“C-Sick slammed onto the reef with a sound like derailing boxcars. I managed to pull the motors up before breaking waves spun the bow around and shoved us further aground.
“I scrambled out into the cockpit, shaking from the cold wind and adrenaline and fear. I grabbed my boat hook and used all my weight to try to pole off the rocks, but C-Sick was stuck. That moment when you find yourself standing, head in hands, on some distant, dismal shore amid the scattered wreckage of your dreams and you want nothing but to quit and go home to your warm bed — that is when adventure begins.”
These are the words of Paul Souders, a photographer on a mission to take groundbreaking photos of polar bears, after he had run aground. Based in Seattle, the shooter hadn’t planned to be stranded on Hudson Bay that night. But in his search for polar bears, extreme boating just happened to find him. So he made coffee and waited anxiously for the rising tide to float his boat off the reef.
In every great adventure story, a personal inner journey mirrors the physical one. And in the course of reading his captivating 2018 book Arctic Solitaire, it becomes clear that Souders’ search for the perfect bear would lead him to far more important discoveries.
His journey began when, dissatisfied with his career, he decided to undertake solo expeditions into the world’s wildest places.
“I felt strongly that the lessons you learn the hard way, you’ll remember,” Souders says.
Therefore, when he decided to photograph glaciers in Alaska, he shied away from cramming himself onto a tour boat. He took a ferry to Juneau, and then traded the tourist experience for 75 solo miles to the Tracy Arm, all of it in a 10-foot Zodiac inflatable boat with a 10 hp outboard.
“I was a dangerously stupid man,” he says, smiling. “Nobody does that. But I wanted to get out and explore on my own.”
Alaska gave him countless opportunities to photograph wildlife, especially brown bears. In 2012, he took his Zodiac to Canada’s Hudson Bay, where he hoped to capture the animal that seemed to be the next logical choice.
There, more than 30 miles off Churchill, he spotted something moving on the sea ice.
The Perfect Bear
“Most bears will steer a wide berth, but this one, a young female judging by her size and build, gradually calmed and began to grow curious as I slowly trailed her,” Souders says. “We were soon moving through the water in tandem, separated by a hundred yards, then 50, then — holy sh-t — that bear was really close.
“As the bear swam beneath an iceberg, I managed to drive the boat in closer and hang the boom beside a hole in the ice. She rose to breathe and I began shooting, blindly pressing the shutter cable and hoping that something, anything, might be in focus. She submerged for a moment, then surfaced again for one more breath before disappearing beneath the ice.
“The midnight sun hung like a dying star in the hazy orange sky. The bear reappeared and paddled slowly toward the sunset on a sea glowing like molten metal. I followed at a distance, utterly transfixed, listening to her steady breathing and watching as her powerful front paws stroked through cold ocean. Stillness fell upon the water. There was no land in sight. I was alone at sea with a polar bear. The moment felt like I had been given a perfect jewel, something precious to hold on to for the rest of my days. I could have followed that bear for hours through the short, half-lit summer dusk. But I cut the engine and let the boat drift. I watched in silence as she swam away, a slow vanishing.”
His image of the submerged polar bear would earn Souders the grand prize in the 2013 National Geographic Photo Contest, and he was named the 2013 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He wanted to do it again, but he realized, like the famous movie line from Jaws, that he was going to need a bigger boat.
The Perfect Boat
“I’m hardly the first to observe that life at sea offers all the benefits of prison time — with arguably worse company and distinctly better odds of drowning,” Souders writes of his decision to take a longer solo trip. “Yet even as my brain and my accountant shouted, ‘No, no, no,’ my heart said, ‘Oh, hell yeah.'”
For this, Souders needed the right boat. He searched online and came across the amusingly named C-Sick. The 22 C-Dory from Bellingham, Washington, met all of Souders’ requirements: It had twin 40 hp Honda outboards, decent fuel capacity, and plenty of room to stow a reserve of 6-gallon fuel cans. Most importantly, it had a pilothouse.
It also had a flat bottom. Souders said this was a better feature than it might seem for his adventure. “I could ghost through 18 inches of water,” he explains, “and essentially, I had a landing craft. My gelcoat took a beating, but she was sturdy and well-built.”
In 2013, Souders returned to Hudson Bay with C-Sick. He was, admittedly, not 100 percent prepared.
“I had taken a basic powerboating course, but this was totally different. It was terrifying. I didn’t tie a bowline right, I didn’t know how to anchor, and I thought I could drive through ice. God must have a sense of humor,” he says.
“A trip like this could, and probably should, take years of preparation: a slow acquisition of the necessary skills and training and professional-grade equipment,” he writes in Arctic Solitaire. “For me, it’s always made more sense to just go (and) figure things out along the way. … If nothing else, I could fail in truly spectacular and memorable fashion.”
The Wild Bay
Souders wound up spending three summers on Hudson Bay with C-Sick. He found that the “many happy and bear-filled days” of his dreams were countered by the brutal realities of single-handed voyaging on a frigid and wind-whipped 600-by-400-mile inland sea. Taking on the almost perpetually rough seas, he learned, in real time, the value of good seamanship.
“The ugliest wave I’d seen yet rose before me,” he writes of one incident. “I jammed the throttle forward to accelerate and climb its steep face, praying I wouldn’t lose momentum and slide backward into the trough. I held my breath as C-Sick crawled up through the crest, then suddenly pitched forward into thin air, as if we were falling out a window, and slammed back into a concrete sea.”
When the bay’s temper tantrums struck, harbors of refuge were few and far between. And without a tree or hill in hundreds of miles, the wind raged with an unmatched fury. One day, Souders had gone ashore in his Zodiac tender to photograph the landscape when the weather went south. Fast.
“The hourlong ride back to C-Sick was terrifying as the wind began to scream and waves stacked up in steep, treacherous piles,” he writes. “The gale tried to pick the Zodiac out of the water, and as the bow began to lift, I instinctively hurled all my weight forward. If we flipped, I would never get this thing righted, never get the engine restarted, never make it out of here.”
Danger could seep into a situation much more insidiously as well. Ice floes cut off C-Sick’s escape routes on more than one occasion, just as they had trapped European explorers’ sailing ships centuries ago.
The bears? They led to a whole separate set of issues. While some were shy and kept their distance, others were curious and unafraid. Or pissed off. Like the bear that bit the Zodiac.
“At the sudden whoosh of compressed air, I knew I’d stepped over the line from incautious, stumbled past stupid, and careened into the realm of suicidal,” Souders writes. Good thing he had a patch kit.
Sometimes, bears got uncomfortably close to C-Sick herself. Photographing a female polar bear through one of the C-Dory’s windows, Souders says he “had an inkling of what a seal felt in the last seconds before the lights went out.” And on one hair-raising day, a large male decided he wanted to get a closer look at the photographer’s digs.
“Perhaps 2 miles offshore, head held high, he sniffed at the air and began walking purposefully across the moving ice,” he writes. “Straight toward C-Sick. Fear knotted my guts, and a slick of sweat broke out across my body. With C-Sick grounded high and dry on the beach, I had no place to go, nowhere to hide. … If that bear got to the boat ahead of me and tore into the cabin, drawn by the scent of food, or even worse, if he caught me out in the open … I did not want to think about it.” Fortunately, Souders got away. Thanks to his time on the water, alone on C-Sick, he also got the photo. Again and again.
“After 30 years of working as a photographer, this is the best thing I’ll ever do,” he says of his time on Hudson Bay. He went out on the boat and got more than photographs. He got to experience the adventure of a lifetime.