Jean Polfus. Northwest Territories, Canada.

Sunset over frost in the North West Territories in Canada. 
I believe that images (drawings and photography) can act as a universal language, helping to foster communication and understanding between people with different cultures and worldviews.

Tell us about yourself!

I grew up in northern Wisconsin. My parents fostered a love for the surrounding northern hardwood forests and we spent a lot of time outdoors skiing, canoeing, camping and hiking. When I was young I learned to identify many species of plants and animals. My mom is an artist (, so my sister and I were always encouraged to express ourselves through drawing, painting, or pottery.

As an undergrad I majored in evolutionary and environmental biology, with a minor in studio art, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. After graduating I spent the summer of 2006 in northern British Columbia studying conservation biology in the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. Working on applied conservation issues in a remote setting gave me an appreciation for the complex blend of cultural, political, and ecological issues that exist in the north. I was then able to develop a master’s project on caribou habitat selection through a unique collaboration between the University of Montana, Round River Conservation Studies and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. 

I’m now working on my PhD at the University of Manitoba under the supervision of Dr. Micheline Manseau (my research website: The main goal of my research is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the identities and relationships among caribou populations and Dene and Métis people in the Sahtú region of the Northwest Territories in order to inform and prioritize management efforts. The project brings together traditional knowledge and population genetics to organize and understand the biological diversity of caribou and to develop an approach to caribou research that balances and accommodates aboriginal and scientific ways of knowing.


What is it about photography that continues to drive you and inspire you? Why have you chosen photography as a creative outlet? 

I approach art and science as explorations of the natural world that arise out of the process of observing patterns in behavior, space, and time. Since moving to the Northwest Territories to study caribou as part of my PhD research I have been drawn to my camera. I strive to capture the allure and grandeur of northern landscapes. Over the past 2 years I have come to appreciate the increase in attention that comes with carrying a camera. I love the moment of discovery when a seemingly normal object suddenly becomes noteworthy. As my technical skill has improved, it has become easier to use photography as an outlet for artistic expression. I am excited to move beyond the documentation of events and into a more refined perception of composition, image interpretation, and application of light.

Red Fox in Snow, Northwest Territories. 


Tell us about your favourite photography moment.

My favorite photography moment was when I was on a walk, just exploring the area around Tulı́t'a, and I found this trail that led to an embankment on the edge of the Bear River where it overlooked the confluence with the Mackenzie. And when I got there the sun was just going down and the trees were covered in frost from ice fog that had risen from the river as the temperatures dropped. As I walked the light kept changing as the sun set and rays of low orange and pink light were streaming through the frosted trees. I started running because every step I took became more and more amazing as views opened up over the confluence and the mountain across the river. I was so excited about it. I stayed out there until the sun set and then I walked back. Here are some photos from that walk:


Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis over Bear Rock, Northwest Territories, Canada 

Any favourite photographers or people you generally look up to? 

Since I started sharing my photographs on my Tumblr blog (, I’ve been super impressed with the online photography community, and I’ve learned so much from other people who have given their time and expertise to help me learn. Especially Jules Falk Hunter on (Jules inspired me to do an ABC photo challenge which really made me work on my own blog); John Greengo’s classes on taught me more about the fundamentals of photography; and Adam Hill who is an aurora and nature photographer from the Northwest Territories has amazing images that inspire me and he also took the time to help me learn how to take good northern lights pictures when he was visiting Tulı́t'a.


Any special projects on the go?

I just opened my own Etsy shop: Wild Lines Studio! I feature prints of my unique style of animal drawings that are loosely based on my doodles. I developed this style while working on my masters degree at the University of Montana by giving my friends animal drawings as gifts when they finished their degrees. I’m also selling some of my photography prints and digital animal drawings, you can find my etsy shop at

I am also working really hard to incorporate art into my PhD. In general, I have found that researchers and wildlife managers often overlook the importance of visual medium in their work. This problem is apparent on all levels of scientific exploration, from the initial conception of a project to communication with the general public. Art can act as a universal language, helping to foster connections and understandings between people with different cultures and worldviews. Art is also an effective and efficient medium through which scientists can expand on their ideas. In my research I am exploring the potential for art to increase communication and knowledge exchange between researchers and Aboriginal communities in the Northwest Territories. My objective is to find innovative ways to use art in combination with a scientific framework to help support wildlife management.

