Fifteen Days of Glory

7,712 photographs, 32 videos, 2,221 kilometers driving, 103 kilometers snowshoeing, 2 wildlife photographers, 1 lost shoe, and a lifetime of stories: this is the initial tale of the greatest wildlife encounter of my career, my 15 days of glory with 2 lynx — a mother and her kitten.

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The first day was the hardest.  I had let myself get soft in the final month of winter here in the Canadian Rockies, watching too much hockey on tv and skipping the gym in favour of taste-testing new beers I had picked up on my travels in the months prior.

“Just…one…more…step.  Just keep going.  You can’t give up now. You can’t give up NOW.”

I was three hours into slugging my way through the thigh-deep, lightly-crusted snow and I was beyond exhausted. In the fluster of excitement at the first sight of the mother lynx and her kitten, I had moved into the deep snow in the forest in just my Sorels (no snowshoes), carrying both my 70-200mm lens and my big 500mm telephoto. Worse yet, I had not yet had a chance to ‘gear down’ as I normally did as the day warmed — so I was still wearing my -15 C (0 F) layers, including two pairs of long johns.

Within twenty minutes of following the lynx, I was soaked through in sweat. But as anyone else would do, I plunged onwards deeper and deeper into the forest, the adrenalin coursing through my veins.

Unlike most of my wildlife photography encounters, this time I was not alone. That day, of all days, my wife had convinced me to take her friend’s daughter, a Canmore Collegiate high school student, along for a morning wildlife cruise in the hopes of seeing wolves.  Up until 11 a.m., Alex had seen nothing more than a few distant goats.  Five minutes later she was waist-deep in crusted powder following two lynx through a forest.

We had joined up with my friend and colleague, Brandon T. Brown, who had found the lynx earlier that morning and had sent an ominous text that had floated around in cyberspace for two hours before finally landing on my cell phone:

“Get here now!!”

And so there we were, the three of us following a mother lynx and her kitten through the snow, half-expecting the encounter to end at any moment — but it didn’t. In fact, long after our adrenalin stocks had gone the way of the dodo bird, long after Alex had lost her hiking shoe in the snow (we swore we’d look for it when the encounter was over, but we never did come back to find it), and long after I had given up dreaming of water and food and nap-time, we were still plunging through the crust keeping the lynx in our sight.

For an astonishing six-and-a-half hours (eight for Brandon!), we followed the lynx pair through a winding crash course in a-day-in-the-life-of-a-lynx.

It was the most physically-draining thing I have ever done, but it was worth every exhilarating minute of it. On one hand, Brandon and I both came out of the day with more than 100 GBs each of lynx photos; and on the other hand, we were both so tired and sore at the end of that first day that neither of us could get out of bed the next!

But then we did finally get out of bed again two days later, and astonishingly, we found the lynx again. And then we found them again two days after that.  And again five days after that.  And finally, in one last glorious hurrah, I spent four final hours alone with her and her kitten in late March.

The encounters truly have produced a lifetime worth of stories and photographs.  But as I often do, I will save most of both for another day and another time, sharing with you all just a taste of what made these encounters so special for both Brandon and I.

Enjoy!!

Mom – the most beautiful lynx I have ever seen

The Kitten – the cutest lynx I have ever seen

‘Wachful Eye’ – the kitten watching a squirrel in a tree above

‘On the hunt’ – the kitten prowling about the forest

‘Together’ – mom and the kitten pause for a moment in the forest

‘Cuddle Time’ – mom and the kitten cuddle up for a nap

Want to see 28 more beautiful, full-screen shots?  Check out my brand new photo gallery section over on my website and look for the What’s New – Lynx gallery. 

Thanks everyone, please feel free to leave your ‘Comments’ below.

One Day in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park.  It is the holy grail of wildlife photography in North America. Our Serengeti, if you will.

And so it should come as no surprise to all of you to know that I have been avoiding Yellowstone like the plague for the past twenty years.

Uh, say WHAT?!?

That’s right, for the past twenty years, John E. Marriott has been avoiding the single best place in North America to take wildlife pictures.  Sounds like a brilliant career move, right?  Why bother going somewhere that has bison grazing like cattle, wild grizzlies around every corner, and a plethora of other drool-worthy beasts ranging from badgers to beavers to black bears?

The truth is, I’m not that big on crowds, and Yellowstone has them in spades.  That’s not to say you can’t get off the trails and get away from it all, because you can, it’s just that there are always gobs of people driving and wandering about in Yellowstone.  And a lot of them are wildlife photographers.  Couple that with the fact that I only shoot in groups on my photo tours and workshops and you begin to get an inkling for why I favour Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan over Yellowstone much of the time.

