Tuesday, January 8, 2013


One thing is etched in stone. The first day for out of town assignments is the most stressful for photographers. You can't wait to dive into the work, make contacts, capture moments, feel that twitch you gain with new visual discoveries. Reality?  The thrill is tempered with all the cab rides, ferry's, permits, weather, ect.  It tortures the eager shooter. Its the game we play

This of course, is magnified when venturing out on a wilderness assignment. What you carry are the tools you'll have to complete the job.You are limited in your choices, to specific equipment. There's no turning back for more. Hard choices are made and you live with those decisions.

Even more aggravating, the unexpected. What you came to photograph seemingly vanishes from the landscape. Where did it go? What are we missing that nature is trying to communicate?

Day three into a six day assignment on Isle Royale brought storms and a complete absence of all wildlife. It felt spooky. "It had to be the storms," I said to myself. The wildlife has taken shelter in the forest. The forecast showed improvement in the weather in the upcoming days, but we were running out of time. We came here to photograph moose. Yet, there was no sign of them anywhere.

Calf Moose on Isle Royale from previous assignment
I've traveled to Isle Royale National Park numerous times over the years on assignment. A marvelous place, its isolated island ecosystem cherished by wildlife researchers. Initially, I became fascinated with the forty-five mile long island in Lake Superior while covering stories on wolves in Minnesota. Isle Royale had become well known for its wolf related history and I had become very familiar with the island.

Rolf Peterson, the famed wildlife biologist studying the unique closed ecosystem of Isle Royale, had taken incredible photos of the predator-prey relationship between wolves and moose. His images of wolf packs surrounding a moose from his research airplane just tickled my fancy. And then, I had seen Mitch Kezar's incredible photograph of a moose browsing for National Geographic and that further stimulated my interest in the long Lake Superior rock.

For years I had told writer Gus Axelson about the abundance of moose at Windigo. "We need to do a moose story here," I frequently bounced off Gus. Every Fall on the western end of the island the moose congregate for the rut. You couldn't hike anywhere without a moose sighting. Each and every one of my trips, moose, moose and more moose. If you want to do a story on moose, head to Isle Royale in the Fall and camp near Windigo. The four-legged men and women gather there.

(Left, moose blocking hiker along the trail near Windigo)
The Lake Superior storm brewing was big enough that N.P. staff were going tent to tent and hut to hut informing people that there would be no Ferry Service for several days. If they wanted to leave, they had 30 minutes to pack and get on the Ferry. Fall storms on Lake Superior are not something to take lightly. The shoals and reefs around Isle Royale have gutted many a vessel over the years and are testament to the violent wrath Lake Superior can bring.

We weren't leaving and plans were made. An eight mile RT hike would bring us to an exposed face of the island to view storm first hand. I love shooting storms. The risk can be worth the effort. I had packed proper rain gear and a watertight backpack for my cameras. Trails were open. Although, upon arrival, we were greeted by the NPS with cautionary advice about the horny moose and some trails will be littered with large debris from a earlier storm. Just be alert and careful was the advice.

(Right, dock at Windigo with Ranger Talk after disembarking)

So, we headed out. The chance for spotting a moose and snapping the shutter seemed promising. Eight miles is a lot of ground to cover and hiking past a variety of terrain put the odds in our favor. I've never been skunked locating moose on Isle Royale. And, the storms could add a new twist to a familiar subject. I was pumped for sure.

Then, the unexpected.

Its useful to combine knowledge and instincts in the wild. Storms can wreak havoc on the unprepared. Only experience can tranquilize necessary tasks in the wilderness. I felt the need to split off from Gus and friend Mike Kooi. I wanted to set my own pace, listen the way a photographer needs to hear and observe. I would meet them back at camp. Then, the wind and rain began pelting the island. My moose radar jumped to high. The wind was snapping off tree tops and with every crack, I whipped around concerned a moose was gunning for me. I often laughed at myself being startled so many times.

Stress seemed to follow every step. The audio level of high speed rain slapping my hood was deafening.  I couldn't hear anything in the forest. My pace slowed to a crawl. I would stop every 50 yards and take a 360ยบ spin to look around. Dang, if a bull moose didn't try to make a date with me, surely a tree falling would take me out. The woods were outta control and the tree tops whipping like grasses. It was strange. It was exciting and eery all at the same time.

 I made it back to camp. Mike, Gus and I flopped down inside the shelters and the Windigo camp and cooked dinner. While we prefer tents, these shelters were a luxury we refused to pass up.

"Where is all the wildlife, I asked?"

It was freaky. No moose or trace of them, no birds, not even red fox. And red fox are everywhere on Isle Royale. You felt their absence. What message of nature were we missing?

I'm used to seeing so many red fox you have to be careful about leaving anything unattended in camp. They simply steal it and add to their collection. I'm guessing their den resembles a flea market.

