<< markandrupa

Churchill, Canada

november 2008

Who knew that wildlife viewing in North America could be so exciting? I was a little nervous about traveling with a hardcore photography group, but we met a wonderful mix of people on this trip and were able to share the adventure with my parents. Mother Nature tried to foul up our plans a bit, but in the end we enjoyed five fabulous days out on the tundra where we saw plenty of bears as well as caribou, arctic fox, ptarmagins, a pine marten and a snowshoe hare. The lodge itself was warm and comfortable, the food was fantastic and the staff was first rate. We can't wait to return.


Enjoy a slideshow of our adventure (70 pics).

Trip log

  1. Seattle to Minneapolis - october 29

    Our trip began with an unexpected bonus when Northwest upgraded us to first class. We always sleep on planes so the extra four inches of wiggle-room was lost on us, but we rarely fly first class and weren't about to turn down the offer. True to form, we were asleep before the plane left the gate and didn't wake until we were safely on the tarmac in Minneapolis. Even the first-class flight attendant was impressed, lamenting as we deplaned that she hadn't been able to care for us.

    Our good-friend-from-college Chris (married to our good-friend-from-college Raka) met us in the terminal, gave us a distracted walking tour of the parking garage, and drove us over to their home in a charming neighborhood near Lake Harriet in South Minneapolis. The delightful 90-year-old Arts & Crafts style house was spacious but inviting and featured the original oak trimmings and wide-plank pine flooring. The house was in a bit of disarray as Chris was in the middle of building a soundproofed band/recording studio/theater room in their previously unfinished basement. Retrofitting such a room in a century-old basement required a burst of inspiration, and he somehow managed to tuck in a stage, seating lounge and bar. His plans also call for a movie screen to descend between the lounge and stage, the perfect spot, Rupa and I suggested, to install motorized curtains that could be pulled back to reveal either the stage or the screen.

    Raka arrived home from work and we all walked down the street to Heidi's, a small neighborhood restaurant with a rotating seasonal menu. The entire menu was tempting but I settled on a perfectly roasted pork chop with orange mashed potatoes and cranberry thyme sauce. We chatted a while after dinner before heading up to bed a bit early (Raka had to work in the morning).

    Chris and Raka's house, Minneapolis

  2. Minneapolis - october 30

    Chris telecommutes from home and spent most of the day on the phone, though he did manage to take us out to one of his favorite lunch spots. At the Birchwood Cafe we met up with Cyrus, another friend-from-college that we hadn't seen in years, and his sister, whom we were meeting for the first time. We enjoyed catching up with them, and despite my tasty turkey burger I managed to save room for a piece of their fantastic carrot cake.

    We spent the afternoon watching our savings evaporate on CNBC before rushing off to a Cheese and Beer Tasting once Raka arrived. The tasting took place at a kitchen supply store where we tried eight pairings laid out by Ken, the lighthearted owner of an artisan cheese shop, and Josh, an entertaining beer connoisseur who also happened to be Chris and Raka's friend. The samplings came from around the globe and complemented each other nicely, though we enjoyed them most when savored individually. My favorite cheese was Ewephoria, a gouda-like sheep's milk variant from Holland, while the runner-ups were a creamy Manchego from Spain (Senorio de Montelarreina) and a triple-creme brie-style cheese from France (Brillat Savarin). My favorite beer was the Old Stock Ale from North Coast Brewing in California (a bit odd, since I usually prefer lagers). The most interesting beer, by far, was a smoked bock from Germany (Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock), which could best be described as bacon-flavored beer.

    We left the tasting full and slightly sloshed, but we all needed something a bit more substantial in our system and popped over to Barbette, a trendy bar/lounge/restaurant for a late snack of "Royale with Cheese" burgers.

