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New documentary follows Yukon photographer’s search for ice bears

Peter Mather has been collecting images of bears covered in ice for over seven years
Photographer Peter Mather says dwindling salmon populations are making ice bears harder to find. The bears are the focus of a new film by Mather and Peter Zenkl entitled Kings of the North, the Search for the Last of the Ice Bears. (Courtesy/Peter Mather)

Photographers Peter Mather and Peter Zenkl, alongside music producer Matthew Lien are busy putting the final touches on their documentary film Kings of the North, the Search for the Last of the Ice Bears.

The movie follows Mather, an award winning nature photographer and Yukoner, as he ventures into the bush to capture images of what he calls ice bears. He describes them as grizzlies with thick coats of ice covering their fur. As winter sets in, ice bears brave frigid temperatures while they delay hibernation to find one final feed of salmon before sleeping. According to Mather, dwindling salmon populations are making ice bears more and more elusive.

“It used to be quite easy to photograph ice bears,” Mather told the News. “The salmon are disappearing and the winters are getting warmer. The world is changing so much.”

“To get an ice bear, you need one or two weeks of -20 or -30 C and it’s hard to get that now in October and November,” he said.

Mather’s interest in frozen grizzlies goes back to when he was a child. He remembers hearing about ice bears and instantly being captivated by the thought of seeing one for himself.

“I just like photographing things that are really unique,” he said.

In 2021, seven years deep into a photo story on ice bears, Mather hired Zenkl as a second photographer. Zenkl began shooting video as he helped Mather run his motion activated camera traps. Once the footage started to pile up, the two decided to make a documentary.

“We kind of forgot about making the photos and the movie became the priority,” Mather said. “It’s just like a totally accidental movie.”

“It was going to be a two minute thing, but there were so many great things that I was capturing and filming. So, we started talking more and thought maybe we would do a 10 minute thing and suddenly it unraveled,” Zenkl said. “Now, we have almost a full feature.”

The two spent a total of about five months filming in the bush around the Yukon, over the course of two years. For days at a time, they would hunker down in Mather’s camper, taking short breaks at home before heading back into the wild. During that time, Zenkl became a father - a challenge he says was not as difficult as operating a camera in -40 C weather.

“Pete would take off his gloves and fiddle with the camera boxes with his bare hands,” said Zenkl. “Everytime I had to do that, my hands stopped working in seconds.”

Since shooting wrapped, Lien has been working on sound design, creating a musical score and editing the film. He’s spent countless hours and late nights making sure everything is perfect.

“I’m really pleased with the way it’s coming together. With the story and the way the images are going to look and the sounds and the music, I think it’s going to be fantastic,” said Lien.

A private pre-screening was held for friends and family of the crew on March 27 at Winterlong Brewing. The local beer company is a sponsor of Kings of the North and has created a new brew called Ice Bear. At the event, Lien described the film as being a rough cut with work to be completed. As the movie played, he humorlessly hummed to fill in scenes yet to be set to music.

“I was scoring about three hours ago,” said Lien at the pre-screening. “I got the film burned together and jumped in the truck and headed straight here.”

Now the trio will take feedback from the prescreening and tweak the film ahead of the official premier on April 6 at the Yukon Arts Centre. Following that, the film screens at the St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction on April 14, and at the Vancouver International Film Festival on April 26.

Mather is also releasing a book of photos that shares the film’s name. In the future, he would like to make another documentary though he’s not sure what it will be about.

Dylan MacNeil is a freelance writer based in Whitehorse.

Photographer Peter Mather is seen on the Chilkat River in 2020. (Courtesy/Morgan Heim)

Stephanie Waddell

About the Author: Stephanie Waddell

I joined Black Press in 2019 as a reporter for the Yukon News, becoming editor in February 2023.
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