Canon EOL Charles Glatzer (Chas) has been guiding his Shoot the Light clients at Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge for over a decade now, and every year someone in his group seems to capture an award-winning shot.
We haven’t seen all the photos his clients got at Seal River Heritage Lodge in 2022, but the shot above by 69-year-old photographer Sharon Fisher is about as close to perfection as it gets with regards to light an emotion.
“I got quite a few good shots,” said Fisher from her home in Front Royal, Virginia. “Bears walking towards us, sparring, rolling, but this one has that emotion. It’s my favourite. I’m not at the level of Chas (Charles Glatzer), but I’m pretty confident and I love taking photographs. I’ve been to quite a few places around the world, and Churchill Wild is on my list of incredibly special.”
Fisher was also at Seal River Heritage Lodge with Glatzer’s Shoot the Light group in 2019, but this time was just a little different, as it always is in wild places.
“I like going back to places because you get to know them in a different way,” said Fisher. “This time I was looking at the temperature and thinking it needs to be cold, because it’s really cool to have snow and ice, but not so cold that everything freezes over.”
On this year’s safari the group encountered the above two bears, who unexpectedly started playing together despite their obvious size and age differences.
“Their interactions were unbelievable, even to the guides,” said Fisher. “They thought with the male being such a large adult there and the female being much smaller, probably a third-year bear, that he would drive her off. But he was incredibly gentle with her.
“I have some photos where he’s just touching her with the back of his paw, and she was just bored and wanted to play. She was probably with her siblings up until this year. And we also had some great interactions with Arctic foxes and a cross fox.”
An avid wildlife photographer, Fisher only recently started travelling again after the pandemic. She started taking photos in high school after her uncle, a World War II photographer, gave her a used camera. She even had her own little darkroom. Her path forward in photography was probably clear after that, but it wasn’t a straight line.
“You get busy with life,” said Fisher. “And for a whole period of time you don’t do those types of things. I’ve picked up photography pretty seriously again in the last 15 years. Partially because I like the photography, but it’s also about being in wild places. If it was just about the photos I could go to a zoo.”
The pandemic delayed Fisher’s travel plans for a few years, but she’s back at it in full force now, while also managing a company that does training and development work for both private and public sector organizations. She also teaches basic photography on a volunteer basis at her local community library and museum, and the group sessions have been a wonderful creative outlet for both Fisher and her students.
“Someone once told me I didn’t have a biological clock, I have a travel clock,” said Fisher. “I had been doing pretty intensive travel just to do all the things I wanted to do. You get to the point in life when you have a little more experience and the resources to do it. I had a list of species I wanted to see in the wild and I’ve pretty well seen them all. Penguins in the Falkland Islands, tigers in India, cranes in Bhutan and Japan.”
Fisher has also been to Svalbard twice to see polar bears.
“Svalbard is very different,” said Fisher. “The polar bears in Hudson Bay seem to be thriving. The bears in Svalbard have a tough time. It’s a more challenging environment for them. In Svalbard most of the time you’re in a Zodiac, and sometimes land based, but the minute a polar bear comes near you on land you’re back on the ship. You’re not able to stay on land when the polar bears are there. How many places in the world can you do that?”
Only three that we know of.
Churchill Wild pioneered the world’s first and only true polar bear walking safaris over 30 years ago, and they are operated out of three permanent ecolodges on Canada’s Hudson Bay coast. Seal River Heritage Lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Dymond Lake Ecolodge are the only places on earth where you can walk with polar bears, photograph them at ground level, and stay in luxury Arctic lodges.
And once you are on the ground with the polar bears, are there any tips for getting a great photo.
“Some of it is recognizing what you have after the fact, out of the thousands of photos you take,” said Fisher. “Which ones are special and why. I showed that photo (at top of this page) to one of the guides and they thought it was beautiful. I did see it in the back of my camera and say ‘Wow!’
“I’ve always learned from Chas. Whenever you’re around someone who has mastered their craft, you always learn something. When I got my new camera (Canon R5) he was the first person I called. We did a zoom session on how to use it. It’s taken me years to read light and understand exposure.”
