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Bruce Raby exhibits his “Four Polar Bears” photograph taken in Churchill, Manitoba

(Version française de ce texte)

Hello everybody,

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure of spending a good part of the day in Perth (Ontario) with Bruce Raby, a colleague photographer, and his grand-daughter Oksana. After an enjoyable lunch in downtown Perth, we headed to the Studio Theater to attend a matinee performance and to visit Bruce’s very first photography exhibit. Bruce, a member of the Lanark County Camera Club, is also an active volunteer at the Studio Theater. When he heard that there was no artist lined up to exhibit for the month of February, he offered to fill the walls of the theater’s foyer with 20 or so of his favorite photographs.

Bruce Raby and grand-daughter Oksana pointing to her favorite photo of her grand-father's exhibit at the Studio Theater in Perth.

Bruce Raby and grand-daughter Oksana pointing to her favorite photo of her grand-father’s exhibit at the Studio Theater in Perth.

Knowing that Bruce was including in the exhibit some of his Churchill polar bear photographs as well as some images he took last fall in Northern Labrador (on a trip to observe the caribou migration), I was most interested to head to Perth and take a closer look at his exhibit and hear some of the stories behind his images.

I met Bruce a year ago when he contacted me to make a presentation about my trips to the Arctic for MUGS, a men’s group at the Rideau Seniors Centre in Manotick (Ontario) for whom Bruce organises outings and presentations. During our email exchanges, we came to talk about Churchill and realized that, in the fall 2010, we had both participated, just days apart, in the “Lords of the Arctic” programs offered by the Churchill Northern Studies Center. I was there on week 1 (Oct 26 to Nov 2). Bruce arrived a week later to participate in week 2 (Nov 9 to 16).

Participants in week 2 were lucky that, during that one week intermission between the programs, the ponds along the Hudson’s Bay coast had started to freeze. They were therefore able to get shots of the bears walking on ice. One of the photograph Bruce took on their very first outing is of a mother and her yearling cub with their reflection on the water covering the ice. He called it “Four Polar Bears”. This image was not only featured in Reader’s Digest A Country of All Seasons hardcover book but it was also selected for the book’s back jacket and the table of contents. I think you will all agree that Bruce’s “Four Polar Bears” photograph deserves to be in the spotlight.

Bruce Raby's photograph of two polar bears taken in Churchill in November 2010.

Bruce Raby’s photograph of two polar bears taken in Churchill on November 10, 2010.

As Bruce explained, they first spotted the bears way in the distance. The tundra buggy stopped and waited. The pair slowly made their way towards them crossing a frozen pond. That’s when the photo was taken. The bears then came on land and the mother noticed a male which she thought was too close for comfort and started showing signs that she didn’t like him being around. That’s the photo you see right above Bruce’s head in the first photograph included above. The mother is staring at something on her right and seems ready for a fight. The top image is also a photograph of that same bear as she was making her way across the pond. Bruce pointed out the rounded scar right below her left eye which makes it easy to recognize her on photographs.

The group observed the pair for about 40 minutes but they stayed in the same area for 2-3 hours as there were several other bears and much activity around. The December-January 2012 issue of Our Canada featured an article written by Bruce where he describes this first outing in the tundra buggy. So, I’m going to give the floor to Bruce and let you read an extract of his article :

Shortly after boarding the buggy, someone yelled “Polar bear!” Suddenly, everyone was looking to the right, out across the taiga, straining to catch a glimpse—it was the reason we were here. Our expectations and excitement were high as we scanned the taiga trying to find the polar bear that had been sighted. Then we spotted it, lying on the snow-covered edge of a small pond. It was well off in the distance, several hundred metres from our tundra buggy, which had now come to a halt. No doubt the bear was aware of our presence long before we were aware of his. Slowly, it got up and began walking across the taiga towards us, appearing larger and larger with each step. It seemed to close the distance in mere seconds, covering some three metres with each stride.

People observing the polar bears from the tundra buggy, Churchill, Manitoba

People observing the polar bears from the tundra buggy

The top halves of the windows were quickly lowered and cameras poked out—the sound of clicking could be heard throughout the buggy. The polar bear continued directly towards us without changing its pace, its great head slowly moving from side to side as it approached. Its off-white, slightly yellowish-looking coat seemed to ruffle as it walked. Moving in perfect silence, it walked with a strange gait, turning its front paws slightly inward before putting its full weight down on them, while shifting its rear paws in a somewhat pigeon-toed manner. Its black nose twitched, sensing what was happening around it.

