Arctic Photography Adventure Workshop III

by Dr. Robert Berdan
September 21, 2011


Caribou in front of Petersons Point Lake lodge welcome sign by Chad Peterson ©

Chad Peterson, one of the guides and owners of Peterson's Point Lake Lodge, showed us some of his pictures where Caribou came right into the camp and in this case stopped at the welcome sign. It is possible to simply sit and wait at the lodge for the Caribou to come wandering by, but most of us enjoyed exploring the tundra on foot and by boat.

Group photo of Workshop III participants by Robert Berdan ©

Above, group of photographers and guides at the Arctic Adventure Workshop III from left to right: Dr. Robert Berdan, Egan Wuth, Judy Atkins, Roger Stanley, George Kimmel, Robert Kerr, Amanda Peterson, Sue and Fred Elliot, Chad Peterson, Bruce Weber and Dr. Wayne Lynch (missing in action is Margaret Peterson back at camp). The picture was taken at our fish fry in Caribou Bay. It rained lightly during lunch, but it didn't dampen our spirts or our appetite. We feasted on seven freshly caught lake trout, pan fried potatoes and beans before heading out in search for more scenic landscapes and wildlife.

Arctic adventure III photo workshop started in Yellowknife on September 5 and ended on September 11. We had an eclectic mix of photographers from as far away as North Carolina. We spent our first two days in Yellowknife touring the city and traveling along the Ingraham trail including a hike to Cameron Falls. In the evening we photographed the Aurora at Prelude Territorial Park (see separate article) and at Pontoon lake along the Ingraham trail. The Aurora was the best I have ever seen it. During the day we stopped at Giant mine to photograph scrap metal and raven acrobatics up high on the cliff side. (View some of the metal textures from the outdoor mining museum from a previous shoot).

Acrobatic Ravens by Robert Berdan ©

Raven's drift along the rising air currents around the cliffs outside of Yellowknife. 300 mm + 1.4 X lens, Canon 7D.

On Wednesday, Sept. 7 we flew aboard Air Tindi to the lodge located on Point Lake, about 250 Km north of Yellowknife (see map below). We arrived on a blustery day and after we settled into our cabins it was not long before we saw a few Caribou in the distance. Bruce Weber lead Rob Kerr and Wayne Lynch out onto the tundra to get as close as they could to the Caribou Bulls. Wayne carried a 600 mm F4 lens while Robert carried a 400 mm F2.8 lens and tripod (see below).

Bruce Weber, Wayne Lynch and Rob Kerr hiking on the tundra with camera gear by Robert Berdan ©

The rest of us watched as Wayne and Robert approached the Caribou on the ridge outside of camp. They quickly discovered that the tundra is a mix of uneven ground and marshy areas and it requires effort to carry big heavy telephoto lenses over it. A good pair of rubber boats is best for walking on this type of ground. The colours of the tundra make a perfect backdrop for the caribou whose fur is also in excellent condition in preparation for winter. Sometimes the caribou would allows us to approach within 50 yards or even closer and other times they would run off when they saw us a few hundred yards away. In general the caribou were less likely to run away from us when we viewed them from our small boats. Sometimes the caribou were curious and would move toward us to see what we were.

Peterson's Point Lake Lodge early morning on the second day by Robert Berdan ©

Peterson's Point Lake lodge on the first morning - clear skies and the 70 Km long lake was unusually calm so we took to the boats in search of Caribou along the shoreline.

Pair of Caribou bulls near the  Peteron's Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan

Caribou Bulls 300 mm F2.8 lens, 1.5 X teleconverter, Nikon D300 Camera - photographed near the lodge.

On the second day, the wind died down and we had a beautiful sunrise. Point lake was as smooth as glass so we traveled by boat around the lake looking for Caribou and other wildlife. Daily activities at the lodge are largely determined by the type of weather we encounter. We traveled south east to Esker Bay and along the way we stopped to photograph Caribou grazing on the tundra. We saw one large Bull limping along and my thought was that this animal is not likely to survive the long winter. When we arrived in Esker Bay, our guide Egan spotted a small herd of Caribou near the mouth of the river valley. We hiked within 50 yards and photographed them for 15 minutes before they became aware of us and ran up the valley (see below).

Group of Caribou coming to drink water in Esker Bay by Robert Berdan ©

Caribou at the mouth of Esker Bay - I hid behind some willows to take this photo. 300 mm F4 + 1.4X telconverter,
Canon 7D.