    Chris and Raka's house, Minneapolis

  3. Minneapolis - october 31

    By the time we awoke Raka was long gone and Chris was "at work" on the phone, so we chilled out around the house until lunch, when Chris drove us over to a charming Italian eatery, a notable example of Minneapolis' many family-run, moderately priced cafes and delis. After our risotto and paninis Chris went back to work while Rupa and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather (a near-record 62ºF) with a leisurely stroll around Lake Harriet. The tree-lined walking path skirted the natural shoreline while a matching path, just a few feet inland, catered to cyclists and inline skaters. Further out beyond the ring road an eclectic mix of two-million-dollar homes - Tudors, Colonials, Victorians, Moderns, etc - gazed out upon the large blue lake.

    Back at the house we were hanging out with Chris and Raka when Raka's sister, Rai, called and offered them tickets for the friends and family tent at Obama's election night campaign party. Rai was Michelle Obama's Deputy Communications Director and had scored a couple of extra tickets. We found out later that Raka gave the future President a congratulatory hug (with permission, of course).

    After handing out candy to the neighborhood trick-or-treaters we drove downtown to meet Cyrus for dinner at 112 Eatery, a stylish loft restaurant in the warehouse district. The menu was unique and exciting and I settled on an avocado/olive oil/sea salt salad and tagliatelle with foie gras meatballs. Both were fantastic selections, but the real prize was desert - an incredibly rich butterscotch budino (Italian pudding) with homemade caramel topping.

    Chris and Raka's house, Minneapolis

  4. Minneapolis - november 1

    It was a lazy morning at the Mitra house. Chris was the first to get busy when he whipped up a late brunch of French toast, blueberry pancakes and bacon. Raka wasn't far behind as she finished up her absentee ballot - she would be out of town on Tuesday and on her way to Chicago for the election night party. Rupa and I had also voted absentee before leaving home, and it was so convenient voting from the comfort of our couch that I doubt we will ever again see the inside of a voting booth.

    We made it out of the house in time for Raka to file her ballot and then stopped at the Turtle Bakery for a light afternoon snack of soup and coffee. We saved room though, as the Pumphouse Creamery next door served Raka's favorite homemade ice cream. Incidentally, if there were ever a reason to live in Minneapolis it would be for the ice cream - the city has a profusion of quality handmade ice cream shops. The girls also briefly browsed the nearby Amazon Bookshop, a lesbian/women's issues book store that predates the online giant and won a landmark legal battle to keep its name (though now under new ownership, the name is changing).

    We'd been perusing Chris' braising cookbook all week and tonight he demoed his cooking prowess, putting together an autumn feast including perfectly tender short ribs with a reduced-beer sauce, a colorful kabocha squash, carrots, a cheese plate and an apple pie. It was a fantastic meal but we filled our bellies too quickly and had to pass on the apple pie. We ended the day by planning dates and events for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, coordinating with Jean and Malinda.

    Chris and Raka's house, Minneapolis

  5. Minneapolis to Winnipeg - november 2

    We were up by 7:30 this morning (after a DST bonus hour) to greet my parents, who had rolled into Minneapolis yesterday afternoon after spending the entire previous day driving up from Ohio. Raka's mom also showed up for her morning walk and we all chatted for a bit before loading up the car. My parents have a large Buick LeSabre sedan, but with all of our heavy arctic gear - including 70lbs of camera equipment - it was a squeeze to get everything in. We ended up stacking two bags between Rupa and me in the back seat and by the time we were all loaded up the car hung pretty low. This made the long ride rough but tolerable, and we were thankful to the taxpayers of Minnesota and North Dakota for keeping their freeways in tip-top condition (we can't say the same about the Manitobans).

    The Minnesota portion of the drive was quite lovely - a scenic mix of small lakes, rolling hills, woodlands, corn fields, barns and roosting hawks. North Dakota, on the other hand, was about the most boring drive imaginable - miles upon miles of unwaveringly flat corn fields. The schoolchildren here must have a hard time believing that the earth is actually a sphere.

    Rupa knitted, I read, and we all napped a little except Dad, who drove the entire day with "Maggie" (their Magellan GPS unit) guiding the way. We made a number of requisite stops along the way - lunch in Alexandria, gas in Grand Forks - as well as a number of discretionary stops as we searched for some poly-fill (bean-bag-like material) to stuff our camera beanbags. We ended up finding some at the Michael's store in Fargo, but it wasn't enough and we had to stop again at the one in Grand Forks to top off our 12lb supply.