The bear moved effortlessly across the taiga, unafraid and certainly not bothered by our presence. If anything, it seemed curious about another strange-looking beast—the tundra buggy—invading its world. It continued on its path directly towards us, pausing briefly as it approached the rear of our vehicle.

Polar bear approaching the tundra buggy, Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear approaching the tundra buggy

By now, a number of us were outside on the open back deck snapping pictures as fast as our cameras would allow. The full size of this bear was evident, perhaps weighing 400 kilograms. We could see his huge canine-like teeth and massive paws with their equally large black claws. When he reached us, he continued right on by, moving off to our left side and was soon, once again, several hundred metres away.

Observing polar bears from the tundra buggy’s outer deck, Churchill, Manitoba.

Observing polar bears from the tundra buggy’s outer deck.

Observing polar bears from the tundra buggy's outer deck, Churchill, Manitoba

Observing polar bears from the tundra buggy’s outer deck.

Our driver asked us to return to our seats as he fired up the dieselfuelled Cummins engine. We began swaying and bouncing as we jerked and jarred our way across the rough terrain of the semifrozen taiga to continue our quest for more polar bears.

Tundra buggy swaying and bouncing, Churcill, Manitoba

Tundra buggy swaying and bouncing

During our two outings on the taiga, we were able to observe several different polar bear behaviours. They are fearless. They are curious. They amble with a certain swagger that suggests they know they are the lords of the Arctic, the kings and queens of their domain. They spar and wrestle in play, or perhaps as practice for the real thing out on the ice. You can see their massive teeth pulling at each others skin. This large expenditure of energy lasts five to ten minutes and rarely draws blood or results in any injury.

Sparring polar bears, Churchill, Manitoba

Sparring polar bears

Most of the time, however, they just relax and conserve energy in a wide variety of poses. Not once did we see a polar bear running. We watched as one slid head-first down a small, snow-covered slope on its belly as if on a toboggan. This is one of the ways that polar bears clean themselves off after feasting on a seal. We watched as another bear shook itself dry after emerging from the frigid Hudson Bay waters—its oily fur a natural water repellent. While we didn’t see any newborn cubs, we did spot some adult females sticking very close to their yearling cubs while in the presence of male bears.

Polar bear resting and conserving energy, Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear resting and conserving energy

Bruce ended his article with the following paragraph:

After returning to Perth and thinking about my experience, I must say, it is truly a magical place. Seeing polar bears up close is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and to have learned a little about them at the same time is priceless. I’d encourage anyone who wants to see these wondrous bears to make the trip to Churchill—after all, it’s practically in our own backyard.

Thank you, Bruce, for bringing back such great memories of Churchill! Congratulations on your very first photo exhibit. I hope it has many more venues.
France Rivet

Note: Bruce has offered to give all proceeds from the sales of his photographs to the Studio Theater to help finance the installation of an elevator. The stage being located on the second floor of the building, this elevator is needed to ensure that everyone in the community can enjoy the great shows that are presented at the theater. Here’s are the details on how we can all contribute to help Give the Theater a Lift!

8 comments to Bruce Raby exhibits his “Four Polar Bears” photograph taken in Churchill, Manitoba

  • Oksana Raby

    Merci beaucoup.


  • Interested in a trip to see the polar bears. Could you send some info? Beautiful pictures! Les & Marilyn Check

  • France Rivet

    Hello Les and Marylin,

    Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. Glad you like the pictures. Here is a link to the Churchill Northern Studies Center where you can get all the information about their Lords of the Arctic Learning Vacation program. That’s the program both Bruce and myself went on in the fall 2010, just a week apart from one another.

    Have a great day!
    France Rivet

  • Laurie Seguin

    Great article and pictures…

    Is it possible you’re the same Bruce Raby who used to coach me in hockey and baseball in Ottawa during the 1970’s?

  • Carol Kerwin

    I was wondering if you can send me a contact email for Bruce Raby as I would like to ask his permission to use one of his images in a mixed media painting.

  • Oksana Raby

    hi and You are welcome

  • Sharon

    Wow, great story and experience Bruce. Your photos are spectacular. Congratulations on your exhibit.

  • Barbara miller

    Bruce, loved meeting you on the bay in St Anthony!! These polar bear pics are awesome! I’m sure you iceberg shots are also beautiful Barb miller

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