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JAIME SHARP: Encounters with Polar Bears and the Svalbard Expedition

Jaime Sharp: Encounters with Polar Bears from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Explorer/adventure photographer Jaime Sharp is in arctic Norway right now, attempting the first successful circumnavigation of the Svalbard archipelago by sea kayak with a team of two other kayakers, Tara Mulvany and Per Gustav Porsanger. Three previous attempts have been made, all ending in failure. Among the biggest hazards: polar bears. There are over 3000 polar bears living on the island, which makes it one of the areas with the highest concentration of polar bears in the world. “Polar bears are one of the few animals that are purely predatory,” Jaime said, speaking to the crowd gathered at the Pacific Paddling Symposium on Vancouver Island this past May. “And they are one of the only animals that will actually hunt humans intentionally, not because they are curious but because it’s like, you are moving, so you are food. Polar bears will also hunt the seals that have burrows under the snow. They walk around listening for them and smelling them out. Then they smash through the snow and pull the seal out.”

Jaime says that polar bear attacks were the reason for the failure of two previous attempts at the Svalbard circumnavigation. During the first expedition, a polar bear smashed one of the kayaks, so the team had to back out. In the last expedition, “a polar bear actually attacked them in their sleep in the tent. Dragged them out of the tent, one of the guys by his head. They had to shoot the bear.” As the bear came through the tent it stood on one of their rifles and snapped it in half. Luckily they had two, so they were able to get the other rifle and kill the bear.

To deal with polar bears, Jaime's team plans to have an active watch: “In the high concentration bear areas, one of us will be staying awake at any point. So we will do three-and-a-half hour shifts, staying awake as well as having a perimeter fence. On top of guns, we will also be carrying daggers and flares and stuff like that, doing everything we can before have to shoot a bear.”

Boys Hunting Book 1890

Another hazard is ice. The second expedition was cancelled because pack ice came in and the team had to start dragging their kayaks across the ice. The ice "started drifting away, taking them away from the island. And eventually they fell through the ice so many times they got injured, and they had to abort. So the ice and the polar bears are probably the biggest risk. Then on top of that you have the walrus. They can be territorial on the water and are known to come up to Zodiacs and puncture the Zodiacs with their tusks. Imagine them coming up to a kayak — they’ll rip the the back half of your boat off! The ice is also an issue not just because it might drift and block us off, but it may not actually recede. It may not actually melt completely and we can’t actually get around a quarter of the island route. So those are kind of our biggest challenges that we’re facing.“

You can follow Jaime’s expedition at his website, svalbard.worldwide

Attaque de morses, 1870 

Below is the complete transcript of our interview.

Andrew: Have you personally had encounters with polar bears?

Jaime: Back when I was like 25 I guess, or 26 —not too long ago, I’m only 34 — I worked up in Churchill, Manitoba and I was a dogsled guide up there. We’d actually run clients out on the tundra. Anyone who knows of Churchill, Manitoba, knows it’s the polar bear capital of Canada. So we’d see polar bears pretty much every day. Numbers of them. We’d encounter them on the dog sleds. Our dogs would want to chase them. The bears are scared of dogs, especially when you’ve got 8 of them trying to chase them. So my biggest issue was trying to stop the sled and keep them in position while I got the shotgun off my back and fired off a blank above them just to make sure the polar bear is running.

Then we would have them coming at night. We had a little cabin we lived in. We had 46 dogs that lived around the cabin and an electric fence. And we had all the frozen chicken meal and stuff that we’d use to feed the dogs under the house, but the polar bears could smell it. So they would be coming in at night time to look for this food. They’d hit the electric fence. that would keep them back, but then the dogs would of course be barking. So we’d wake up. Here’s this huge polar bear on the other side of the fence. We’d have to put a spot light on it to see it. It’s not been deterred by all these dogs, so then we’d have to shoot blanks. And that wouldn’t necessarily work. So then we would have an M80 shell that you could shoot. We would shoot a little wad of explosive out, and it would go BOOM. And then sometimes that wouldn’t work. We had to bounce one off of one one time, a big male who was probably 13 ft tall, if he stood on his back legs. That was kind of a regular occurrence on most nights.

