Congratulations to Corbis contributor Paul Souders for winning the Grand Prize in National Geographic’s 2013 Photo Contest. We asked Paul a few questions about the journey to capture his award winning images.
Where and when were these images taken?
Hudson Bay is well known as one of the best places on earth to see and photograph Polar Bears, but I don’t want to spend two weeks crammed into a Tundra Buggy with dozens of other tourists.
My plan was to travel overland, on my own by car and boat, from my front porch to the arctic circle on Hudson Bay.
I drove away from my home in Seattle on July 1, towing my 22-foot C-Dory boat and carrying more than 1000 pounds of camera gear, survival equipment, food and fuel. I carried enough provisions to last eight weeks in the wilds. Clearly, I’m not one to travel light.
It’s more than three days and 1800 miles of long, mostly boring highway driving from the Pacific Coast halfway across the continent to the end of Canada’s road system, at the small town of Gillam, Manitoba. The Nelson River carries water from much of the Canadian prairie northeast into Hudson Bay. Once it served as canoe and boat route for the Cree Indian tribes of the region, and a shipping and trade center for the Hudson Bay Company. Since the 1950’s, a series of dams has been built to generate vast amounts of hydro-electric power.
Beyond the last dam site below Conawapa, the Nelson winds 50 miles through boreal forest to reach Hudson Bay, a vast inland saltwater sea, reaching more than 600 miles north to the Arctic Circle. I’m couldn’t have been the first person to do this trip, but information about boating the Nelson, let alone small boat travel on the Bay is hard to find. I relied on whatever bits of local knowledge I could track down along the way. When I backed my trailer down a steep dirt road and into the Nelson, I felt like I was stepping off into the unknown.
Over the following weeks, I slowly motored along the Bay’s western coast, frustrated by poor charts, bad weather and my own meager maritime skills. The distances were vast for a small boat like mine, and the immensity of the play sometimes turned oppressive. Northern Manitoba’s interior is a huge, flat forest, and the coastline is shallow and badly mapped. Days went by out of sight of any landmarks, and the sky turned hazy with the smoke of summer forest fires. I grounded the boat three different times on uncharted reefs, sometimes waiting hours for the tide to fall and rise again, allowing me to motor onwards.
I read somewhere that until you’re standing in the middle of nowhere, head in hands desperate to quit and go home, you’re just on vacation. After that, it’s a proper adventure.
I was three weeks into the trip before I saw my first polar bears, and it was only after motoring more than 1500 nautical miles (2775 kilometer) and reaching the arctic circle at a scruffy village called Repulse Bay that things got good. An immense sheet of pack ice blew down from the arctic, stopping me in my tracks and forcing me to drive my boat onto shore to avoid being crushed. I spent a long day there, climbing up to high ground only to see an unbroken sheet of white stretching to the horizon. It was not an encouraging view. But within 12 hours, the tides has loosened the shore ice enough for me to push through and find safe anchorage for the night.
And with the ice came hundreds of walrus and dozens of polar bears.
How close were you to the wildlife?
As close as they would allow me without overly stressing them. I found that herds of walrus were easy to approach in my white Zodaic, so long as I moved slowly and quietly. To them, I might have well been another iceberg. Polar bears were another matter. The bears are incredibly aware of their surroundings, through their sensitive noses but also sight and sound. I watched bears more than a mile away, barely visible on a distant hillside, take off running at the sight of my little boat on the ocean. It’s enough to hurt your feelings.
But there were others who had just the opposite reaction. Any time I went onshore, I carried a 12 gauge shotgun for protection, loaded with noise-making bear banger shells. I carried two lead slugs in my pocket, in case of dire emergency, but I had no intention of harming any bears.
In seven weeks, I never had to fire the shotgun. Having spent months photographing Grizzly Bears in Alaska, I thought I understood bears, but nothing prepared me for the relentless, fearless approach of a curious, hungry polar bear. I stood my ground, I waved my arms, I spoke in calm, firm tones. And they kept right on approaching, backing me into the water and back onto my little dinghy, motoring away.
My most dramatic images were in the water, photographing both walrus and bears using an underwater camera housing on the end of a six-foot pole. It’s a little uncertain, since I can’t see the viewfinder, but using wide-angle and fisheye lenses, I can place the camera in the water near the subject and shoot away using a remote cable. Sometimes the camera was inches away from the walrus or bear, and I had one bear leave a deep scratch in the acrylic dome from a well-placed bite.
What do you like about arctic?
It’s not like I deliberately set out looking for the most uncomfortable, expansive and lonely places on earth to visit. It’s just worked out that way. I fell in love with the North more than 25 years ago, and keep coming back for more. The problem with doing it this long is the desire to find new destinations and subjects.
For years I was happy driving up and down the Alaska Highway in a VW camper. Then I bought a boat and began exploring Alaska’s coastline. And now I’ve found an even more remote, forbidding and beautiful coastline in the Canadian Arctic.
I love the space and light, and all of the dangers and challenges that come with mounting a solo expedition to the far ends of the globe.
What was your reaction to seeing the bear up so close and personal? Did you ever feel threatened? Were you worried the bear might break the zodiac?
Every time I left my ‘big’ boat, I reminded myself that if I screw up, I die. As careful as I was, as much emergency equipment as I carried, I know in my heart that the arctic is too big, too empty and too cold to count on anyone coming to my rescue. Any time I approached a bear or walrus from my zodiac, I felt a little bump of adrenaline and could feel my heart thumping hard in my chest. I think it’s something we’re genetically wired for. I paid a lot of attention to what I was doing, how the animals were reacting, and how to stay out of the water.
One bear did surprise me, swatting at the camera and clawing a hole in my zodiac. It was a small leak that I didn’t immediately notice, but it made for a memorable trip home.
The weather and the vast ocean scared me more than the wildlife though. I have never felt so small and so alone in my life. Much of the Bay’s shoreline is quite flat with few sheltered coves to safely anchor in during a storm. The worst moment of the trip had nothing to do with big, scary animals. It was rounding Cape Churchill in the fog at four in the morning. I’d been at the helm for more than 20 hours and was exhausted and disoriented in the half light of the arctic summer night. The wind had picked up, but I couldn’t understand why I saw breaking waves up ahead. It was an uncharted reef, and I only barely managed to pull my motors out the water before the wind blew me on the rocks. A fiberglass boat makes horrible sounds when grinding agains the bottom, and for long moments I thought my trip was over. I stood on deck, shaking with fatigue and cold and fear, trying to decide what to load into my zodiac and how I was going to use it as a lifeboat.
But the tide kept dropping and soon I was on level, solid ground. Since I wasn’t going anywhere soon, I curled up on my bunk, got a little sleep, and waited for the tide to come back in and the sun to rise. The wind blew me off the reef and I motored the rest of my way into town.
See more of Paul’s work on Corbis here.
See National Geographic’s contest page here.