Ottawa-based wildlife photographer Michelle Valberg tells this story of when she was in search of the wild muskoxen known to roam the frozen tundra of Banks Island in the Northwest Territories.
She spent days driving a snowmobile in -50C temperatures, expecting to come across the shaggy-haired mammals, whose numbers can run in the tens of thousands.
The flat lighting conditions made it difficult to decipher the contours of the vast land, but Valberg remained hopeful each time her sled came over a crest that the herds would finally appear. They never did.
“We saw, in three and a half days, four ptarmigan and one dead muskox,” she said, flatly, before getting to the kicker: “We got to the airport the next day to leave and the plane couldn’t land because there were three muskox on the runway.”
It just goes to show, Valberg’s award-winning photographs of polar bears and grizzlies and of a hot air balloon flying between two columns of an iceberg don’t just happen by magic. They demand tremendous patience on her part, along with a keen eye, natural talent and, sometimes, a little luck.
Valberg has been an entrepreneur in Ottawa for 37 years, navigating economic ups and downs, adapting to the fast-paced evolution of photography, staying ahead of her competition and steadily building a stellar reputation as a world-class photographer. She’s a Nikon Ambassador and photographer-in-residence for Canadian Geographic.
If not for the coronavirus pandemic, Valberg would currently be visiting remote and exotic parts of the world in pursuit of pictures. Instead, she’s hunkering down with her family in her hometown of Ottawa, much to the delight of business leaders and professionals in need of a new headshot. Her business, Valberg Imaging, is located in Westboro, where her nature-themed photos can be seen beautifying the neighbourhood’s utility boxes.
Despite the disaster that was 2020, there were many bright moments for Valberg. Canada Post released a booklet of bear-themed stamps showcasing several of her images. She joined the Canadian Museum of Nature’s new foundation board. Most recently, the Project North nonprofit organization that she founded in 2009 sent loads of hockey gear to youth living in northern communities, with support from Scotiabank and Canadian North Airlines.
As well, Valberg has been sharing some of her indelible images on social media, as a way of distracting people from the doom and gloom. She has nearly 60,000 followers on Instagram.
“I’m just so thankful people want to see my work, that they appreciate it, and that they follow along. Back in the day, when we didn’t have the Internet, it was hard to share.”
"To be a photographer you have to live and breathe it. It is an obsession."
Valberg claims she never gets tired of taking pictures. Never.
“To be a photographer you have to live and breathe it. It is an obsession.”
In the age of iPhones and camera-carrying amateurs and hobbyists, everyone’s a photographer.
“We share our profession with so many people,” said Valberg. “There are a lot of really great photographers out there, right? So, separating yourself is always a challenge. You have to be 10 steps, 100 steps ahead of everyone else.”
Valberg, 56, was still a plucky young student when she launched her first business, a home-based video production company, back in the 1980s. The graduate of Woodroffe High School started off in the fine arts program at the University of Ottawa before seeking out more technical training at Algonquin College.
The emerging video production industry was a real slog back then. Think Betacam video recorders and VHS tapes.
Valberg quickly went from shooting home inventory videos (to help owners keep track of their belongings, for insurance purposes) to working weddings. A lot of them.
Those ringing church bells became her bread and butter. She eventually added photography services and hired staff and subcontractors to keep up with demand. One particular weekend, her schedule included a Friday wedding, two Saturday weddings, a Sunday wedding and a Monday wedding. Never mind that all her friends were hitting the bars and partying.
“You have to do what you have to do to make a living as a photographer,” said Valberg, who, by this time, was in her mid-twenties and making a name for herself in Ottawa.
Valberg reached a point where the video technology was evolving so quickly and at such great expense that she decided to focus on her photography, which had always been her passion.
Valberg's first photography studio was also in Westboro, on Richmond Road.
She held photography exhibits there. She also promoted her work through the publication of coffee table-style books.
Valberg came to discover Canada’s North while shooting images for what would become her third book, Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape. As a visual storyteller, she wanted the public to see what it risked losing if it didn’t protect its planet.
The project required her to travel up north, to one of the most inhospitable environments in the world.
“I had no concept of where I was going, what it would look like. I thought of it as flat, white and cold, really.”
Valberg basically dialed up the Arctic and got explorer and entrepreneur David Reid, owner of Polar Sea Adventures. The two connected right away and remain good friends to this day. He put Valberg in touch with such key organizations as Adventure Canada and Nunavut Tourism, which had the budget to cover her travel expenses. Two weeks later, she was camping on the ice with polar bears.
“My world changed forever,” said Valberg of her unfolding fascination with the people, the wildlife and the landscape.
Valberg has since returned 60 more times. She’s been swarmed by mosquitoes the size of bees and has invested in enough wool clothing, down-filled jackets and extreme weather boots to brave the coldest Arctic temperatures.
Photographing wildlife requires “an incredible amount of patience and low expectations," she acknowledged. “You have no control. When I’m in the studio, I have full control. I can tell people how to pose, put makeup on them, have lighting.
“When I’m out in the field with the animals, I have no control of light, of interaction of behaviour, of anything.”
As much as she loves working with people, Valberg finds nature to be exhilarating.
“If you look at an owl or a bear or a loon or any wild creature, eye to eye, or they allow you to be with them, it’s just the greatest gift in the world.”
In Ottawa, Valberg’s photographs hang at Algonquin College, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, The Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation and The Ottawa Hospital’s cancer centre, as well as in office buildings and private homes.
Soon, her work will be displayed in one of her favourite buildings of all: her childhood home in the west-end neighbourhood of Whitehaven. The latest family to purchase the property recently learned it was where Valberg grew up and, being a fan of her work, are buying one of her prints to put over the fireplace.
“It makes my heart full knowing my work will be hanging in that home again,” she said of her full-circle moment.
Five Things to Know About Michelle Valberg
- She was a competitive golfer growing up, but her dream of earning a golf scholarship to an American college fell by the wayside after she discovered photography at age 17.
- She and her husband, Scott MacLennan, a retired platoon chief with Ottawa Fire Services, are proud parents to 16-year-old son Ben. He has travelled through the Northwest Passage and to Africa, circumnavigated Iceland and Newfoundland and visited Greenland and Labrador with Valberg.
- She lost both of her parents, just weeks apart, in 2013. Dr. John Valberg, 80, a retired ophthalmologist, and Betty Valberg, 81, a former flight attendant and nurse, played a big role in her life. They influenced her love of nature and travel and always provided her with guidance and support.
- She was once married to former Olympic ski jumper Horst Bulau.
- Legendary Canadian photographers and brothers Yousuf Karsh and Malak Karsh remain her biggest inspiration, professionally.