And then we had another instance where we were right next to the arctic research center and that was where we’d go have meals. And they had a storage room with the freezers in the back. So they pulled out all the meats and stuff to thaw one night for all the staff, and they had a bunch of tofu sausages and bacon and sausages and stuff out there. And these two young polar bears came in and they broke open the wall. And they took and ate all the food, and they left the tofu sausages!

But then the next day, they had to get out the traps. They had these big trap door barrels, these huge barrels that they could go inside, and then it shuts. They had to trap them, but only one was able to be trapped. That was a very interesting to sit and watch them actually go in and see the trap go down. This trailer that it was on, I think it took like six men to manhandle off the back the back of the truck to get it into position. It was just really solidly built. Suddenly the trap doors comes down. This young polar bear is in there, and this whole thing is lifting up and down on it’s wheels as it’s trying to bash its way out. So you can just see the power of the bear. And that was really interesting because at that point I was able to go up to the grille and be like THIS CLOSE to the polar bear. And he’s in there and he’s just putting his claws down the grille, and he’s taking the paint flecks off the steel grille. You can just see how much power was in those claws, and you just knew that if it was raking human flesh, there would just be no chance. That was really my closest encounter with them.

But then I’ve also had closer, more insecure moments with them, where they’ve been maybe 200-300 meters from me, and all that’s between me and them was the shotgun I had in my hand. So that’s always been a little bit more intimidating. Just walking between our house and where we eat, and there’s a polar bear sitting on the tundra. Just keeping an eye on them, just making sure that they’re there.

But this trip is going to be a totally different barrel of polar bears really, because the ones in Churchill are used to having people around.They are used to being hunted by man. They are used to dogs hunting them with man. So they’ve got more of an intimidation factor against them from man and dogs. So it was easy to use that aspect to sort of stay safe. But where we’re going in Svalbard they have not been historically hunted by man, so man is definitely something that’s on the food chain for them. They are a lot more curious. They are lot more willing to encounter man. But that being said, there’s 3000+ polar bears on the island, but in the last 10 years there have been maybe three polar bear attacks. So the odds are pretty low still. There’s probably still more chance of being run over by a car than anything.

Katya: So the reason you’re going is because you just love polar bears? Honestly. I mean, what are the reasons?

Jaime: Well, I love kayaking. I love the challenge of kayaking. For me it’s an epic opportunity to actually do a kayaking trip that’s a world first. It’s also a trip that pushes everything I’ve known about kayaking and what I’ve been able to do. I started kayaking when I was 12 years old and I’ve just pushed it, and I’ve been an outdoor educator and guide and instructor. This for me is a chance to see what I’m made of, and also to be able see polar bears. You don’t want to see them too close. It’s always amazing to be out there. You see walrus and polar bear and bowhead whales and stuff like that. That’s always pretty magic. To go to a place that no other person has very rarely ever been, especially by kayak, is a very unique kind of experience. That’s something that I’ve always longed to experience.


Freya Fennwood prepares to compete in the 2015 Greenland National Kayaking Championships

Freya is going to Greenland from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

We caught up with outdoor action photographer Freya Fennwood at the South Sound Traditional Inuit Kayak Symposium (SSTIKS) this past weekend while she was training for her upcoming trip to participate in the Greenland National Kayaking Championships. She brought along a sporty new kayak, custom-designed by her father, John Lockwood, owner and designer of Pygmy Boats, the Port Townsend manufacturer of wooden stitch-and-glue kayak kits.

After the rolling demo we sat sat down to talk with her about her preparations for Greenland. Here is the full transcript of our interview:

Andrew: What inspired you to take the trip to Greenland?

