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Profile – Michelle Valberg (full story – exclusive online content)

Expecting the unexpected

Adventure and wildlife photographer Michelle Valberg has learned to embrace the surprises that pop up when they’re least expected

Story by Stephanie Hounsell with photography by Michelle Valberg

As a photographer for 30 years, Michelle Valberg knows that not much goes according to plan when dealing with wildlife. In fact, sometimes the only thing she can do to prepare herself is to expect the unexpected.


“With wildlife, there’s no planning. It is what it is,” says the Ottawa, ON-based photographer, who has photographed all across Canada. “I always believe I’m in the right place at the right time for the right reason.”

She was recently in an unexpected situation when photographing the unique spirit bears in Great Bear Rainforest, BC.

Valberg was poised on an upright log when a spirit bear came out of the stream carrying a salmon. It walked up to the log. An intuitive guide quickly warned Valberg to get off the log, predicting the bear was about to get a lot closer.

©Michelle Valberg
Spirit Bear

“I backed off and literally three minutes later she walked up the log about three feet away from me. So that was pretty wild,” Valberg says.

The seasoned outdoor photographer knew the bear was probably far more interested in its salmon than anything else, but she also knew wild animals can be unpredictable. So she remained still, careful not to do anything that could spook or intimidate the animal, until it left.

Valberg says although she’s always cautious when photographing bears, she’s not usually scared. “I’m more afraid of walking down the road at my cottage and running into a bear than I am when it’s expected you’re going to see one and when you do, they’re eating what they want to eat.”

A sighting of the rare blue arctic fox was another unexpected surprise. Valberg had travelled to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, and came across what she thought was a silver fox. She was happy with the sighting — she had wanted to photograph a silver fox — but was about to become even happier. “I had no idea we were photographing this blue arctic fox,” she says, adding she hadn’t known a blue arctic fox even existed. “Kind of cool, because I didn’t know what I was photographing until after.”

©Michelle Valberg
Blue arctic fox

What makes the photo have impact is the eye-to-eye contact, she says, as well as the placement of its paws and the bit of snow on its face, likely revealing it had been hunting. She also likes the sparseness the backdrop of snow provides.

A successful photo isn’t one that makes viewers say “Oh, that’s nice,” and move on, Valberg explains. It’s one that makes them stop and ask questions — in this case, questions like: “Where was this taken?” and “What kind of fox is this?” and “Where was the photographer positioned?”

“If people will spend time with a photo, that’s my greatest gift — when they don’t thumb-swipe past,” she says.

To read more of Michelle Valberg’s interview with OPC, and to read more of this not-to-miss issue please pick up the Spring 2018 issue today online or at your local newsstand. To never miss an issue you can subscribe here

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