“I took a bunch,” said Wedel. “You’ll have to define what’s usable. No, I’m just kidding. I got some polar bears. It’s hard to make me look good. Photoshop can’t even help me. But I’ve shown them to people and they like them.”
Wedel was too humble.
“I took one of a polar bear standing on its back legs,” he said. “That’s the first one I’ve got of a polar bear standing up like that. And I got one of the mom and cubs nursing. They’re sitting on a bank and the baby is kind of leaning up against the mama. I got another one of the babies sitting right next to the mother, one of them walking towards us, and another of a mom and baby bear in the water.”
Wedel’s first trip with Churchill Wild was the Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake Ecolodge about nine years ago. He followed that up with a visit Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in September of 2016, when Nanuk was really starting to become known for its diverse wildlife including polar bears, black bears, moose, wolves and more.
So how did the three experiences compare?
“The staff was outstanding at all three,” said Wedel. “Everybody was just very wonderful, very pleasant, very personable and helpful. It was different because I was at Dymond Lake in November, and we got some really good light. I got some pretty good pictures. I enjoyed all the lodges, and I’d like to go back to Seal River, but I’m coming back up again in November to Nanuk for the Polar Bear Photo Safari and the Cloud Wolves.”
Wedel has been to the town of Churchill six times to see polar bears.
“A century ago when I was young and handsome,” he said. “I was never handsome, but I was young. I worked with a lady who loved polar bears, and I was just starting to get into photography semi-seriously, and she said, ‘Oh, you have to go to Canada and do the Tundra Buggy®.’ So my first three trips were on the buggies, but I noticed that the company I booked through also brokered trips for Churchill Wild. So I thought, well, what the heck, I might as well go chase a polar bear and maybe a polar bear will chase me.
“So I booked a trip with Churchill Wild at Dymond Lake, the Great Ice Bear Adventure. And you get a Tundra Buggy® day at the end of that safari. I’ve been asked, what’s better tundra buggies or hiking the tundra? They’re just different. It’s a different way of looking at the bears. But I’m a fan of Churchill Wild and I really want to do the wolves.”
Wedel has photographed wolves at a game farm in Minnesota, but says it’s not the same as photographing wolves in the wild.
“It’s in their eyes,” said Wedel. “The wolves in Canada are different than the captive wolves. You can tell when a wolf has been raised in captivity. I’ve seen the wolves up there. Those are a wild animals looking for food and they’re trying to survive. It’s a whole different thing.”
When Wedel was working as a pilot for American Airlines, he’d go on about one photography trip a year. Now he has a little more freedom, and polar bears at ground level aren’t going to scare him away. But what about the small planes he flew into the Churchill Wild ecolodges on. Could he fly one?
“I grew up in the aviation industry,” said Wedel. “I flight instructed, I charter flew. I flew night freight. Yeah, if I had to do it, I could get it on the ground, it probably wouldn’t be pretty but I could do it.”
Wedel started to take photography more seriously during the mid 1990s, and the 67-year-old had no problem hiking the tundra in 2023.
“The hikes were a little tougher than they used to be,” said Wedel. “But I work out pretty much every day, and they weren’t too bad. I probably actually lost some weight up there, even though I was eating all the desserts. The food was great, way too good.”
Returning in the snowy November cold for the Polar Bear Photo Safari and the Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast shouldn’t be a problem for Wedel, who grew up on a farm near a small town in Madison, Wisconsin. “I’ll just put another layer of clothes on,” he said.
Wedel travelled to Seal River on his own, and will do so again on his fourth and fifth trips with Churchill Wild this November. “I’m a single guy,” he said. “I pretty much come and go as I please.”
Like the polar bears at Seal River?
“They kind of come and go too,” said Wedel. “It’s just part of the trip. We saw a bear on the first night I got there. The guides knocked on my door. It was pretty early and I was up anyway. I went out into the dining room and they said, ‘There’s the bear.’ And I’m looking way out on the horizon, like, where? And then I look down and the bear is 30 meters from the lodge. We didn’t go out into the compound that night. We didn’t want to scare the bear off. It amazes me because they’re the biggest son of a gun in the valley, but they spook pretty easily.”
