Newborn Polar Bear Cubs of Wapusk National Park

by Jon Huyer
April 14, 2014


Northern Lights at Wat'chee Lodge by Jon Huyer ©


Northern Lights at Wat’chee Lodge

I’m as fascinated and enthralled by the arctic as I am of bears, so getting the chance to see newborn polar bear cubs in northern Manitoba was an absolute dream come true.  A last-minute cancellation opened up a spot for me, on a trip that is normally booked solid 1-2 years in advance.  I packed every single piece of warm clothing I had into a big duffle bag, and then tried to get away with 40 lbs of camera gear and electronics as carry-on baggage (it worked).

Train from Churchill by Jon Huyer ©


A two-hour train ride from Churchill takes you to Wapusk Park, where you hop into waiting vans

The viewing season runs from mid-February to late March, which is when the newborn cubs emerge from their dens in Wapusk National Park.  The park is located just south of Churchill Manitoba, and contains the highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world.  Nevertheless, finding a den and being there at the right time is a matter of huge skill and incredible luck, respectively.  The Inuit guides provided the skill, and found a den site 14 km south of the remote Wat’chee Lodge that was our home for seven nights.  Each morning we would ride in tracked vehicles for 90 minutes to get to the den, set up our tripods the requisite 100 metres away, stand in the blowing wind, and wait.  And wait.


A self-portrait, standing on the frozen tundra

It took until our third day until we hit gold, and were able to witness the mother bear emerge from the den for the first time with her 3-month old cub (the cubs are born in the den in early December).  We had a precious 5 minutes with the world’s newest polar bear family that day, before they scurried back into the den.  But we went back to the lodge that evening absolutely thrilled, and excited for the possibility of a repeat performance the next day.


Mother and cub polar bear emerging from den near Churchill by Jon Huyer ©


Mother and cub emerge from the den

As luck would have it, the bears did come out on the fourth day, this time for over an hour.  I took several thousand pictures, and marveled at our great fortune.  This mother had a single cub, whereas 70% of the time they produce twins.  Nevertheless they both appeared very healthy and the cub was certainly energetic.


The world’s newest polar bear family greets the attending paparazzi



Mothern and young polar bear by Jon Huyer ©


The setting sun cast a warm glow on this tender scene


Photographers on the tundra packing up at sunset by Jon Huyer ©


Packing up after a long day


On the fifth day, the guides discovered that the mother bear had moved her cub to a new location (the guides always went out before us in snowmobiles, to quickly check on the den site before we started the long drive).


Polar bear tracks in the snow by Jon Huyer ©

Polar bear tracks --- note the faint cub tracks to the left

The skill of the guides became very evident again as they managed to track the bears to a location 10 km away from the den, but fortunately also 10 km closer to our lodge.  On our arrival, we found the cub resting on its mother’s back… an absolutely perfect pose.  We had the entire day with them, and I gleefully filled my memory cards with many gigabytes of images.


Mom and baby polar bear on snow by Jon Huyer ©


Snug as a bug

On our final day the weather became exceptionally harsh, with the already strong wind nearly doubling in intensity.  Snow was blowing around like a sandstorm, creating the most challenging shooting conditions I’ve ever experienced.  I had to remove my lens hood every 10 minutes to clean out the accumulated snow.  Three tripods blew over in the tempest, fortunately with no resulting damage.  The mother bear and cub hunkered down, and the soft light created some beautiful photo opportunities.

Mom and baby polar bear cuddling in snowstorm by Jon Huyer ©

A tender moment in the midst of the storm

In the middle of the afternoon, the Mom decided it was time to continue the migration north to Hudson Bay, where she could begin the seal hunt. It was an incredibly poignant farewell, as the pair marched into the blowing mist. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect ending to the trip.



Farewell, good hunting, and thank you

The unique challenges of this trip required me to make use of every bit of experience I had in wildlife photography and surviving cold weather.  Each day I wore virtually every piece of clothing I brought with me.  The ambient temperature ranged from -20 to -30 C, but the wind chill was simply outrageous --- it hit you like a fire hose.  The wind blows from the north, creating deep drifts on the lee side of the many small hills in the area that are perfect for bears to make their dens.  That means to face the den you are always looking north, into the wind.  On the plus side, this put the sun to our back so the lighting was ideal.  I brought my 500 mm lens with 1.4 teleconverter, which gave me just enough reach with my full-frame camera body.  A high-quality tripod is a must, and it’s a very good idea to hang a weight (like your camera bag) from the centre hook.  I brought three batteries and swapped them out every 1-2 hours with a warm one.  An especially good trick I learned was to use my cable release, and keep it inside a mitt so I wouldn’t have to hold my hand on the shutter button.  Keeping a close eye on the histogram was essential, to dial in the correct amount of exposure compensation.  I kept a point-and-shoot camera handy in an inside pocket, for snapshots.  Don’t forget to bring a wide-angle lens for those nighttime aurora opportunities… assuming you have enough energy to stay awake after those long days on the tundra.

For anyone keen to do this trip, feel free to get in touch with me at the email address below… I’d be happy to provide further tips and advice.  Be aware that the risk of coming home without a single shot is very real, and like all wildlife photography there are no guarantees.  But for the extremely patient and lucky few, this can be the most rewarding photography you’ll ever get the chance to do.


Jon Huyer portrait

Bio: Jonathan Huyer is a nature and wildlife photographer based in Canmore Alberta.  A gallery of his photos can be found at


This is Jon's 6th Article for the Canadian Nature Photographer see his other articles:



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Additional Links

Wapusk National Park:
Wat’chee Expeditions
Arctic Kingdom tours:
Churchill Manitoba tourism:

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