Fisher also mentioned how helpful the guides and staff were at Seal River.
“Our guides were Simon, Marco and Jess. I think having three guides is much better than two, and they were super responsive. They did a wonderful job. They were vigilante when we were out in the environment, watching the bears’ behaviour and knowing how close we could be, but they also made sure everybody was in a line and able to see and photograph the bears, checking in about whether your feet and hands were cold. Anything you needed.
“At one point my glasses got so dark I couldn’t see, and I was struggling to put them in my pocket. One of the guides noticed, came over and unzipped my pocket and helped me put them away. They were just so attentive. I’ve been on a lot of trips in other places, and sometimes it can feel like the guides are bored and aren’t paying attention.
“The guides and staff at Churchill Wild were excellent, and it was the little things too. Taking turns on watching for the northern lights so they could alert us, Ben (lodge manager Ben Lawrence) putting logs on the fire in the evening so that when we got up at 6:30 the next morning there was a nice fire going, cleaning the windows every day, scraping the ice along the bottom. We had 12 people in our group, and they knew all our names. Just super, super attentive.”
Fisher discovered Churchill Wild through people she met on other trips. She was looking for a place where she could photograph polar bears at ground level, and Churchill Wild was recommended.
“When you do this type of travel you become part of a small community,” said Fisher. “So, I’d heard of Churchill Wild. And then I was on a trip with Chas to see loons and he mentioned it too. The ability to get on eye level with the polar bears really appealed to me, and not wanting to be on a mechanical vehicle was part of it too. With wildlife photography you want to be at eye level or below. Just to get the eyes. The eyes are where things really matter.”
Ethical wildlife viewing was also high on the list for Fisher.
“That little female, she was just curious,” said Fisher. “She wanted a playmate, and she didn’t care if it was another polar bear or something else. She was not aggressive. I’ve seen a lot of bears, I know when a bear is stressed and I watch for that. That’s important to me, because I don’t want my being in a place to affect the outcome of nature. The guides were really good about that. Not only for safety, but also for me, it’s wildlife first. I have been on trips that were not a wildlife-first experience, and that is high on my list for saying no.
“I’m in their home. I’m there when they’re about to go out on the ice. They’ve just gone through that walking hibernation period over the summer, and I don’t want to take way from their fitness and stress them all.”
When Fisher gets back home, she knows people will be asking her how close she was to the polar bears, and whether she was afraid to meet them at ground level in the wild.
“People always ask me how close I was and if I was afraid,” said Fisher “I had zero concerns. The bears were just doing their thing. As long as we didn’t surprise them, as long as we’re being respectful, everything is good. You’re sharing a moment with them. It really is something very special.”
As is some of the work Fisher does for her local nonprofits.
“There’s a lot you can do with photography,” she said. “Our local hospice has an annual run that they do, so myself, staff and students photographed the event. We came up with over 200 photos, including individual shots of individuals and families.
“The hospice wanted to do a fundraiser for taking care of people’s pets too, so we did pet photography. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to do something meaningful in photography. You can use it to help people and organizations in all kinds of ways.”
And it’s never been about just photography for Fisher.
“I’m privileged to be able to go to Seal River Heritage Lodge and Churchill Wild. If I can educate people, if I can get people to have that joyous feeling that I had standing there watching those two bears together, and create a desire to preserve these wild places, that’s something good and meaningful. It’s bigger than yourself.”
When asked how she would rate her experience with Churchill Wild, Fisher replied…
“I’ve gone back, right? And I’ve signed up for Shoot the Light there next year!”
“In reflecting on why the Churchill Wild experience is so unique – it is because you become part of the world where polar bears, foxes, and others live. Some photographers love getting the action shot, my photography style is more soulful. There are few wild places in the world that allow for me to blend into the natural environment so I can capture those types of moments.
“Thanks to Churchill Wild for allowing me to be wild and pampered all at the same time!”