A polar bear photo taken by New York pediatrician Greg Gulbransen on last year’s Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge has been selected as the Grand Prize winner in The Weather Channel’s 2016 “It’s Amazing Out There” Photo Contest.
Gulbransen’s surreal “Fire On Ice” photo of a polar bear enveloped in ice mist at sunrise was selected from 66,000 submissions after the list was narrowed down to 64 finalists. Gulbransen was in a group of photographers on a specialized Shoot the Light Polar Bear Photography Workshop led by Charles “Chas” Glatzer when the rare shot came into focus.
“When I woke up that day, I walked into the kitchen and it looked like the surface of the moon outside the lodge windows,” said Gulbransen. “It was like magenta, pink, with ice, because that night the temperature turned rapidly and all of a sudden the salt water started evaporating.
“And I’m looking out the window when all of a sudden I see a bear out there. I put my clothes on and went out with Chas and the other photographers and one and one just added up. And I thought, man this is going to be something unbelievable right here.
“The lodge is in the perfect spot, it’s just right where it should be, where the bears like to wait for the ice to freeze. A bear walked into the scene from the right and he had his head down. I just kept waiting calmly and thinking to myself, ‘Please lift your head. Please lift your head.’ And he did!
“My camera battery was freezing and I was panicked by that. And I couldn’t feel my fingers too well. But ultimately I got the shot. I got it on the light camera, a Nikon 810, with an 80 x400 lens, and it was just magical. It was an incredible morning. Many people got award-winning shots. Some of us got the best shots of our lives that morning. It was just epic.
“We had 10 people, between the people that Chas brings and the people that came through Churchill Wild. Everyone was very professional, very nice and very interesting. You know, on a trip like that you’re going to meet accomplished people that have something interesting to say, that have gone to other fascinating places and they’re great conversationalists. That’s one of the most appealing things about going to a lodge like that, you’re meeting the kind of higher end people from society and they don’t mess around. They’ve got the gear and they know it’s the place to go. It’s the place to be.”
Gulbransen took up photography about four years ago and had never even entered a contest before. He said that he had decided to study photography as a hobby after his son passed away, and that he actually had Glatzer come to his home to teach him how to use his camera.
“Everything I learned, I learned from Chas,” said Gulbransen. “I did some workshops with him, and that’s when he said, ‘You’ve got to do this workshop with the polar bears, let’s go.’ So I did. And really, it’s an outdoor hobby. How much can you work, all the time? I listen to Chas and I go where ever he goes.”
Gulbransen has been going on two or three photography trips a year since he started, many of which have been bird photography workshops. He said he was into birds for a while, until he discovered bears in Alaska, and now, polar bears in Canada.
“Polar bears are fascinating,” said Gulbransen. “I just couldn’t believe how stealth they are. They’re so big, and so quiet. And they live under such adverse circumstances, yet they seem very content. It’s amazing. It looks effortless, but it’s unbelievable.”
Gulbransen operates a busy medical practice in New York, and he admitted to feeling a little down before he got the call to tell him he had won the contest. He’d seen a number of really sick kids, including one who had cancer, and life was tugging at his heart strings.
“I was between patients and I get this message that there’s a call on line two,” said Gulbransen. “So I pick it up and they say, ‘Hi this is so and so, I represent the Weather Channel. We want you to know you won the photo contest.’ And I was like, ‘Ah, that’s nice.’ And they said, ‘No, you won the grand prize.’ And I was like, ‘You’re kidding me?’ I kept thinking they were making a mistake. They said I had won $5,000 and I was very happy. That’s a lot of money.
“The first person I called other than my wife was Chas. I was almost in tears. I said Chas, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m eating dinner.’ I said, ‘Chas I’ve got to tell you this, I just won a photo contest and I wanted to say thank you very much.'”
Gulbransen wasn’t the first of Glatzer’s students to win at the photo contest game. Rick Beldegreen, who was also on this trip and standing not far from Gulbransen when he took the winning photo, had finished second in The Weather Channel Photo Contest last year, with an image taken on a Shoot the Light workshop in the Falklands.
“His students are winning a lot of awards,” said Gulbransen. “And that’s a good reflection on hm. Chas travels with a lot of accomplished photographers and they really know what they are doing.”
A few days after being notified about the big win, Gulbransen received an email saying that he’d won $15,000. He thought they had said $5,000. Again, he couldn’t believe it. He didn’t think he was reading it correctly and asked his daughter to read it for him.
“Dad, you’ve won $15,000, do you know that?” she said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” replied Gulbransen. “No, I thought it was $5,000.”
“No Dad, it was one, comma, five, zero, zero, zero.”
“And I was like, ‘Holy Cow!’ said Gulbransen.”I couldn’t believe it. No really, it was so amazing I had to doubt it for a while.”
Plans for the prize money?
“I typically donate some of my money to children’s causes, to things that are related to children who are needy,” said Gulbransen. “I tend to do a lot of that with my money. And I will probably put some money aside to take a trip with my wife. I would like to bring her back up to one of the other Churchill Wild lodges Chas was talking about, where they have moose and bears, the whole thing. So we’ll save up and probably put some of the money towards that trip.
“I was thinking about maybe doing it next year. It was just incredible. Sometimes I’ll go on a workshop and it’s really like a job. It’s not a job up there. It’s like a lot of fun.”
The 53-year-old Gulbransen has been married to wife Leslie, a school teacher, for 24 years, and he thinks she would enjoy Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, not just for the polar bears, but rather for the whole experience.
“You know, my wife would be very happy up there and she doesn’t even have to have a camera,” said Gulbransen. “She can do other things, stay inside and chat and eat good food. It’s really accommodating for everybody. I really, really enjoy that (Reimer) family. Sometimes, you know, people just impress you, and you just want to get more of them. And I just really liked those people.
“They ran a great operation and they had their son (Adam) there, who was very nice. It was fun to be part of that whole thing. Very nice, and it felt very comfortable. Very dedicated, earthy people, that’s for sure. Top notch. You make sure you send my regards to that family.
“There’s no comparison. People always talk about that they went to this great resort and it was five stars and I go to those places and they’re always like, two stars. I think people make it up all the time, but when I went to this place, it was just… it was like one of the few places I could take my wife to. The food was like restaurant stuff you’d see down here in New York, the accommodations were great, I slept beautifully every night, and everything was clean. It was spectacular.
“You just wanted to stay for a long time.”