    The border crossing was uneventful and we were soon on the outskirts of Winnipeg. There was no direct link from the south end of town to the airport so "Maggie" guided us through the center of town on a route that at times seemed hopeless. We remained loyal, though, and she proved herself capable when we finally pulled up to our airport hotel. It was a Hilton Suites and the rooms were spacious and well equipped, and even included free WiFi. It was late though - 8pm - and after dropping our luggage we immediately buckled back up and drove out in search of dinner.

    We ended up at Joeys Restaurant, a swanky joint that from the outside looked more like a nightclub than a sit-down restaurant. The executive chef, though, was Chris Mills - an Iron Chef Japan competitor and a James Beard award finalist. The food was excellent - Rupa had the ahi fish tacos, Dad had the Alfredo chicken, Mom had a salad and I opted for the smoky baby back ribs. All-in-all it was a solid choice and reasonably priced, particularly so given the favorable exchange rate. Back at the hotel Dad and I enjoyed a few Kokanees at the bar before calling it a night.

    Hilton Suites Airport, Winnipeg

  6. Winnipeg - november 3

    Rupa and I slept in today - the bed was comfortable and the black-out shades kept the sun away. It was a beautiful day though - sunny and a warm 69ºF - an all-time record for Winnipeg. For lunch we ended up downtown at an area known as the Forks - a combination park/market/art gallery where two large rivers run together. The market was housed in a couple of rehabilitated warehouses and featured a number of craft shops, some tasty looking ethnic food vendors and a couple of sit-down restaurants. We sat down at Beachcombers - it felt a world away with its Caribbean-themed menu and decor, but the food was tasty, especially the coconut shrimp and fried sweet potato planks.

    We spent some time browsing the shops - Rupa stockpiled a few handmade birthday cards and I nabbed some excellent fudge to snack on during the week, including a delicious nut-less maple and a creamy butterscotch. Back at the hotel we re-packed for the flight to Churchill (we were leaving one bag behind) and snuck in some more Olympic planning before heading downstairs in search of our tour group's introductory dinner.

    We found two groups already assembled in the bar. I went ahead and approached the first group and an outgoing older gentleman jumped up an introduced himself. They were part of a birding group, also headed to Churchill, and he invited us to join their table. As friendly as he was we politely declined and instead inquired with the other group, which was the one we were looking for. We had just settled in with our drinks when we got word that our tour leader, Mark, had a conference room setup for us, so we settled our bar tab and officially began our tour.

    Mark spent an hour covering his introductory material and answering questions, most of which related to camera setup, lens selection and shooting conditions. We also took turns introducing ourselves. There were 16 of us and most were serious photographers, but we also had a videographer and a couple of wildlife enthusiasts. Regardless of background or experience, though, Mark did a wonderful job making everyone feel welcome. After a nice catered dinner we called it day, electing to get a good night's sleep before tomorrow morning's early wake-up-call.


  7. Winnipeg to Churchill - november 4

    What would end up being a rather long day began shortly after four in the morning. We packed up, checked out and grabbed a quick continental breakfast before catching our 6am ride to the airport. The hotel couldn't fit our entire group into their small shuttle bus and hired us an additional limo, figuring they would send some of us off in style. Instead, fully outfit in heavy winter jackets and boots and holding our large camera bags, ten of us wedged ourselves into the limo.

    We arrived at the airport just in time to check-in and rush to the gate - our Calm Air flight was scheduled for 6:30, thirty minutes earlier than we expected. Graham and Aaron were the last to arrive, having been held up at security, but the friendly Canadian crew held the plane.