(Left: red fox peeks in shelter at Windigo campground on an earlier trip)

By day four we needed to alter our plans. The search for moose, any moose was kicked into high gear. We had no story yet. There were virtually no campers left. No one to check in with to inquire about any sightings. Where can we find them? The last ferry off the island was in a few days and the National Park Service shuts down Isle Royale for the season. Its now or never.

Feldtmann Lake was about 9 miles away and there had been wolf sightings in that area. We put two and two together and figured where there's wolves, there's moose. We packed up and boogied out.

Antlers along Feldtmann Lake Trail
We arrived at Feldtmann Lake camp at dusk and were met with encouragement along the trail. Twice, we came across discarded antlers. Moose!

The trail felt warm. Even birds began to appear. The moose had simply parked somewhere else and with luck, we'd find them. Perhaps our luck was changing?

Again, we met the unexpected.

Feldtmann Lake with Milky Way and Aurora Borealis

We made camp just off the trail that runs along the North shore of Feldtmann Lake. Darkness comes early in Fall. The new moon sky quickly blanketed the forest in blackness. Gus, Mike and I felt the chill of the night, ate some supper, grabbed the headlamps and ventured from camp down across the trail to the lake. You could feel the solitude. No one around, park closing for winter in two days. Its all ours.

It was so dark, so black, the stars took on a movie like appearance. The Milky Way cluster was so obvious in the sky. I had not seen that in a long time. Even the Aurora was dim on the horizon welcoming us. Damn, if our luck hadn't changed. This was promising on so many levels.

In the photograph above, it was much darker than it appears in this image. My friend, the gifted photographer Richard Hamilton Smith once referred to darkness as "digital's playground." The sensitivity of the digital sensor far exceeds the capability of the human eye. Using high ISO settings, even a subtle aurora shows up on the back of the camera alerting us to its presence. You can do so much more with digital in low light than one could in the days of film.

The three of us sat there on a beached log in front of a lake. The lake was like glass. It was so still. The sounds of summer bugs and mosquitos absent. It was so quiet you could almost hear the stars etching the sky. We heard a voice bouncing off the lake from the other side of the remote campground. It surprised us. Who else is crazy enough to be out here? The park is closing in two days and its a good hike to get outta here. Must be some hard cores getting in one last camp for the season.

Down at the lake, I was snapping thirty second exposures, one minute exposures, and several minute exposures of the brilliant evening stars. The brighter stars were reflecting on the surface of Feldtmann. It was an amazing sight. Once our eyes adjusted, I could see reeds off shore to our left and darting satellites gliding across the sky like ice skaters. There's something extreme quietness. Its almost loud its so quiet. We whispered as if we were afraid to disturb it. Suddenly, we heard a splash. A fish? It was loud enough that I put the radar back on high in case it wasn't a northern pike taking down a swimming frog. We heard it again. Something was in the lake.

We became motionless, forcing more quiet on our log bench. A loud exhaling breath broke the silence, then another. Water was splashing, between breaths. A MOOSE! A dad-burn moose was swimming across the lake and we couldn't see it! Not even a glimpse. The night was just too black. Yet, in our minds, each of us could see the moose swimming. Its nose and massive head just above the surface, pushing water, creating its own wake with each deep breath as it swam. This went on for twenty minutes. Our ears brought the visual to life as we listened to the moose come ashore across the lake, shake off, and move into the forest. Soon, the bellowing and grunting commenced. A bull looking for love across the lake. We could hear branches crackling, his movement. But not see a thing.

Then, the unexpected. Again.

We giggled at the thought of a Wildlife Bar scene across the lake. The bull moose looking for a date, the cow playing hard to get and so on. Then, in the blackness of night, a dog bark. But, it came from the opposite direction of the other campers. 

"Who in their right mind would be stumbling into camp this late at night, I asked Gus and Mike?"

This was not a difficult trail, but in darkness it could be dangerous one. With game trails diverting you off trail, steep slopes, rocky ledges, we were surprised to hear anything. But, the dog barking confirmed someone had to be coming in, right? Nothing. No footsteps. No dog barking. No moose. No people?

The cold broke our curiosity and off we went to crawl into warm sleeping bags for the night.

Lake Superior overlook on Feldtmann Lake Trail

Morning comes early for photographers and I'm thrilled Gus is an early riser too. He appreciates the value of crisp mornings, that silence before life stumbles from its cozy quarters. I wanted to catch the morning fog hovering over Feldtmann Lake. This is a normal occurrence in the Fall when air temps drop below water temperature creating a thick blanket of fog over the surface until it burns off with the warming sun. For that first hour of sunrise a shooter can be gifted some remarkable light to play with. 

We beat the sun by a good hour. Mike brewed some coffee and we made our way down to the lake. I noticed once we departed the canopy of the dark forest surrounding camp, we gained a full two stops of light near the lake. It was still dark but not so much a headlamp was required to get around.