This past June I used visualization techniques (drawings and digital “live” diagrams) during focus group meetings to help people understand and appreciate new, interesting, and sometimes complicated genetic data on caribou. The diagrams I developed during the meeting also helped us, as a group, share and depict Dene knowledge, concepts and language. To get an idea of what this looked like check out this post on my tumblr blog:

I also designed and illustrated a children’s book that uses Dene language (in two different dialects) to describe how ası̨́ı̨ godı́ (living things) are protected through the Northwest Territories Species at Risk Act. The books have been distributed for free to community members in Colville Lake, Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells, Tulit'a and Délı̨nę. Here is an article published by the Northern Journal on the project:

And a blog post about my involvement:

Sunset over lake. By Jean Polfus


Favourite place to travel?

Atlin, British Columbia (, is where I did my master’s research; I spent four summers traveling in the area. At that time I was just using a small point-and-shoot, but I was always taking pictures. The area is absolutely beautiful with high mountain plateaus, long inland lakes, abundant wildlife, and the T’àkhú (Taku River) watershed that encompasses a vast boreal landscape and represents a profound history of Tlingit influence. My first taste of the depth of this human-environment connection was hiking the Nàk’ina.â Hèeni Dei, a trail which the Tlingit have used for centuries to travel to and from the Nàk’ina.â Hèeni (Nakina River, a tributary of the T’àkhú). Marked trees, sacred sites, and Tlingit place names delineate the path. The intimate nature of the experience, actualized through walking and sharing physical challenges precipitated a period of intense personal growth for me. On the Nàk’ina.â Hèeni we camped with Tlingit people and fished for salmon. I remember reflecting that even though I was in the most remote, pristine, and wild place I had ever encountered, there was a tangible human presence on the landscape. I questioned my own definition of wilderness and what environmental protection really entails for both wildlife and people. We recorded the oral history of an elder named Jackie Williams who, as a young boy, was given the responsibility of remembering and relating the time-honored stories that were passed down to him by his grandfather. The time I spent with Jackie and his two granddaughters, Michelle and Sabrina, opened my eyes to the importance of cultural exchange. These significant events deepened my appreciation for the importance of collective learning and respectful partnerships.

Over the summers of 2006-2010 had so many fantastic experiences in the area including visiting a salmon weir on the Nakina River where I was able to be 5 feet from a grizzly bear cub (, flying helicopter to collect caribou scat for pregnancy tests in the winter, and working with amazing people who taught me so much about ecology.

Here’s a story I wrote about an experience I had hiking and seeing caribou: (


Frozen Lake, Northwest Territories 

What gear do you use?

I use a Nikon D7000 digital SLR camera, a Sigma 17-70mm lens, a Nikon 70-300mm lens, and a Nikon 35mm 1.8f lens. I found a great deal at Photo Central in Winnipeg and was super impressed with the salesperson there; he didn’t try to oversell me and he really helped me pick out the camera I needed. So far it has been really great. But I can’t wait to upgrade to a full-frame someday!


Anything else you would like to add?

I love dogs (and all animals)! I have three: Luna, a black lab born in western Colorado; Stella, a german-shepherd/husky mix adopted in Winnipeg, MB; and Butterball, a husky mix adopted in Tulita, NT. I also love cross country skiing (I skied competitively through University) and skijoring – Luna gave me an awesome intro to skijoring, Stella is an absolute monster and was born to pull, and Butterball is just a happy and constant puller. Butterball is our newest addition and he is pretty darn cute – it has even been suggested on Tumblr that I form a “Butterball fan club” for him. ;) I have a short-haired black cat named Lupine (he’s the sweetest!). I also have a pretty cool husband named Joe who is typing this out as I narrate to him. We’ve been together for over 12 years and have been married for 6 years.

I believe that images (drawings and photography) can act as a universal language, helping to foster communication and understanding between people with different cultures and worldviews. Art is a medium through which scientists can expand on their ideas and share their interests. For me, photography is a way to acknowledge the important link between the people who live in the region and the scientific research that takes place here. 


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