got to sit with the whole pack and watch them sleep, and then they would get up and the interactions with the pups… I didn’t want it to end.

“I’m pretty certain we saw the wolves every day we were there. And to get to spend time with the pups was even more special. Honestly, it was like a dream come true, just to sit there and watch the wolves. It was truly incredible. Something I’ll never forget.”

Serious looking black bear. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Serious looking black bear. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Wildlife Photography: Loving Every Minute Of It

You’ll notice a certain level of emotion in the photos taken by Kokjohn, who uses a Canon EOS-1D Mark III, usually with a 600 mm lens. She’s been photographing wildlife for 10 years, but more seriously over the past five. Although primarily self-taught, Kokjohn took some continuing education courses in photography, and got some help with different techniques and settings from a close friend.

“She’s a really good photographer; she’s my age, and our sons went to school together,” said Kokjohn. “So we just started doing photography together, and once I just started it, I couldn’t stop. I caught the bug. I was going out every day to my local parks. There were so many places I hadn’t explored because I didn’t have a camera and I just didn’t think of them.

“I’ve always been an outdoor girl, but when I picked up a camera it opened up a whole other world for me. I feel like I see so many things in my camera that I may not have even noticed before, just by going out and being in nature every day.

“I pretty much just started getting out there and shooting on my own. Learning what to do and what not to do with the lighting and the settings etc. I love birds and I love wildlife, and I photograph a lot of birds because I feel like it’s very challenging and it tests my skills. But honestly, photographing the big mammals and the bears and the wolves is definitely my favorite thing ever.

“I’ve met so many more people through photography. It got me out exploring. It’s a great hobby. It really is. I love every minute of it.”

Group dynamics. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Group dynamics. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Group Dynamics

Kokjohn was part of a group that included a couple from Australia and a mother and daughter from Washington state. The group bonded quickly, not only in the field but also at the nightly dinners.

“I think the mom was 88 or 89 and she just tromped with us out on the trails; she hiked right along with us,” said Kokjohn. “She did everything everyone else did. She was amazing. We really had a fun group. I mean, we’ve kept in touch with each other through social media and such, but we all got each other’s names and numbers. We became such good friends, even though it was a short amount of time. It was just a really, really fun group.

“Honestly, the whole experience was exceptional, not just the wildlife, but the facilities and the staff. On the first night I think I requested a certain type of drink, and from that day on, they always had a drink like that for me. Just paying attention to every little fine detail like that. It felt so homey there, sitting by the fire in the evening. They just looked after you.

“And my husband loves to fish, and they were nice enough to take him to one of the local rivers to do some fishing. They don’t normally do that, but they just went above and beyond to make you feel good about everything. That was really special.

“The food was great, and the accommodations were perfect. It was just top notch from the time that we met for orientation and had our little meet and greet, to the end of the trip. I could never say anything negative about the whole experience. And on the last night we were there, we saw the northern lights. I mean, they just planned it perfectly.”

Wolf observing humans. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Wolf observing humans. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Safety First

Kokjohn and her group were able to get close to both the wolves and polar bears, and appreciated the experience of the guides.

“The guides were obviously exceptional, and they were all about safety,” said Kokjohn. “They were just really wonderful. We had two different guides and we enjoyed both of them. They made sure we were safe, and we stayed the appropriate distance away from the wildlife, but it was just an incredible experience. I would highly recommend it to anybody that could do it. That’s for sure.”

Did her friends back home think she was crazy for being on the ground with polar bears?

“When I shared my pictures on Facebook and Instagram people were in awe,” said Kokjohn “When you tell them that you’re on the ground with the bears they were like, ’Aren’t you scared?’ And honestly, I never felt fear. I felt perfectly safe, you know? Even though we were standing out there with this huge polar bear and with wolves, I always felt safe because I knew we were in good hands.”

Wolf emotions. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Wolf emotions. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Capturing Personality and Emotion

When you look at Kokjohn’s photos, you can see the emotion in the animals, especially the wolves. Is it something that can be learned, or does it comes naturally from years of working so closely with animals?

“There’s some truth to that,” said Kokjohn, who has both natural and learned ability to capture emotion. “But I also study my subjects beforehand, when I know I’m going to be photographing them. I try to learn about their behaviours and habits.

