Cameraman endures extreme conditions in Canada's Arctic to film polar bear cubs emerging from their den
Frostbite, norovirus and frozen camera gear — Hugo Kitching says all was worth it to see the bears up close
Hugo Kitching is one of Canada's top wildlife cinematographers. But although he's spent weeks filming lynx in Yukon, and tracked moose for over a year in Jasper National Park's backcountry, he still hadn't seen it all.
So when the producers of Kingdom of the Polar Bears asked if he wanted to join the team on a special shoot in northern Manitoba, he didn't hesitate.
Sickness and the cold: The shoot had unusual challenges
Once on the ground, however, Kitching and the team soon faced a few unusual challenges. "The entire crew caught [norovirus] and were very sick and feverish," he said. "One cameraman actually passed out on the tundra. That situation could have turned dangerous very quickly in extreme cold."
Kitching said the Kingdom of the Polar Bears shoot took place in some of the coldest conditions he had ever experienced. But keeping himself warm was just one of the issues. "Equipment can malfunction at temperatures below –40 C — batteries drain quickly, and expensive cables can snap with frightening ease," he said. "We also had to account for what happens to camera gear when it's brought back indoors after a full day of shooting in the extreme cold. Everything gets soaked as it defrosts and condensation forms, so things can break quickly."
To avoid destroying equipment with moisture, Kitching and the team left everything in protective cases for hours after coming indoors. "If you forget a memory card in the camera, the only thing you could do is lug the whole case, with the camera inside, back outside again so you could get it out!"
'It was like holding a vigil'
Kitching spent over two months filming Kingdom of the Polar Bears, but eight days in February were the most memorable. Local Cree guides, along with Dennis Compayre, a veteran polar bear tracker, had discovered a den where a mother bear had given birth to cubs. So Kitching and Compayre settled at a safe distance away to wait for them to emerge. "It was like holding a vigil," said Kitching.
Finally, after days of patient waiting, the mother polar bear's nose peeked up over the snow drifts. "It was surreal — a type of 'Pinch me; I am dreaming' moment," he said. Kitching has observed many black bears in his career, but he was astounded at the mother bear's immense size and grandeur. "She was absolutely stunning. It seemed as if this magnificent creature was on an elevator, slowly rising out of the ground as she climbed out. She then gave this great big shake, and a giant cloud of snow flew off of her fur," he said. "It was simply amazing and is one of my favourite shots in the film."
Kitching's outdoor vigil did not end then. The next few days were spent waiting for the cubs to come out of the den for the first time. "Because [Compayre] and I were there for so many days prior to the cubs' emergence, the mother would likely be able to smell us nearby," he said. "However, we did our best to be quiet and kept a good distance." It was then he saw a wolverine.
Rarely seen in the wild by humans and thought to be a predator of bear cubs, the wolverine was thundering across the snow, close to the den. Kitching and the crew watched, mesmerized, as it paused to check out its surroundings before moving on. "For me, seeing the wolverine, such a big and powerful animal, reinforced the many challenges the polar bear cubs face the moment they are born."
Finally, the cubs emerged from the den. They were unbelievably small, but full of energy. "We were encouraged to see how long the female stayed at her den site and how freely she let the cubs play outside while we filmed," said Kitching. "[Compayre] believed that if she felt her cubs were in an unsafe situation, she would have immediately left the den with them."
'I would go back in a heartbeat'
Despite suffering minor frostbite and the nasty bout of norovirus, Kitching said, "I would go back in a heartbeat."
"Witnessing polar bears emerge from their den and following them on their important journey to Hudson Bay is such a rare opportunity," he said. "Capturing such intimate moments — as cubs experience snow for the first time, playing around their den for several days while their mother looked on — is a wildlife cameraman's dream come true."
Kitching is quick to highlight the importance of teamwork. "It was a testimony to the skill of our Cree guides that they could find the same mother and cubs several times on their long trek to the bay," he said. "If I was given the chance to return, I would love to observe and record more of their hunting behaviour. The intelligence and natural abilities of polar bears makes them an incredible subject to observe in the wild. What seems an impossible existence, at times, is their everyday reality."
Watch Kingdom of the Polar Bears on CBC Gem.