    Two hours into the flight we landed in Thompson, a small mining and supply town, to wait out a snow storm that was whipping up 50mph gusts in Churchill. The Thompson airport was small and bleak - a couple of offices, a snack shop and a small waiting room with a few dozen chairs - but busy with outlying residents checking in with Costco-sized bundles of toilet paper, diapers, detergent and other household supplies. We'd checked our usual carry-on luggage (knitting, books, iPod, laptop) and so spent the morning napping, twiddling our thumbs and watching the small television, which was tuned in to US election coverage from the CBC and later to the Price Is Right, which surprisingly enough came in via a Seattle Kiro-7 feed.

    Four and a half hours later, as we were beginning to contemplate a night in Thompson, Calm Air announced our departure and we scrambled aboard (no need for a security checkpoint this far north). After a quick de-icing the pilot announced a mechanical problem with the plane, and after attempting a repair they decided instead to load us all onto a neighboring plane also bound for Churchill. Other than our carry-on camera bags we left our luggage behind, deplaned and crossed the tarmac to our new ride. The mechanics promised that our luggage would follow along shortly, but after arriving in Churchill an hour later in near white-out conditions we learned that the second plane was running later than expected and might not even arrive. Surprisingly, though, Dad's luggage did manage to trickle out onto the carousel, having been loaded initially on the second plane back in Windsor, courtesy of our last-minute check-in.

    There was over a foot of snow on the ground and it was still too windy for the small Turbo Beaver prop plane to ferry us out to the lodge, 30 miles north of town. We were disappointed to lose a day off an already short trip, but our bigger worry was finding a vacant bed in tiny Churchill. Fortunately for us the guests currently out at the lodge were snowed in for the night and we were able to assume their in-town reservations. A few of us even ended up in spare bedrooms at Helen Webber's house; Helen was the matriarch and executive chef of our lodge operator, Churchill Wild, and she welcomed us into her home with open arms. We spent the afternoon chatting about the election and watching the initial returns come in over the WiFi before joining the rest of the group for dinner at Traders Table, one of the few restaurants in town. Almost miraculously, our luggage arrived just before dinner.

    Traders Table had an authentic rustic feel and a well-stocked gift shop next door. The menu presented a decent selection of standard American cuisine, and though the fish and chicken were a little overdone the mussels were apparently fantastic. Back at Helen's house we stayed up to watch the returns until the western states closed at midnight and Obama was declared the winner.

    Helen Webber's house, Churchill

  8. Seal River Lodge, Hudson Bay - november 5

    Helen presented a lovely breakfast of eggs, fruit and sticky buns. The weather hadn't improved much from yesterday, if at all, and we weren't sure yet if we'd even make it out to the lodge today. Mark split us into three groups - fourteen of us would head out to the lodge in back-to-back trips on the Beaver while the final three would ride up in a helicopter. Mom offered to wait for the second flight so Dad, Rupa and I could all get on the first one. Full of optimism, we strapped into the hearty little Beaver around 8am and meandered onto the runway. Our pilot, Nelson, aimed us into the wind and cranked the engine. We couldn't see more than a couple hundred yards down the airstrip, but with large wings, a powerful engine and a steady headwind we were airborne in seconds, covering at most twenty yards of pavement!

    It was a brief 25-minute flight to the lodge, and given the threatening sky it was a surprisingly smooth ride. Nelson kept the plane low (300ft) for some sight-seeing, but dense cloud cover above blocked out most of the light, rendering the landscape in dreary shades of gray. Midway through the ride, though, the veil of clouds ended abruptly as if an invisible barrier had been traced through the atmosphere. Above us now were sunny skies while below us the blue water of Hudson Bay lapped a snowy white shoreline. The bay was scattered with large boulders and a patchwork of ice sheets floated offshore, while further along a fast-flowing river was dumping millions of small ice panes into the bay. I also spotted my first polar bear - a dijon-yellow beast making tracks through a glistening white snow field. As we approached the airstrip we passed directly over the lodge - an L-shaped wooden structure with a fenced in yard.