It was cold. The ground was frosty and the lake covered with fog.

Frost covered trail

When the sunrise hit the lake across from us, I expected the glow to be stunning. Gus and Mike brought their sleeping bags down to waters edge and wrapped themselves in warmth. I had the Nikon on the tripod and waited for the sunrise. Again, from the left of us, a slight barking sounds erupted. 
A soft whimper.

"Hey guys, that dog from last night is back, I stated."

I moved away from the tripod backing out towards the trail intersection that lead back to camp. It was perhaps five yards to the trail up from the lakeshore through the tall grasses. I peered right towards the direction of the sound.......and a lone wolf was standing there, staring at me. It was all clear now. In the darkness last night, it wasn't a dog with hikers, it was a Wolf!

I called over to Gus and Mike, "guys, there's a wolf right there!

They leaped to their feet only to see it bolt off. We could hear it whimper again in the short distance through the birch. I whimpered back. The wolf ran off along the trail that circles around the backside of our camp. My camera still on tripod, I took it off and quickly tiptoed my way back to camp with hopes I might spot the wolf again through the forest. It was still too dark to make a good photograph in the woods. The light was flat, dark and everything kinda blended together in similar hues and tones. But, what choice do I have? I wanted to get another glance of the wolf.

I heard the whimper and a short bark once again. I responded. Within seconds, now from the left, a wolf walks into camp, not ten yards away from me. Was it the same wolf? Damn, if it was, how'd he get over there so fast and come in from this direction? I stood motionless, my camera down by my waist, not wanting to flinch, worried the wolf would spook. As I began to raise the lens, boom. It was gone. I missed the shot. The wolf was gone so fast.

He slunk'd down as he bolted from camp, muddy from its toes midway up his body. Gus and Mike inched into camp. We could hardly believe our eyes. We were so thrilled, adrenaline pumping. I wanted to position myself to get a good shot. Damn, I still need more light!

I put the camera back on the tripod, boosted the ISO and aimed the 80-200mm lens down the trail to the right again. Odds were, if the wolf was gonna investigate us again, it might come down the trail. Its the easiest route for the wolf and the most obvious one. Well, for a human that is. My eyes and lens focused on the curve in the trail about 2o yards away. If the wolf shows, I'd get a frame off this time. 

Within seconds, Gus and Mike are franticly waving their arms and hands pointing to the trail leading behind me. I wheel around and there's another wolf coming right at me. Hands on the tripod, eyes on the wolf, he gets within 20 feet and slips away into the thick brush towards the lake. I was shocked. Not shocked at the wolf coming at me, but where it exited the trail. Any human would have been forced to turn around or push forward down the trail. The wolf, a master of its environment disappears into the brush like a ghost. People just don't think that way. The speed and grace in which he disappeared into that thick underbrush left an impression on me. I learned something in that moment.

I ran to the trail leading to the lake. The same place we listened to the moose swimming at night. I  hoped I might get to snap off a frame as he runs along the shoreline. The distance from the lake to the main trail is only about 10 yards. I reached the intersection to the small path carved through the grasses leading to the lake. The small opening through the grasses allows a peek at the lake and part of the shoreline. Then, in a flash, a moment that stands still, the wolf runs by in full trot, turning his head towards me, framed through the grasses like a painting. A millisecond that lasted for hours in my head. It was the prefect shot. Camera in hand running to the lake.....And dog gone it, I missed it. 
I'm comfortable knowing there was little or nothing I could do. I was still caught in pursuit.

Wolf runs along Feldtmann Lake shoreline

As the wolf rounded the shoreline, I was able to fire off a few clicks of the shutter. But, for a photographer, a shot of his backside doesn't make for significant images. The reflection of missing two  momentous frames already imposing pain over me, it was over with. The entire sequence of events consumed at best, several minutes. 

If a wolf whimpers in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  YES!

These incidents happen to photographers, writers, outdoorsman. Experiencing these precious moments of nature at large was an exhilarating thrill. We determined that all the action was created when we rose from the tent the pack of three wolves got separated. Two were on one side of camp, and the other one on the other side. We were uncertain obstacles inbetween. Curiosity forced a conclusion. At no point were we ever threatened or in fear. We were in awe. The process of interacting with a wild animal who thinks cannot be underestimated in the value it brings to the human experience.

A closing note: The wolf pack we had seen might have included the last breeding female on Isle Royale. Wolves traveled across ice to the wilderness island in the 1950's and are now in danger, through inbreeding and decline of breeding females to becoming extinct on Isle Royale. Population numbers took a serious hit two summers ago with several members of a breeding pack were found dead in the bottom of a mining pit, probably victims of falling in during winter. 

Many questions remain about the wolves of Isle Royale. Their presence stabilized a moose population expanding out of control. Global warming has prevented Lake Superior from freezing over in recent years thwarting any possible natural reintroduction.