Freya: My father designed a boat specifically for me and specifically to do Greenland rolling. We came to SSTIKS actually, and Dubside was like, “You guys should go to Greenland with this boat! Freya is really good! I think she could compete and do well!”

It’s really not about doing well. It’s just a really good excuse to go take this boat there and go participate in the paddling culture, which is something that I’ve been born into and been in my whole life. To go to the birthplace of kayaking sounds like a really awesome experience, so I’m really excited to see what it’s like there, to meet the people, and participate in what they do.

Andrew: Can you tell us about what you mean about being born into the kayaking culture?

Freya: I’ve been paddling boats — in boats— since I was 18 months old. My dad designed the first kayak for me when I was 5. It was built by the time I was 6, and I paddled that. Then he designed me another boat, maybe when I was around 10, the Osprey 13. And that was my next boat, and then he didn’t really design me another boat until he designed the Freya. He decided to call this boat the Freya after me, which is pretty sweet! Can’t complain. Gotta boat named after me!

Andrew: How did your father get interested in Greenland style?

Freya: Really it’s not something he’s been into for super long. He probably picked up a Greenland paddle about 5 years ago. I remember as a little kid at kayak symposiums, seeing people with Greenland sticks and just thinking it was the silliest thing I’d ever seen. And then my dad comes up to me — he is just raving about this paddle and how it doesn’t hurt his shoulders, and how he can paddle twice as far as he could with the Euroblade. And I was like, OK, I’ll try it out. And I tried the Greenland paddle and I was like, Oh, I’m pretty young but this does actually NOT hurt my shoulders as much. I can paddle just as fast or faster, and longer with the Greenland paddle. So that kind of interest in Greenland paddling started from using the paddle first and then getting more interested in the boats.

The Pygmy boats my dad designs are definitely based off of traditional Greenland kayaks — he’d have to tell you —some big book of classic Inuit designs. His designs definitely take from that, but we’re only starting to come out with lower volume boats that are really made to do Greenland rolls really well in the past couple years.

Andrew: Tell us about your kayak. Was it designed specifically for rolling?

Freya: The Freya is really optimized to be a rolling and a kind of rock gardening play boat. We optimized it specifically for rolling, to do forward finishing rolls really well, and to do layback rolls really well. So the boat has more rocker than any other boat my dad has ever designed. It has more volume in it than a traditional, typical rolling skin-on-frame kayak, which actually helps it pop and roll up more. But it has a really low rear deck. My dad has designed this recess that is actually something that he came up with, that Pygmy has got a patent on, that really allows the back deck to be super low and then pop up to have nice volume, to have the boat flip back up. So really people are surprised when they see the boat. They think it looks really too-high volume, like, “Oh, thats probably not going to be that easy to roll.” And I’m like, “No, I’m decent at rolling but my boat is really good at rolling.”

Andrew: So you are taking the Freya to Greenland? What does it take to get a kayak over there?

Freya: We took the boat, and the shop cut it into 3 pieces. So it’s actually a three-piece take-apart kayak. We got the specs from the airlines — exactly how long the segments are allowed on the flights — and we cut the boat to those specifications. It’s bolted together at the hatches essentially.

Andrew: What kind of training have you been doing to prepare for the kayaking competition?

Freya: We’ve been thinking about potentially going for couple years and so I’ve been slowly learning. I learned how to roll about 4-5 years ago. I didn’t actually know how to roll, like as a little kid. Most of our kayaking is flat water stuff that is really close to shore. You would needn’t to use a roll.

So I learned how to roll, and then I ended up being kinda decent at it. And it was fun just to learn all these other ones. And then the possibility of going to Greenland really motivated me to learn a lot more rolls. I probably wouldn’t have learned this many rolls if there wasn’t a purpose to it. A roll generally for me is for a purpose. I learn to roll so I can go into rougher, wilder conditions. To roll in 30-some ways, the purpose for me is to go experience Greenland.

Andrew: Have you been consulting and asking for advice from some of the other people who have participated?

