KITCHEN OPEN? An inquisitive polar bear takes a close up look at a Tundra Buggy and its occupants.
KITCHEN OPEN? An inquisitive polar bear takes a close up look at a Tundra Buggy and its occupants.

Polar bears' picnic

By TIM HOWARD

TEN days stalking polar bears as they waited 'for the kitchen to open' on the shores of Hudson Bay in Canada, has furnished Grafton wildlife photographer Kevin Dixon with an imposing catalogue of images and stories.

Mr Dixon shot off 40 rolls of film and also downloaded memory cards of digital images daily during his icy November sojourn at Cape Churchill, near the self-styled Polar Bear Capital of the World, Churchill, in the province of Manitoba.

Despite the savage cold ? temperatures varied between minus 25 to minus 30 degrees Celsius ? he took his photographs in the relative comfort of a Tundra Buggy vehicle with seven other photographers.

"It was an expedition aimed at the professional photographer, wanting professional images of polar bears," Mr Dixon said. In his company were professional photographer Bela Beliko, whose polar bear calendars sell worldwide, and noted wildlife photographer Robert Taylor. National Geographic and a Discovery Channel film crew also were aboard. However, during the whole tour none of the photographers' feet touched the ice once.

"Polar bears see human beings as food," Mr Dixon said.

"We were told under no circumstances were we to leave the vehicle.

"If we attempted to feed or even touch the bears, we would be fined $1000 (Canadian) and given a helicopter ride, at our expense, back to Churchill."

Mr Dixon said the area lived up to its title of Polar Bear Capital of the World.

"Every year the polar bears in the region gather around Cape Churchill waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze ? they're waiting for the kitchen to open," he said.

"Once the bay ices over, the bears go hunting on the ice for seals."

It's a hungry time for the polar bears, which have been living on their fat reserves while waiting for the seal feast to begin.

"THE smell of the European sausage cooking in our buggies always attracted any nearby bears," Mr Dixon said.

Polar bears grow to intimidating dimensions.

"One big old bear was able to stretch up the side of the buggy and stick his head in the window," Mr Dixon said.

"The buggy windows are about 360cm off the ground and he was able to look inside."

Despite the home-style comforts of the buggy, an accident with the gas heater gave the photographers an insight into the conditions Arctic and Antarctic explorers such as Mawson and Shackleton experienced.

"One night someone was fiddling with the gas heater and accidentally turned it off," Mr Dixon said.

"I woke up around 3am absolutely freezing. Luckily my thermal vest was handy and I was able to put that on. My arms and legs still froze, but I was able to keep my torso warm.

"No-one owned up to turning off the heater, but we all got a warm lecture not to play around with the heating."

This trip was also a valuable technical experience for him.

"Most nights the professional photographers gave talks about photography and their experiences," he said.

"It also gave me a chance to make personal contact with a few professionals."

Also, if he can have four more of his photographs accepted at upcoming exhibitions in Sydney and Maitland, he will receive his Masters award from the Licentiate Australian Photographic Society.

"If that that happens ? and it should ? I can then put the letters LAPS after my name," he said.

Mr Dixon is working on turning his stash of new material into a Powerpoint presentation he can use for the series of talks he will give to the local Rotary, CWA, camera and bushwalking clubs, Ozanam Village and primary schools.

His next trip could be some time off and will involve a significant departure from his three cold-climate adventures.

"I would like to photograph the bush gorillas of Rwanda," he said.



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