Most of our gang hiked up on the Esker where we spotted several more Caribou, discarded Caribou antlers and a wolverine. Judy Atkins first spotted the Wolverine about 300 yards away in the valley and although I took a few pictures of him, I couldn't get a sharp one with my 300 mm F4 lens and teleconverter. Still it was exciting to see this rare carnivore.

Wolverine on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©

Wolverine about 300 yards away - he stopped briefly, and for such a small animal moved very quickly over the tundra. Even though I was ready and prepared with my camera I wasn't able to get a clear photograph of him and there was no chance I could catch up to him had I taken pursuit. Wolverines are known for their strength and ferocity. These carnivores feed on Lemmings, voles, ground squirrels, nesting birds, carcasses of all kinds and some berries and roots. They can even kill young caribou or moose when the winter snow is soft and deep. Wolverine fur is renowned for the fact that hoarfrost will not form on it and is ideal for parka hoods because breath won't freeze on it ( A Naturalists guide to the Arctic by E.C. Pielou, Univ. Chicago Press).

Roger Stanley and Bruce Weber on top of an esker by Robert Berdan ©

Roger Stanley and guide Bruce Weber at the top of an Esker in Esker Bay. The Esker provides spectacular views in all directions making it easier to spot wildlife that might be in the valleys below. Eskers are long, narrow, steep-sided ridges of gravel and sand between 10-50 meters high that were formed by glaciers. The sediments were deposited by rivers flowing through tunnels in and under the ice at the time the glaciers were melting.

Judy Atkins sitting on top of an Esker by Robert Berdan ©

Judy Atkins taking in the view from atop the Esker at Esker Bay. In the valley we saw some discarded Caribou antlers.

Rolling hills of the tundra by Robert Berdan ©

Tundra from further down the Esker Ridge - we later saw a wolf chasing a cow and young caribou in the distance.

When we returned to our boats we saw fresh grizzly and wolf tracks along the shoreline. One of us, Robert Kerr had stayed behind at the boats and told us that a wolf had walked right by him. I have to admit I didn't believe him until he showed me his photographs - one of them is below. Sometimes it pays to stay put and wait for the wildlife to come to you!

White wolf by Robert Kerr ©

Close encounter with a white Wolf courtesy of Robert Kerr photographed with 400 mm F2.8 lens in Esker Bay visit to see more of Robert Kerr's photography and paintings.

After a day of searching for Caribou and other wildlife we returned for dinner and when it started to get dark around 9 pm we head out side to watch for the aurora. We had been spoiled by really magnificent Auroral displays during our first two nights in Yellowknife, but the Aurora at Point Lake was not a disappointment. Some of us would sit outside our cabins until the wee hours of the morning watching the aurora. If the Aurora display got especially bright then Roger and I would wake the others up no matter how early in the morning it was. As the week went on the moon rose higher in the night sky and got brighter reducing the overall brightness of the Aurora.

Aurora over our cabins on Point Lake by Robert Berdan ©

The Aurora started around 10 pm in the evening on clear nights and its intensity varied through out the night. We also had a very bright moon early in the evening, but it dipped below the horizon later in the morning making for much darker skies for those who cared to stay up that late.

Aurora over Point Lake NWT by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora over Point lake - the clear skies were punctuated with shooting stars and we could see the Aurora reflection off the lake.

Aurora over cabins at Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora over our cabin and reflection off small lake behind the lodge around 2 am.

Aurora and Milky way at Petersons Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora over the main Cabin looking north - part of the milky way can be seen near the center of the photograph - the thin white lines represent "shooting stars". 24 mm F1.4 lens, ISO 800 Canon 5 D Mark II.

Aurora over Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

On some nights the entire sky was aglow with the Aurora Borealis - this photo was taken around 3:00 am when the moon had dropped below the horizon.

Sunrise at Point Lake by Robert Berdan ©

Sunrise was also an excellent time to take photos, though staying out late to watch the Aurora made it difficult to roll out of bed early in the morning. Sunrise was at about 7:00 am. On one morning Egan Wuth spotted 5 Willow Ptarmigan walking around the cabins and notified us. These birds practically posed for us and stayed close by the cabins for most of the week.

Willow Ptarmigan by Robert Berdan ©

Willow Ptarmigan wandered around the cabins making them easy to photograph. We watched them feed on small buds. Their feathers were changing in colour from their summer plummage to their white winter plummage. Note their feathers cover their feet.