    Stepping out of the plane and onto the snowy airstrip we were greeted by a bracingly cold breeze. It was a mere 2ºF, but we immediately began putting together our camera gear as a polar bear was ambling about nearby. Uncharacteristically I was the least ready of the group, fumbling to attach a long lens to my camera body; I'd rented a 500mm F4 lens weighing 9lbs and extending over 2ft and was joining it up to my trusty 5D. I was also scrambling to pocket my batteries and memory cards as we left our backpacks on a tractor to be hauled back to the lodge.

    The bear we were after was moving out to the bay, but as we neared the lodge a second bear approached from our left, not more than 30ft away. He was a magnificent fellow, four- or five-years old, healthy, clean and gleaming pearly white in morning sun. He seemed more curious than fearsome, but when he fancied an approach our guides shoed him off and tossed a couple of snow balls his way. Reluctantly, he took the cue and wandered off, pausing to glance back as he went.

    We followed him around to the backside of the lodge where he groped about the rocky shoreline for a while before heading into the tall grass and out of view. This was my first experience shooting in such extreme conditions (even Antarctica never fell much below freezing) and it worked out to be quite a challenge. My camera batteries were the biggest problem - they would suddenly freeze up every 5-10 minutes, requiring me to remove my gloves to operate the battery latch. I even stored hand warmers in my pocket to keep the spares warm but they still never lasted very long. Other photographers had their batteries freeze up too but not to the same extent, and I was never able to figure out why mine were worse. My gloves were another problem - I had thin gloves that provided great dexterity but it didn't take long for my finger tips to become numb. I used hand warmers religiously, but I would have been better off with some mittens, trading a little dexterity for warmth.

    We'd been out for nearly two hours when we finally bagged up our gear (using plastic trash bags to prevent frost from condensing on the glass) and entered the lodge, where the kitchen staff had prepared some warm soup for us. The lodge itself was quite comfortable - not as rustic or fragile as you might imagine for a structure cobbled together from abandoned bits and pieces. The mud room led into an impressive two-story common room featuring large picture windows overlooking the bay, plenty of couches and chairs, a fireplace, a walk-up bar and a loft complete with spotting scope. Down the hall were the guest rooms, constructed just this past summer. The rooms varied a bit in size and shape, but all were spacious and featured en-suite bathrooms. Ours had a queen bed and twin bunk beds, which later of which we used to organize our gear.

    Mom arrived around 1pm with the second load of guests, having spent the morning in the Churchill airport waiting for the Nelson to return, and it wasn't long before we were all back outside, though this time we remained behind the fence as four bears were roaming about the nearby shoreline. I climbed atop the elevated platform for a better view of the closest one, who was relaxing in the snow twenty feet away; napping, yawning and flicking snow onto his nose. Another bear approached from the bay, peaking the interest of our nearby friend and before long the two were in a full-on tussle. It wasn't a vicious fight - neither drew blood - but more like a wrestling match between two lumbering brutes working to out leverage each other, though they did manage to sneak in a few good blows. The entire battle was nearly silent - other than some labored breathing and muffled falls on fresh snow the bears were soundless. Twenty minutes and 150 photos later the bears were exhausted and overheated, and with no clear winner they plopped down next to each other for an extended rest.

    Back inside I noticed that my nose was taking longer than the rest of me to warm up. I'd had trouble with it sticking to my camera body today but hadn't though much about it at the time (the camera body, being metal, got extremely cold). Well, as it turned out, I'd managed some minor frostbite; my nose eventually blistered up like a second-degree burn and it took more than a month for full feeling to return. Even now, months later, the tip of my nose is still slightly discolored, as if I have a permanent cold.

    Before dinner the manager of the lodge, Mike, gave a safety briefing and Mark presented a slideshow of his arctic photos while we enjoyed appetizers and beer. Dinner was a delicious jalapeno-stuffed spring snow goose and a Bavarian apple tort. Afterwards we relaxed in the lounge - Mom browsed a wonderful photo book filled with aerial photos of Africa (Eyes over Africa, by Michael Poliza), Rupa knitted and I did some 2010 Olympic planning.