“I feel that by knowing more about your subject you have a better chance of capturing their personality. Of course, you can never predict anything with wildlife, but if you can learn a little more about their behaviours and their patterns, I think it helps you take better photos that display a little more emotion.”

Mom and cubs at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Mom and cubs at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Sharing the Love of Nature with Kids

Kokjohn added the name Grandmothers For Nature to her Instagram profile because she wanted to help children learn more about wildlife and gain a greater appreciation for nature.

“I love photographing wildlife, and I am so passionate about it now, that I want to share that with kids, because they are our future,” said Kokjohn. “They’re the ones who are going to take care of our wildlife, nature, and the world in the future. I share it with my own grandchildren; I share it with their friends, and I try to inspire kids to just get out, put their phones down, and enjoy nature. I’m actually really excited because my youngest granddaughter, who’s in the sixth grade, is taking a photography class, and her teacher has invited me to come into their class and give a presentation.

“Just trying to inspire kids to get out more in nature is so important. I think using your photography to show them the wildlife is a good way to help them  feel for the animals, and want to love them and respect them, and to do things to help protect them.”

Polar bear close-up. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Polar bear close-up. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Flying Home: White Wolves and Polar Bears

When guests fly from Churchill to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and back, the pilots will often look for wildlife along the way. If they see any they might even fly a little lower to give the guests a better view.

“We didn’t see anything coming in,” said Kokjohn. “But going out, our pilot flew lower and went back around because we saw a big moose. Then we saw tons of polar bears along the coastline. I don’t even know how many. We lost count.

“And what was really, really amazing, was that we saw the white wolf pack, which he said they don’t see very often. There must have been five or six of the white wolves, way down below us. So that was quite an experience. I wish I could have got a picture of them, because that was really amazing. That was the icing on the cake after everything else.”

The magic of Nanuk. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

The magic of Nanuk. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

The Nanuk Magic

There’s a certain soulful feeling you get while out on the landscapes around Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Churchill Wild owner Mike Reimer calls it the “Nanuk Magic”, and it’s very difficult to put into words. Did Kokjohn feel it?

“Yes, I absolutely felt it,” she said. “I was up early every day, as early as I could be. Nobody would even be even up yet. I just I didn’t want to waste any moment sleeping, I wanted to be out there. Even if it was halfway dark, I just wanted to be out there experiencing everything I possibly could.

“One morning, it had just started getting light, and a wolf showed up and stopped on the runway right in front of the lodge. I was on the patio deck, and it sat down right in front of me and started howling. Talk about a moment. It was just so magical.

“First off, you’re not in Yellowstone, where there’s zillions of people around, and if you see a bear, there’s going to be 200 photographers there. This was like, ‘Oh, gosh, yes.’  You really get spoiled at Nanuk. Not that I don’t love Yellowstone, but there’s so many people.

“So to experience Nanuk, so isolated and intimate, when it’s just you and nobody else, on a pristine, beautiful landscape with wildlife that’s right with you… There’s no experience like that I could ever imagine.”

Lone wolf howling. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Lone wolf howling. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

Unforgettable Moments

Kokjohn had difficulty picking out any one element of her trip that really stood out, as there was more than one.

“There were so many things that it’s hard to pick one,” said Kokjohn. “The polar bear with the wolves, I think, and the wolves interacting with each other. I’d seen wolves from a distance before, from far away, but we were literally right there with them. The polar bears I absolutely loved, but I’ve never experienced getting to be with a wolf pack, sitting there watching them and their interactions with each other.

“I have to say that was quite an amazing highlight, for sure. It’s something that will stay with me forever. And watching that lone wolf howling that morning. It was early, and I was out there by myself, and it was just a magical moment.”

"Just Do it." Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

“Just Do it.” Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tammy Kokjohn photo.

“Just Do It”

We’ve heard that line somewhere before, the mark of a winner.

“If you’re thinking of going to Nanuk, I would say don’t have any hesitation,” said Kokjohn. “Maybe sometimes it seems like it’s unrealistic, it’s too far away, and you have to take a small plane to get there. I honestly hate small planes, and I get nervous, but that would never stop me from going and experiencing something like this. Life is short.

Just do it.

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