Text And Photography By Beth Davidow
A gentle breeze carrying autumn-warm tundra scents blows towards the low rise where our small group nestles behind ancient glaciated boulders. Wispy clouds float in endless blue above a sea of hills stretching in all directions. Sitting in the vast tundra expanse, observing a herd of wild prehistoric-looking muskox grazing below us, I feel immersed in the natural world.
For more than 25 years, I’ve been a professional wildlife photographer, and now cinematographer, and I still love being in a wilderness setting with few people nearby. It’s why I choose to join Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures (GCWA) in Nunavik, Canada, for my expeditions. I’ve known the company’s owner, “Tundra Tom” Faess, since I first met him at a NANPA meeting in 1995 and appreciate his commitment to getting photographers into truly wild places where animals can be photographed in their natural setting. He’s devoted his life to sharing the wild Canadian north with guests and knows where and when to best position camps to maximize wildlife opportunities. His mobile camps offer comfy tents, hearty meals, and enough power to charge all of our batteries! A warm tent and hot thermos are welcome after photographing a starry autumn night sky exploding in auroral fireworks.
As a wildlife professional, I know that being on the tundra means that nature may not hand me the “money shot” that is easier to get from a captive animal shoot, or often in a national park. We’ve become programmed to crave that close-up of an animal. I also seek the shot showing the animal as part of the landscape. Tundra Tom and his guides do their best to get you into position for both scenarios. Hiking across the tundra, experiencing the myriad plants that make up this northern ecosystem, and moving steadily, carefully, and quietly towards the muskox makes me value the experience of being a wildlife photographer. And I know that my images are of truly wild creatures and places.
The herd we are watching contains some 23 animals. A huge shaggy bull with golden mane leads the group. A number of calves frolic beside their mothers while young bulls feed nearby occasionally rushing towards each other in mock charges. A few times we feel the low rumble of the head bull as he cautions a member of his tribe. From the time we hiked out this morning to this afternoon as we sit watching and photographing the animals, I feel like I’m witness to the Pleistocene, when these ancients roamed the landscape once covered by the glaciers that shaped the hills and lakes we now view.
Because I want to maximize my chances of getting the best possible images, I always choose to do back-to-back trips. It’s worth it in the long run, to stay twice as long on location in case weather sets in, or the animals are just too far away. Muskox range over a fairly large area, but we only had one day out of the ten I was there when they were too far away to photograph with my Tamron 150-600mm lens. I stayed one day in camp when it was damp, though others went out, and another day I chose to explore close to home, to film the plants and other components of the tundra to round out a story. I try not to focus only on the charismatic megafauna that is the main attraction but to turn my eyes inward to everything that makes a location special. In addition to my long lens, I carry a wide angle and macro lens for those purposes. I am a wildlife photographer/ filmmaker to share stories of wild places and spaces and those other images round out the Northern tale.
I had such a great time with GCWA on the muskox trip that the following summer I returned to Nunavik, this time to experience the caribou migration. Caribou populations across the north are seeing their numbers diminish for various reasons but the Leaf River herd in Nunavik, while decreasing, remains strong. With Inuit insight and assistance, Tundra Tom has placed the camp in the exact spot where caribou over the millennia have crossed on their north-south migration. Their trackways, etched deep into the hillsides and tundra, attest to their movements.
Again, this summer, I’ve chosen to stay on back-to-back trips. Climate change is affecting the north and this summer is no exception. It’s so hot that the caribou stayed up north where ocean breezes help mitigate the biting bugs. While waiting for the caribou to head south to our camp we explored the region. Hiking across the glacially-scoured landscape, travelling by Inuit canoe far upstream into the quietest spaces where we saw peregrine falcons wheeling overhead, black bears feeding, and lone muskox grazing along riverbanks gave us a deep appreciation for this rugged wilderness. A few times we watched wolves lope near camp. The vast river system winding blue through the wild landscape carried a peacefulness to my being that only Nature provides. I was at home in my element, connected to the natural world. It felt so good to be so far away from the chaos fomenting in the “real” world!
While awaiting the coming of the caribou, we wandered the island on which our camp was situated. Tundra flowers and berries, songbirds and waterfowl, all made good photo subjects. Our Inuit guides caught Arctic char, cooking it fresh out of the river for scrumptious feasts. We dipped bottles into the crystal clear water for delicious drinks or plunged in for a refreshing swim. At night we watched green ghosts dance in the sky, swirling amongst the myriad stars.
One evening, clouds roiled in on a cold wind. Bugs disappeared as did the view of the aurora, but we were happy because the cold wind also sent the caribou on the move, en route to their ancient crossing by our camp! What a thrill to see the first caribou top the distant hill across from the camp, a group of tall-antlered bulls with a few cows and calves distinct, but tiny, against the sky! Flowing down the slopes on paths worn by centuries of hooves, the animals came down to the river in wave after wave, to cross the water, race across the island, and continue their journey south. We watched the caribou, cameras clicking and video cameras rolling, as group after group poured down the hill, swam the river, and dashed away. Often the animals came ashore so close to where we sat hunkered quietly behind bushes so as not to frighten them that our long lenses were useless! The zoom came in handy at those moments.
When the Inuit canoes carried us away from caribou camp, I left with sadness for having to depart, wishing I could stay longer. But, my heart was glad, not only for having witnessed this natural spectacle, but also for feeling so at peace in the quiet Nunavik wilderness. I’m already looking forward to my next experience with Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures!
For more information about these special northern wildlife trips contact:
Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures at www.thelon.com / phone +608-370-5071.