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Photo-Essay: Finding Light in the Darkness of Arctic Winter

Peter Mather has gone to great lengths to photograph wildlife in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Here he shares some of his favorite winter shots and some tricks for staying warm.

Written by Peter Mather Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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A bull caribou, from the Porcupine Caribou herd, crests a snow covered hill in the Peel watershed.Peter Mather

Winter wildlife photography is an opportunity for me to create unique imagery, simply because not many people are doing it. Whether you are shooting from a plane at 2,000 feet (610m) with the door open in December, skiing for a month to the Arctic coast, chasing caribou, in March or wading across half-frozen rivers in search of grizzly bears in November, you probably aren’t going to be very comfortable.

A lynx is seen on the Dempster Highway near Yukon's Tombstone Territorial Park and Eagle Plains. (Peter Mather)

A lynx is seen on the Dempster Highway near Yukon’s Tombstone Territorial Park and Eagle Plains. (Peter Mather)

I’m based in Whitehorse, Yukon, in northern Canada where winter lasts for seven months of the year, and if I’m not out photographing in the snow, then I’m only working part-time.

The northern lights illuminate the sky along the Dempster Highway near Tombstone Territorial Park and Eagle Plains. (Peter Mather)

The northern lights illuminate the sky along the Dempster Highway near Tombstone Territorial Park and Eagle Plains. (Peter Mather)

While winter photography certainly requires special equipment, the most important piece is always going to be in your head. You must make good decisions anytime you are adventuring in frozen landscapes. In 2015, a friend and I skied 100km (62 miles) from Old Crow, Yukon, to Ivvavik National Park to photograph the winter migration of the Porcupine caribou herd. After two weeks of hard travel, we set up our basecamp in a prime location on the side of the mountain and waited for the caribou. After a 12-hour day scouting the surrounding area, we were returning to camp near midnight when we found our way blocked by a creek in spring flood that had suddenly appeared. When we had crossed the creek earlier that day, it was solid ice covered in a foot of snow.

A bald eagle waits out a heavy snowstorm in the Chilkat Eagle Preserve in southeast Alaska. (Peter Mather)

A bald eagle waits out a heavy snowstorm in the Chilkat Eagle Preserve in southeast Alaska. (Peter Mather)

We had to get back to our camp, but didn’t feel safe crossing at this location, so we hiked upriver for three hours trying to find a safe place to cross. We found a small slot where the creek narrowed and pushed through a gap of 6 to 8 feet (1.8m to 2.4m) across. We were tired, cold and hungry, and for the next hour we discussed the idea of jumping the gap to get across the creek. We eventually chose to hike three hours back to our original crossing, where we found a safer route just downstream.

Adult muskox form a defensive ring around their young on a spit along the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This picture was taken on a month-long sea kayak trip along the Arctic Coast of Yukon and Alaska. (Peter Mather)

Adult muskox form a defensive ring around their young on a spit along the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This picture was taken on a month-long sea kayak trip along the Arctic Coast of Yukon and Alaska. (Peter Mather)

We finally arrived back in camp safe at 8 a.m. after a chilly night of searching for a safe creek crossing. However, looking back, I still get spooked. If we had tried to jump the creek at the gap, we would likely not be here today. Winter adventure in northern Canada is going to present some serious obstacles: experience and good decision-making is key to doing it safely.

A grizzly bear delays its hibernation to catch a few more salmon in the Kluane region of southern Yukon. (Peter Mather)

I feel that black-and-white photography is ideal for winter wildlife. It can create an emotional impact for the audience by drawing attention away from the colors and focusing it on the subject. Black-and-white winter wildlife images have the additional power of distilling the harsh “life and death” nature of animals in northern environments. There is a simple beauty in it. Many of my customers prefer black-and-white prints due to their timeless nature.

Dall sheep ewe and lamb licking minerals off the Alaska Highway in Kluane National Park. (Peter Mather)

Dall sheep ewe and lamb licking minerals off the Alaska Highway in Kluane National Park. (Peter Mather)

Wildlife photography requires lots of expensive equipment, and if you are going to pursue it in winter, then you are going to need to add another room or at least a closet. When temperatures drop below -30C (-22F), your camera becomes a frozen chunk of metal that will freeze your hands and bite your skin. Trying to look through the viewfinder without touching your face or eyelids to the camera becomes a difficult but necessary complication.

A young Dall sheep ram chews on grass near Kluane Lake in the depth of winter. (Peter Mather)

A young Dall sheep ram chews on grass near Kluane Lake in the depth of winter. (Peter Mather)

Battery life is greatly reduced in cold temperatures, making DSLR cameras more economical than mirrorless cameras that use up battery power with their digital live-view viewfinders. I store extra batteries as close to my body as possible to keep them warm. I never bring my camera gear indoors or in the vehicle when temperatures drop below -15 C (5 F), since the condensation created by the temperature can take hours to clear. I keep a pair of gloves and a pair of mitts with me at all times. The pair not in use is stuffed inside my coat where my body heat keeps them warm and ready to go. Hands down, my most important equipment is a pair of thick down trousers. Winter does not seem like winter when you are wearing them.

A ptarmigan takes flight near the Dempster Highway in the Eagle Plains basin of North Yukon. (Peter Mather)

A ptarmigan takes flight near the Dempster Highway in the Eagle Plains basin of North Yukon. (Peter Mather)

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