“We saw a female that came in,” continued Wedel. “We had a day out with the babies, and then we had a sunny day out with the belugas and saw a mother swimming with her baby. That was nice. The bears kind of come and they kind of go. It’s just part of the trip. The guides were great. Everyone was just fantastic.”
Wedel uses a Canon Seven D Mark II with a 100 x 400 lens, which allows him to get close-up shots, and he’s always looking for that something special in his photos.
“I think I got 1,300 polar bear photos on this trip,” said Wedel. “It’s a lot to sort through. I take 50 shots and say ok, that’s one. Some of them I’m shooting just because the bear will turn a little different, will look a little different. I’m always looking for something that’s a little unique.”
We asked Wedel what his friends thought about him walking with polar bears.
“Well, it’s crazy walking with polar bears, but that’s okay,” said Wedel “People will kind of look at you weird when you tell them you’re out walking with the bears. Then I’ll tell them about the trip, that you go out with experienced guides, and they’ve got rocks that they click, and all sorts of ways they deter the bears from getting to close. Because not only do you not want to get attacked by the bear, but you don’t want to disturb the bear. You don’t want to stress it. So I tell them that it’s all done very safely.
“I mean, the first time you see a polar bear at ground level within 100 yards, it’s a bit unnerving for some people. But you always felt safe with the guides. I remember at Dymond Lake, there was a bear sleeping. So we were walking out, very quietly, and the bear got up and looked at us and bolted, and we were probably 200 yards away. I’ve learned that they actually can be fairly skittish.
“The next time we went out, we all went out in the single-file line, and we stopped. We all spread out and took our pictures and got back in the line. And again, we probably didn’t get within 100 yards so. I never, ever felt unsafe.”
Does he recommend walking with polar bears to his friends?
“Heck yes,” said Wedel. “I can go to a zoo and see a polar bear, but you can’t see them in the wild. It’s just the whole experience of being out in nature, being out there with the bears, seeing them sparring and interacting with each other. And that’s really cool. I can watch it on the BBC and documentaries, but it’s not like being there.”
Wedel’s group had an international flavour to it, and included a German couple with their two boys, two people from Switzerland, a Chinese lady who had lived in the States for 35 years, her niece and her niece’s daughter, and two guests from Australia.
“I was kind of the token North American,” said Wedel. “And everybody got along great. We played a game called ‘How Big Is it?’ and we broke up the group into teams of three. There was a clothesline strung between two poles and we had to guess the size of things like the wingspan of a Sandhill crane, the length of a beluga whale, and put the clothespins on the line. Whoever got the closest got points. We had Team Europe, Team Mama Bear… we had a really good time.”
Strangely, for a pilot, Wedel doesn’t really enjoy the travelling part of his adventures.
“I absolutely hate traveling,” said Wedel. “Going through security and grabbing my bag and going through customs, it’s all a hassle. But once I’m at the lodge I’m really good. I love being there. The staff is wonderful. Everybody is just really fantastic.”
Wedel will be taking part in the Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in the fall, flying out for a short stay at Churchill Wild’s new Blueberry Inn in Churchill, and then flying back into Nanuk for the Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast safari, where he’ll meet 17-time guests Christoph and Fabienne Jansen of ArcticWild.net, and National Geographic photojournalist Jad Davenport, who is also Churchill Wild’s Director of Wolf programs.
“I’ve met Jad once before,” said Wedel. “He was leading another group up there but he talked to everyone in our group. We had some unbelievable northern lights and he was out with everybody, helping people with their point and shoots to get photos. And he helped me with some lighting. Jad was great.”
Being from Wisconsin, Wedel is huge fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, but he did live in the Chicago area for a while, which is home to Green Bay’s arch rival, the Chicago Bears. While he was at the lodge, one of the staff mention her father was a big Packers fan. “You don’t ever pull for the Bears do you?” she asked.
“Only when I’m in Churchill,” said Wedel.”