Visions of the Arctic

For most of his life wildlife photographer Florian Schulz has fought to protect the diversity of animals species around the world. Working in the most remote region of the planet he’s tracked and documented the wild birds of Mexico, big game animals of the African continent as well as the migratory patterns of caribou in the Alaskan Arctic. And it’s in this frozen region known for its vast featureless landscapes where Florian has followed and photographed the great Polar Bears of the northern hemisphere.


It’s really a land of extremes both in temperatures but also in the survival of animals in these harsh environments. And for me that is so intriguing, how the natural world is able cope and adapt to such extreme places. And I found it anything else but a barren wasteland.

With patient study after long months in the field Florian has come to a profound understanding of nature’s most delicate balance. By observing large animals musk ox, wolves, moose and grizzly bears he hopes to make those who see his photographs realize that all of these species have a direct relationship with each other, the land and in no small way the survival of humanity.

At the bi-annual breakfast meeting of the Conservation Alliance at the 2012 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City Utah Florian Schulz was the keynote speaker. Shortly after his presentation he shared with me how he first came to forge an intimate relationship with the harsh and forbidding environment of the Alaskan Arctic.


I realized once I gave the land some time, once almost I got invited in I was starting to be able to see and document things that I would have never dreamt of seeing. But I have to be honest that you won’t go there and immediately just see everything. I mean it’s definitely important that you do spend the time and you don’t too big expectations because it’s a vast open place and wildlife sometimes is very dispersed.


I think that’s actually one of the most compelling things about your work in that not unlike ice it takes a long time to develop. You have to slow it down. I’m interested in finding out how it is that you were able to slow yourself down enough to get a full appreciation for the minute changes that you wouldn’t necessarily see instantly just by being there. How did you find yourself even able to work in the solitude of that area?


I think as a photographer you have it a little bit easier because if you are dreaming of exceptional images that kind of really occupies you. So if it’s a question of how do you get the patience? How do you go to a remote location year after year even though you haven’t been successful in finding the caribou for example? It is because you are envisioning these most spectacular images and that gives you so much excitement that you’re willing to go through the millions of mosquitoes, the freezing temperatures where you’re just really suffering. But that fascination with the images kind of let’s you endure all of that. But I don’t care enough about the suffering like that because you get rewarded with the view of an iceberg underneath the water or, you know, a view of thick bill murres diving as if they were penguins going down into the depths of the ocean. So yeah it’s rewarding. That’s why you can endure it.


The work that you’re doing helped to establish a program called Freedom to Roam and the primary premise as I understand it is to create wildlife corridors through which animal species can successfully migrate for mating, for the gathering of food. How is it that you came to understand the necessity for the establishment and maintenance of wildlife corridors?


If you think about Europe and how chopped up for example the last natural areas there are you very quickly realize that any large predators life wolves, grizzly bears or even things like lynx they get dramatically reduced. They go extinct and so on if these natural areas become small and smaller. When I did a lot of work in Yellowstone I realized that even a park like that, if it’s not really connected to other natural areas around it where for example grizzly bears can go beyond the park’s boarders to find food like white bark pine, or bison for example. In the winter time the snow doesn’t allow them to get to the food that they leave the park. If that doesn’t work any more the animals inside the park suffer. And over time the diversity in the park will go down. Yet at the same time within the Freedom to Roam project that I’ve been working on which is Yellowstone to Yukon, Baja to Beaufort and even in Mexico rainforest to reef you have to think beyond just the simple migration routes. You have to think that natural areas need to be connected because even plants migrate. Even insects migrate. So one has to realize that nature only does well if it’s embedded, if it’s a web of life, if it’s connected. And I almost call some of these corridors or connection routes almost as if they’re the roots. For example to a national park that gives the national park the vitality. And if it doesn’t have that embedded interconnectedness with the surrounding natural areas even the animals in a protected national park the diversity of animals will go down.


That’s actually something you can see, you can observe. Through the course of your work I think what you’ve done is raise the awareness for even the necessity for such a thing. What do you think is most import for people who have the ability to help establish these corridors? What do they need to know to maintain the stability of these animal populations?


I think that what everybody needs to know is that if we want to maintain beautiful large fauna around like big mammals whether it’s bison, elk, moose and grizzly bears wolves, any of these spectacular mega-fauna we need to think in the new way which is connectedness, interconnectedness, wildlife corridors. So I think the next most important step is that we establish a term. That’s why I’ve been promoting the term National Corridor. Because what I figure is for example with Yellowstone in 1872, the first national park was created. And it was the first time a term, national park. Now the idea has spread around the world and we have national parks everywhere. If we could do this for wildlife corridors and call them national corridors or national wildlife corridors and define it, how a corridor needs to look. And it could have certain land use happening there, but the most important thing is that the habitat gets protected. If we could establish national corridors as a term, define it then that idea could spread around the world. I think these are the two really important things.


You travel with your wife Emil through some pretty dangerous areas and you had the opportunity to interact with quite a few different animal species. What was that relationship like in terms of working with your wife to both take the pictures and also study the animals in these areas.


Because often I’m seriously out for months at a time it would be terrible if Emil my wife and I wouldn’t often go out together because I wouldn’t see her for several months. To be out there together as a team is really wonderful because you may see something beautiful out. You may discover a bird. You may have any observation of a behavior or an animal and you can share it with your partner. And just by sharing it, by wording it, the whole experience becomes more special, more beautiful. And you will be able to recall it later on too and recall this very beautiful experience you both shared together. Now of course sometimes people say, ‘how is it possible? You are sometimes together 24 hours a day for several months at a time. How come you are not hating each other or like screaming at each other all the time?’ But I think the passion for just being outdoors as well as for the wildlife connects us so well that we are so excited about observing the animals that the other issues that normally might come up are just not very big.


Is there anything in particular that you’ve learned or any life lessons that you’ve come away with personally from your work both as a photographer and as a conservationist?


I think that if you’re in conservation and if you look at the status of the planet right now often it can be really, really depressing. And at the same time we know that we humans are only a very unimportant thing in regards to life on earth if we think long term. That I now sometimes dare to relax a little bit and say you know what? We can’t manage or change everything. If we keep ruining this planet this way who we will hurt in the end is us as human beings. But I’ve now translated it into a more philosophical and ethical fight let’s say. Because I want to fight for keeping the diversity of life on this planet, but more because I find that we as humans should really understand that that is one of the greatest values and the greatest beauty of this planet. So even though if we keep destroying this earth the earth will recuperate if we think long-term in tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. But right now I feel a responsibility, especially thinking of my child, that I want to do whatever I can to fight to maintain this beautiful diversity on this planet.

Florian Schulz produces a wide variety wildlife photography multi media. Check out his last video called Visions of the Arctic. You can learn more about his work online at Visions of the

Music this week by new contributing artist Kelly Carpenter

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of sponsor Patagonia. Check their latest conservation and new media initiatives on their blog the Additional support is also provided by the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. Discover new technologies, products and services for your next great adventure all under one big tent. Visit Outdoor

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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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