    Seal River Heritage Lodge, 30mi northwest of Churchill

  9. Seal River Lodge, Hudson Bay - november 6

    We were up at seven this morning, accompanied by a solitary bear and a pair of arctic foxes galloping along the now partially frozen shoreline. We had a lovely breakfast of Red River hot cereal, blueberry pancakes and sausage before heading outside to check out a pair of bears that had arrived. They ran off when we tried to get a closer look, so we retreated to the compound and left out the front gate instead.

    It was noticeably warmer today (8ºF this morning), aided by a clear sky and a bright sun. Outside the gate we happened across a small flock of snow-white Ptarmigans foraging in the bushes. The Ptarmigans are interesting birds in that they remain camouflaged year-round, molting from brown and gray in the summer to solid white in the winter. We continued our hike three-quarters of a mile out to a nearby frozen lake where we caught up with a trio of bears, two of which alternated between sparring and resting while the third approached cautiously from behind us. It was a beautiful morning and we were all able to get some lovely shots of bears tramping through snow. After two hours on the tundra we returned to the lodge for lunch.

    Bear activity was light after lunch so a few folks went out to photograph windswept snow banks. We hung back at the lodge, but when a couple of bears showed up out front we all went for a look. We followed them around back as they skirted the shoreline, but before long the sun set behind the clouds and by 3:30 the light was gone and we called it a day. Andy, one of the guides, presented today's pre-dinner slideshow and gave us an overview of lodge activities over the summer, one of which involved "playing" with beluga whales while being dragged feet-first behind a boat?! The most inspiring activity was an overnight trip to Fireweed Island, a tiny atoll-like spit of land in the bay that is literally covered with brilliant purple-flowering fireweed a few weeks each summer. The contrast of the pure-white polar bears (fresh from the ice) frolicking in the fireweed is a stunning sight - one I hope to see for myself someday.

    Dinner was tasty caribou spaghetti and pavlova desert - the kitchen staff here have a fabulous collection of recipes that feature local specialties and unique twists on old standards. The food was really some of the most delicious and unique of all our travels. After dinner Mark showed off some of his landscape photography, after which we all headed to bed, hoping that a clear sky tonight would reveal the northern lights.

    Seal River Heritage Lodge, 30mi northwest of Churchill

  10. Seal River Lodge, Hudson Bay - november 7

    Mark knocked on our door just after midnight, and five minutes later we were standing in the bitter cold craning our necks skyward as the northern lights put on a spectacular show. What started out looking like a few dim clouds in the night sky erupted into a dazzling display of fluorescent green arcs and spirals. For two hours wave after wave swept through the night sky, moving from west to east in a matter of minutes. In the east, as the patterns lined up over the horizon, the fringes took on a deep ruby hue, barely visible to the naked eye but clearly evident on long exposures. Actually, what appeared on film was never quite what we saw in the sky; even a wide 16mm lens was unable to cover the entire extent of the display in one shot, and the exposures took long enough (30-150 seconds) that the scene would morph and shift during each frame.

    Five hours later we were awake once again, though the clouds had moved in this morning and the light was terrible. The shallow part of the bay had frozen overnight and a large bear was already out rolling around on the smooth surface. Shortly after breakfast another critter came along; a weasel-like animal called a pine marten was darting about on the ice 200 yards out. He changed direction often and moved quickly so it was difficult to keep track of him through the lens, but he ended up running right up to the picture window, where he paused for a moment to regard the dozen or so spectators peering out, before continuing on around the lodge and out of view. According to Mike the marten lives under the lodge and was just out foraging for food.

    Afternoon activity was meager. We caught one bear checking out Mike's ATV and then followed him around to the back of the lodge. We were all lined up, peering through the fence, when the bear's curiosity got the better of him. He approached the fence, and while most of us were able to back away, Rupa was stuck under the elevated platform and it was safer for her to sit tight rather than make a move, even as the bear came face-to-face to sniff her out. The bear spent five minutes with her before wandering off.