Freya:  I’ve talked to Dubside, and he’s taught me rolls here at SSTIKS, and has really informed us about Greenland. I was just up in Victoria with James Manke. He went and competed last year in Greenland, and he gave me a ton of information. I learned that I was supposed to preregister, and the registration was due last week! Hopefully it worked out. He contacted a person who is the head of registration, and was like, “We have this girl, Freya. She’s coming to Greenland! She really wants to participate! She had no idea there was registration that needed to be done!” So he’s been a huge help with his knowledge. But there’s a lot of information that’s hard to find.

I’ve talked to Helen Wilson, and she’s been super helpful. But there’s just a lot you don’t really know until you get there. They all say you just have to go with the flow, and go with the intention of just participating and having fun. The schedule may be two days late, so I’m just going and hoping to hang out in a beautiful place and meet other people who like to kayak.

Andrew: Do you know if there are any other international competitors going?

Freya: I have no idea if there are other international competitors. I don’t believe if there are any Canadians. I don’t know if there are any Americans. I don’t think so, so I'll find out!


HIGHLIGHT REEL: Pacific Paddling Symposium

HIGHLIGHT REEL: Pacific Paddling Symposium 2015 from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Katya and I were invited to be the official videographers for this year's Pacific Paddling Symposium, which was held at Pearson College on Vancouver Island right outside Victoria on May 29-31. We brought a ton of camera gear and shot all weekend long, backing up our cards, reviewing footage and charging batteries every night. I really enjoyed having essentially unrestricted access to all the classes, coaches and events. Sometimes with a camera I feel like I am intruding in events like this. They even let us on the support boat, which is how we got a lot of on-the-water footage. 


Shooting on the water is incredibly challenging. Capturing a stable image with a moving camera on land is hard enough, but on the water in a kayak or boat it is nearly impossible. Our solution and the only thing I think that works effectively is to use an electronic gimbal, so we used a DSLR on the new DJI Ronin M. The Ronin M is half the weight of the original Ronin and was designed for lighter cameras. I was using it basically "bare bones", without any additional gear like an electronic viewfinder. It still gets heavy after holding it for longer than a minute though, so after a whole day of carrying it around, my arms were sore and my back was totally bent out of shape. It's quite a workout!

Unlike the Steadicam devices, the Ronin just takes a few minutes to set up and is a no-brainer to use. You basically slide the camera in and secure it using a tool-less system and get it roughly balanced, turn the switch on and you're good to go. It still takes some practice to get really stable moving footage -- learning to walk "heal-to-toe" and that sort of thing -- but I was able to get great results just holding it steady on a moving boat. 

We recorded some interesting interviews with a number of coaches and attendees and ended up getting a lot of footage, so it will take a while to cut it all. I expect to release the full "feature" in the beginning of September. Since so many people at the Symposium were interested in seeing the video I wanted to release this "highlight reel" of some of our best shots right away. Enjoy!


"LOVE WINS": The World Environment Day Luminary Flotilla Concert

World Environment Day Luminary Flotilla Concert from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Katya and I paddled to concert on the water last night, which was held as part of the ongoing protest against the Port of Seattle hosting Royal Dutch Shell's oil drilling rig the Polar Pioneer. The musicians performed on a barge anchored right off of Don Armeni Park in West Seattle. You could hear the music from shore but the audience was encouraged to listen from kayaks on the water. Afterwards, the flotilla of  kayaks, SUPs, and other human-powered boats illuminated with deck lights and lanterns gathered together for a spectacular parade.

I think it might not have been a very well-publicized event because Katya and I had only heard about it four days before. Just like we did during the ShellNo protest, we put in at Alki Beach far away from the park to avoid the crowd and any problems finding parking. We had lights inside our skin on frame kayaks which turned our kayaks into lanterns. Some people were lighting sky lanterns and releasing them over the water. Although breezy at first, after sunset the water calmed down and it turned into an incredibly beautiful evening for paddling. 

The song on the video is Native American flute player and storyteller Paul Cheoketen Wagner.