Wonderland: Bringing polar bears to Kitsap | Kitsap Week

North Kitsap photographer Steven Kazlowski brings home the splendor of the Alaskan Arctic

This week, Kitsap residents woke to chilly temperatures in the 30s. And that must have felt downright balmy for Steven Kazlowski.

“In Alaska, I’ve waited for polar bears to come out of dens for months,” Kazlowski said. “The outside temperatures were 40 to 50 degrees below zero with 60 mile-per-hour winds.”

Kazlowski, who lives in North Kitsap, has a profession many amateurs would salivate over — he is a wildlife photographer whose work has been featured in Audubon, National Geographic and Newsweek.

Kazlowski has gone all over the Alaskan Arctic photographing animals that call the frigid white world home. Along the way he has developed a special fondness for polar bears, which he describes as curious and extremely social.

So curious that once, a juvenile bear approached his sleeping tent.

Hearing Kazlowski’s snores, the intrigued bear placed a paw on Kazlowski’s head and shoulder through the tent material. Startled, Kazlowski ran out screaming and yelling. The bear ran back into the ocean and jumped into the water.

“I easily could have been killed,” Kazlowski said. “But he was only curious.”

For the less adventurous, the idea of sleeping outdoors while polar bears roam around may seem extreme, but it’s all part of a day’s work for Kazlowski.

And so is waiting.

And waiting.

When you flip through a nature magazine and see the amazing photos, it’s easy to imagine the photographer having an abundance of animals to photograph — sort of a “Noah’s Ark” moment with animals posing and flitting about.

But that is often not the case. What you don’t see in those beautiful photos is the patience of the photographer, waiting in sub-zero temperatures for the animals to appear.

Kazlowski estimates that he’s spent thousands of hours waiting for polar bears. To pass the time, Kazlowski sits and watches the clouds and enjoys his time in nature.

“I find a certain peace when I’m outside,” he said. “The natural world is an endless book. It just depends on how much you want to look into it.”

But when the bears — or other animals for that matter — decide to make their appearance, Kazlowski is at the ready. When the moment strikes, he needs to capture what unfolds. Through his photography, his goal is to make people feel as if there were there — to see the texture of the bear’s fur, or a mother nuzzling her cub.

Working in an extreme climate can be difficult. To keep the chill away, Kazlowski stays warm with heavy parkas and propane heaters. And he admits he still gets downright cold and the weather is challenging.

He had to endure a learning curve with the drastic temperatures and his sensitive photography equipment. He’s cracked expensive lenses because they were so cold and then warmed too quickly. Going from the extreme cold to a warm tent can cause moisture to form on the inside of the equipment. Once the moisture forms, it can take days to dry out. So he’s learned to wrap up his equipment in towels and gradually bring it up to temperature.

Besides working in Alaska, Kazlowski enjoys photographing things closer to home.

“The Olympic Peninsula is an amazing and diverse place,” he said. He hopes to someday do a project on the history and wildlife of the Olympic Peninsula. Kazlowski was interested in photography at a young age. But his “practical parents” told him he needed to focus his studies on a career, not a hobby, so Kazlowski pushed photography out of his mind.

He obtained a degree in marine biology and worked for a bit in the Florida Keys. But in his mid-20s, he decided to revisit photography. And has made it his life’s work ever since.

“I wanted to go do something that can keep me in nature, because that’s where I like to be,” he said.

So no desk job?

“Oh, no. That wouldn’t work,” Kazlowski said. “I’d get fired.”

Besides breathtaking photography, Kazlowski offers tours in the eastern Arctic to see the polar bears. Tours are in September and October when the temperatures aren’t so extreme and the bears feed on bowhead whale bones left behind by Native hunters. And don’t worry if you’re a snorer. The tourists spend the night in hotels and are free to snore away without the fear of a curious bear approaching.

For more information on the tours and Kazlowski’s photography, visit www.lefteyepro.com.

Kazlowski will give a presentation entitled “Polar Bears of the Alaskan Arctic” April 1, 3 p.m. at IslandWood, 4450 Blakely Ave., Bainbridge Island. The event is open to the public. Copies of Kazlowski’s book, “The Last Polar Bear,” will be available for purchase.