    We took a short hike this afternoon out beyond the airstrip but didn't find much other than a flock of Ptarmigans, though returning to the bay we managed to spot a solitary bear wading through the shallows and up onto the ice. The conditions outside were horrible - it was mostly overcast and so cold that even Rupa's eyelashes iced up - and we returned to the lodge a bit early and enjoyed a video of Russia's Wrangel Island, the world's largest polar bear denning ground. After dinner another of our guides, Terry, gave a great presentation about his prior work further north in the Thelon Game Reserve. It's too bad the lodge he worked for recently shut down as the landscape looked spectacular, particularly during the autumn color change.

    Seal River Heritage Lodge, 30mi northwest of Churchill

  11. Seal River Lodge, Hudson Bay - november 8

    We packed up this morning and were ready to depart only to learn that Churchill was socked in with icy rain and fog. We didn't have it so bad here, with only an overcast sky, but we were stuck in a kind of limbo - packed up and ready with no where to go and unable to fully deploy our camera gear. The sky cleared after breakfast and we ended up extracting our camera gear anyway and went out back to photograph a bear that had wandered up to the fence. The bear's name was Al, so named because of a small scar on his face (ala Al Pacino in Scarface), and he was the most inquisitive of the bears hanging out around the compound. He was a bit mischievous this morning, pawing at the fence and ignoring the guide's warnings, so Terry gave him a shot of pepper spray. He didn't fancy that in the least and was off and running for the safety of the ice, shaking his head and slobbering all over himself. A second bear got curious and sniffed him out, only to get a nose-full of pepper himself.

    It was pretty clear that we weren't headed anywhere this morning, so the guides took us out on a walk to see a pair of bears beyond the airstrip. We snuck up on them in 18 inches of snow, but they were quite skittish and scampered off when we were still 100 yards away. I was hanging out in the back of the line with Terry as we continued to follow the bears when Terry spotted a snowshoe hare crouching under a bush. Like the Ptarmigan, the snowshoe hare is well camouflaged all year round, morphing from spotted brown in the summer to snow white in the winter. As our scouting party moved forward they unknowingly rousted him from his cover and he bounded across the fresh snow to a safer spot further off.

    Back at the lodge we were out taking photos of a wandering bear when we spotted the arctic fox again as he cautiously approached the fence. He was solid white, having morphed into his winter color like the Ptarmigan and hare, but he had the most brilliant orange eyes. He didn't stick around long, and it started to snow, so we bagged up our gear and went back inside for a "picnic" lunch in the common room as we waited for our flight out. It wasn't long before we learned that Nelson wouldn't make it out to the lodge today. Somehow, though, the helicopter made it out here and was able to take three of the guys back to Churchill. The rest of us moved back into our rooms for another night.

    The snow was still falling when the fox returned. This time we were careful not to startle him and he gathered the courage to squeeze under the fence and prance about the yard. He spent a curious amount of time digging around the stump, which we later learned was stocked with a bit of dog food. He stuck around for about an hour, giving us some great photo opportunities even as the light was fading.

    We were still warming up in the common room when someone noticed a mother bear leading her cub around out on the ice. They were a hundred yards out and it was too dark for photos, but Dad and I managed to get up to the observation deck and watch them through the spotting scope. Both the mother and cub had large green dots painted on their backs, an indication that they'd recently been caught lurking abount Churchill, had spent the night in bear jail, been tranquilized and then flown out of town by helicopter. Tonight, though, they ran into a different kind of trouble when a pair of male bears approached. The mother aggressively defended her cub by charging the males, who apparently weren't interested in a fight and instead backed away rather meekly. The mother and cub spent the night nearby as we glimpsed them again in the morning as they moved further west. The males weren't finished though, and a couple of hours later we caught them sniffing about at the front door. Fortunately, the nearby picture window was protected by spiked plywood boards laid out in the snow.

    A new guest joined us at the lodge tonight, having arrived on the helicopter earlier this afternoon. As luck would have it, the new guest was Michael Poliza, the photographer who took all the wonderful photos in the Eyes over Africa book we'd all been admiring. He was here working on a new polar regions book and brought with him some serious equipment, including a $12,000 800mm lens. We were lucky enough to share a dinner table with him and learned about how he got into photography, which started a few years ago with an offer from Wilderness Safaris (an African safari camp operator) to stay in their camps in exchange for some of his photos. After dinner he put together an ad-hoc slideshow of his latest work and it was a real inspiration to hear him talk about each photo and how he was able to get some of the more amazing images.