The other key factor in my Yellowstone-avoidance plan over the past two decades lies in the direction that I decided to take my career in when I started off.  I figured there were heaps of people photographing Africa and Yellowstone and Antarctica, but not that many concentrating solely on Canada.  So that was the niche I decided to exploit, photographing from Baffin Island to Banff, from coast to coast to coast across the country.

However, every once in a while, I sneak off to Yellowstone without telling anyone (my last trip there was a 7-day backpack in 2003) and grab a few pics for the family albums.

Ten days ago, my wife came into my office and told me she had to take the rest of her 2012 vacation days before the end of January.  That left us with six days to ‘go somewhere’, so by the next day the car was loaded and we were US-bound!  Since it was supposed to be a ‘vacation’ and not a John-gets-to-shoot-from-dawn-to-dusk-every-day sorta vacation, we made a compromise.  The first few days would be spent exploring a place we’d both always wanted to go, Jackson Hole in Wyoming (very high marks from both of us, we loved it!), while the last day and a bit would be spent photographing in Yellowstone.

And so, without further adieu, I present to you images from our ‘One Day in Yellowstone’ on January 28th, 2013.

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Bison bulls on the Blacktail Plateau, Yellowstone National Park

Bison are everywhere in Yellowstone, particularly in the winter when they’re concentrated in the nothern part of the park.  It’s basically impossible to drive through without scoring some great images of bison doing something or other — even just laying there.

Two younger bison bulls get rowdy and fight in the Lamar Valley

Snow-draped bison bull in Yellowstone National Park

Not to be messed with!

Other ungulates like deer, elk, and pronghorn are not quite as plentiful as bison are, but they’re still easy to find, particularly near the northwest entrance by Gardiner.

A pronghorn antelope doe

But the real winter treasure to be found in Yellowstone is their wild wolves, which have flourished since being relocated from Canada in 1994.  Unfortunately, this winter both Wyoming and Montana had open seasons on wolves and Yellowstone’s wolves were decimated, particularly the packs that most tourists get to observe in the Lamar Valley and in the northern reaches of the parks.

We spent the night before our ‘One Day in Yellowstone’ reading all about the heart-wrenching stories of well-known wolves that had been mowed down along the park’s borders this winter by hunters that seemed to specifically target park wolves.

The reports left me feeling mad above all else and really made me appreciate the fact that many of the wolves I photograph in the Canadian Rockies do not stray outside of our park boundaries and are thus not exposed to the dangers of hunting and trapping. However, the packs that I photograph in Yoho and Kootenay national parks in B.C. face the exact same dangers as these Yellowstone wolves now do. Because our national parks do not have buffer zones around them protecting the wildlife from hunters and trappers, much of our trans-boundary wildlife is in constant flux.  For instance, trappers have removed 5 wolves already (almost an entire pack) from Banff’s northeast edge this winter (stay tuned for a lot more news about wolves in the coming weeks and about how you can help with putting an end to ‘cross-border shopping’, where wolf and bear hunters can shoot unsuspecting wildlife right on our parks’ boundaries).

In the days leading up to our visit, I’d noticed online that there were still a few packs of wolves being seen in Yellowstone almost daily, so we put the bad news aside and hoped for the best.

An hour into the park, we found our first wolves.  Tiny, distant black specks on a far-off ridge.  Worse yet, there were hundreds of people lining the road hoping to catch a glimpse or a photograph of them!

We left immediately and were rewarded a few hours later with a spectacular sighting of a pack that’s not as commonly seen in the park, the Blacktail wolf family, which currently has three gray wolves, including two with radio collars.

Several cars got to see one of the collared alphas as she howled to the other two that had disappeared across the road, and then, about twenty minutes later, with a bit of detective sleuth work, my wife and I were able to find the one uncollared member of the family, who proceeded to really put on a show for us as it walked along the road and dipped in and out of the sage flats.

Gray wolf from the Blacktail wolf family

A beautiful gray wolf from the Blacktail wolf pack pauses in the sage

The same gray wolf eyes me curiously

It was a remarkable experience getting to be so close to a Yellowstone wolf and feeling the same thrills I get when I’m lucky enough to view and photograph wild wolves here in the Canadian Rockies.  And it seemed that much ‘cooler’ knowing that these wolves are descendants of the same Jasper wolves that I’ll be trying to find this week on my Jasper wildlife photography workshop.

So while it was just ‘One Day in Yellowstone’, it was really ‘One GREAT Day in Yellowstone’.

Happy shooting everyone and stay tuned to my Facebook page for Jasper updates this week!

John

The Dempster – A Second Look

This is my first crack at showing off a few more Dempster (and other northern) images. I sat down this morning with the grand intention of showing the best of the best, but only made it through 2 of my 24 Dempster and Yukon/NWT folders before I figured I better stop and just throw a post up. So needless to say, there will be a lot more images from the north to come in future weeks!