Harris sparrow by Robert Berdan ©

A group of Harris sparrows congregate in front of the main cabin around a bird feeder. We also photographed Arctic ground squirrels also called (Sik Sik and a white crowned sparrow. Other birds we heard and saw flying overhead included Tundra swans, Canada Geese, Common Merganser and Loons.

Morning Cloak butterfly by Robert Berdan ©

Biting mosquitoes and blackflies were gone, though we did see several morning cloak butterflies and grasshoppers on the tundra. Many insects can cool down to 0° C without their liquid contents turning to ice. They do this by forming chemicals which act as natural antifreeze agents. Insects are an important food source for birds in the Arctic.

Autumn colours on tundra reflected in small lake at Peterson's Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

Colours reflected in a small lake immediately behind our cabins. Trees are found in small patches on the tundra usually near water sources that increase the depth of the perma frost allowing them to extend their roots.

Caribou on high ridge with blue sky by Robert Berdan ©

Caribou sky lining on a high ridge on the tundra - photographed from our boat.

Catching a lake trout on Point Lake by Robert Berdan ©

Amanda Peterson reels in a "shaker" about a 6-7 pound Lake Trout and Roger Stanley photographs it. We spent one morning fishing near Red Rock Lake in order to have a fish fry.

Robert Kerr kisses Lake Trout he caught on Point Lake NWT by Robert Berdan ©

Robert Kerr - finally catches a lake trout and decides to give it a kiss as he can now join the fish feast.

Red Bear berry leaves covered in frost by Robert Berdan ©

The tundra offers great opportunities for Macro photography - above frost covered Bear berry leaves.

Lichen and moss on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©

Mix of Reindeer Lichen, Cladonia and various mosses on the Tundra - 100 mm Macro lens

Small herd of Caribou by Robert Berdan ©

This small group of Caribou wandered by the camp and were resting on the beach near the lodge. Canon 7D with 300 mm F4 lens with 1.4 X teleconverter.

Slow exposure pan of Caribou running by Robert Berdan ©

Slow exposure pan of the Caribou running across the Tundra after we accidently spooked them.

Lone bull near Point Lake by Robert Berdan ©

Young Bull near the lodge

Fresh snow on tundra by Robert Berdan ©

On our last day in the morning we had a sprinkling of snow to remind us winter was on its way and it was time to leave.

View Larger Map Google Map showing the location of Point Lake Lodge in the NWT

What is so special about the Arctic and the Tundra?

From a photographers point of view the Tundra in autumn forms a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and cliffs covered in red dwarf birch and yellow willows. On closer inspection the ground is covered in a wide variety of lichens that form interesting patterns and textures that make up an important food source for the Caribou. Flying over the tundra it is simply mind boggling to see just how big it is and how many lakes there are. The tundra can be considered "The Serengeti of the north" and there is an amazing abundance of fauna and flora. We saw caribou on every trip out. To date I have seen two wolves, two wolverines, one grizzly with young, several arctic ground squirrels, more then a hundred Caribou and a variety of birds. On clear nights in Autumn, the Aurora is simply spectacular and the clarity of the sky and darkness permit us to see numerous faint stars, shooting stars and of course the Aurora Borealis. Next year should be even better for the Aurora as it approaches Solar Max, a time when the number of sunspots is most numerous and the Aurora reaches its maximum activity. It is hard to imagine another place where photographers have so much to see and photograph. The temperature in Autumn is comfortable varying between about 0 - 20°C and the absence of bitting insects can only be appreciated if you have visited the tundra in Summer.

The cost of the workshop has to be considered along with the potential to see and photograph unqiue wildlife and phenomena - some may think it's expensive until you compare it with photo excursions to foreign countries ( Cost of the Arctic workshop $4795\person from Yellowknife). Transportation of people and supplies to the Arctic is not cheap, but there is an isolation and tranquility that I have not found anywhere else. If you might be interested in joining us next Autum to take photographs please contact me or visit Peterson's Point Lake Lodge web site for more information for this once in a life time photo adventure.

Finally I would like to thank all the participants, the guides and cooks for a wonderful experience, the Peterson team went out of their way to ensure everyone got as close as safely possible to the Caribou and we were served gourment meals each day. It was also a pleasure this year to have Dr. Wayne Lynch along who enlightened us on many aspects of the wildlife - check out Wayne's web site to see more of his photographs and look for his upcoming article on the Tundra in PHOTONEWS. See my news section for a link to the article. RB


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