    Seal River Heritage Lodge, 30mi northwest of Churchill

  12. Seal River Lodge, Hudson Bay - november 9

    After an early breakfast we hiked out to the airstrip to wait for Nelson only to learn that poor visibility had forced Nelson to turn back. We returned to the lodge but remained at the ready for an imminent departure. As the morning wore on and the wildlife activity intensified we pulled out more and more gear until we finally had all our tripods and largest lenses unpacked and trained on a couple of bears, a flock of Ptarmigans and the fox, who had returned for another go at the dog food.

    Not one to let us sit still, Mike offered to take us out to the nearby caribou herd that had amassed overnight. Andy and Terry loaded us into the ATV wagons and drove us a mile out to the herd. The recent snowfall made the going tough and the guides had to shovel us a path down a hillock. Snowdrifts continued to hamper our progress but we were able to make it within a hundred yards of the viewpoint before ditching the ATVs and hiking the balance. It was slow going through the knee-deep snow, but once up on the ridgeline we had a fantastic view of the snowy plains beyond where nearly 2000 caribou were resting and grazing, including a couple of males with large racks. Apparently, though, what we saw was just a small grouping of caribou, as the entire herd was some 400,000 animals.

    Returning the lodge there was still no word on our flight so we settled in for another delicious lunch. Just as we were finishing up a mother bear and her two small cubs appeared out on the ice and we all scrambled to grab our gear. It was a beautiful scene as the bears crossed the freshly fallen snow, with the two cubs dawdling behind, checking everything out, while their mother kept watch. It only lasted for 40 minutes but it was the most endearing moment of the trip.

    Nelson made one final attempt late in the day and managed to make it out of Churchill, so we rode out to the airstrip and packed into the Beaver. The low-flying ride back was a real treat as the now-frozen shoreline created some marvelous ice patterns, including one where large sheets of ice had drifted into one another forming small intersecting ridges - like a small-scale experiment in continental drift. We quickly hopped off the plane in Churchill so Nelson could make the second run before dark, and he returned an hour later with the rest of our group, having left the airstrip just as the last sliver of light was fading away.

    We were also fortunate enough to catch a late flight back to Winnipeg, avoiding another night in weather-prone Chuchill. The flight was uneventful and we arrived at our hotel in Winnipeg where we had a late but very nice group dinner in the bar (much better than the welcome dinner). At this point, having returned a day late, Rupa and I were a bit worried about catching our morning flight back to Seattle (we were booked out of Minneapolis, a long eight-hour drive away). Rupa called the airline a few times to try and switch to a later flight but the airline wanted to charge us a change fee plus the difference in fare for a total of $1500! We'd gladly paid the change fee of $200 to drive during the day, but the extra $1300 was unconscionable. Instead, we repacked our bags for the flight home and left the hotel at 2am, barely three hours after arriving.

    Hilton Suites Airport, Winnipeg

  13. Winnipeg to Seattle - november 10

    Dad and I split the driving while Rupa napped and Mom kept us company in between cat naps. It was quiet and lonely on the road, except when Dad hit an already dead dear lying on the road. His antlers took a chunk out of the lower bumper guard, but what was most surprising was Rupa's ability to sleep through the hit. There was no traffic in Minneapolis and we arrived at the airport exactly two hours before our scheduled departure. Mom and Dad continued on for a couple of hours to Madison before stopping resting for the night.

    Ironically enough our flight was overbooked and Northwest offered us $600 to fly later in the day. Ten hours ago we'd have gladly paid them $200 for the same offer, but their strict pricing policies worked against them in this case. But, having driven all night to make the early flight we weren't about to be denied, and we finally arrived home in the early afternoon, exhausted but thoroughly pleased with our latest adventure.

    At home in Seattle