A rainbow over the Richardson Mountains in the Yukon

And as an overall summary of the trip, here are some numbers for you. Enjoy!

17,331 – kilometres driven from August 9th to September 15th

3 – number of wolverines seen (my first ones ever!)

4 – provinces and territories covered (BC, Alberta, the Yukon and the NWT)

4 – number of wolf sightings, including the adorable little pup below

1,631 – cost of my brake repair

2 – number of lynx sightings

1 – number of lynx and kitten sightings (!!), photos to come

0 – number of on-the-road disagreements between my wife and I **

27 – number of nights spent sleeping in the car

1 – number of sunny days

A short-eared owl on the tundra. I shot this at 6:01 a.m with my ISO cranked to 4000.

A herd of young bull caribou on the tundra in the Northwest Territories

“Owning the Road” – a grizzly walks down the dead middle of a road near Kluane National Park

A lone wild wolf pup in the boreal forest

Another rainbow along the Dempster

It may never win any awards, but it is one my first ever wild wolverine pictures!!

Fog in the Richardson Mountains, Northwest Territories

A beautiful griz in beautiful fall colours

Hope you enjoyed this second glimpse at some of my shots from the adventure up north.

Happy shooting!

John

** – may not be entirely true 😉

And the ‘Dempster Duel’ Winner is…

Mud, rain, snow, fog, and sleet faced off for a conclusive three days this week against me and my battered Subaru Forester for a final duel to the dea…ok, for a final duel to determine an ultimate winner in this three week saga in the Great Canadian North.

So the question is, was the final battle all worth it? Was the five hour drive to and from Whitehorse on Wednesday and Saturday, sandwiched over a ridiculous 2,320 more kilometres on the evil Dempster with another 37 kilometres on foot thrown in for good measure, worth it? Did the bears dance, the caribou waltz, and the woolly mammoths rumble across the tundra?

Let me answer the question with this:

A large female grizzly bear walks across arctic tundra lit up in fall colours

And this:

Members of the Porcupine caribou herd migrate up and over a hill in early morning fog

Or even this, this, this and this!!

Bearberry forms a dazzling foreground for a rainbow and stormy skies over the Ogilvie Mountains


Fall colours on the tundra in the Richardson Mountains, Northwest Territories
A black-phase red fox in spectacular sunset light on the arctic tundra
A grizzly bear chases a herd of caribou across the tundra

In just three short days, I saw the most amazing thing: the sun. That’s right, that big yellow thing in the sky, that long-forgotten alien object that once graced our summer skies frequently, decided to make an appearance on Friday afternoon and stayed through all of Saturday, turning a mundane final few days into a show-stopper that had me scrambling trying to take advantage of every last tiny drop of light from dawn to dusk.

And while the caribou were scarce, I did make a few distant sightings, including a rare sequence of shots of a grizzly chasing a small herd across the tundra.

I even saw my old nemesis, the car-jumping rascal griz that had scared me half to death a week earlier by pouncing on the hood of my car. This time around she was out to thwart my best attempts at landscape photography — each time the sun came out and I went off to do some scenics, she would appear like a ghost out of the fog and force me to photograph her in fall colours in sunlight. I know, I know, terrible stuff to have a grizzly bear get in the way of scenic photos, but such is life.

She even got a name, finally. No, not Rascal or Pouncer, but rather Stripe, for her prominent dark stripe running down her back between her beautiful blonde shoulders. And for pictures of her, you’ll need to wait for the full Dempster update in a week or two when I actually have time to look at the 23 folders of photos now residing on my computer, 10,380 photos in total.

So all in all, even though I once again battled rain, mud, and even snow, I came out a winner. My car did not break down. My tires held up. Even my spirits were buoyed, particularly when I witnessed a squirrel race across the road in front of me with a mushroom twice its size in its mouth early one morning! It was enough to make me gasp in amazement, then laugh uproariously out loud!

So what was the total trip yield over the three weeks? How many wolves, lynx and wolverine? How many nights of dancing northern lights? And how many kilometres did my silver Subaru choke back under her tires? For that, you’ll also need to wait for the full update in a week or two.

Until then, I’m off to Bugaboo Lodge in the Purcell Mountains to do a little heli-hiking!

Happy shooting, and thanks to all of you for the many, many comments on Facebook, Twitter, and here on my blog, along with all of the emails. It was fantastic to read all of the responses on my trip!

John

Canadian Geographic Cover

It’s official! The December issue of Canadian Geographic magazine will feature this image of mine of Delinda, a wild wolf that I came to know very well over the course of a few years, on the cover:

I knew I was in the running for the cover about two weeks ago when the photo editor for the magazine called me and asked for my permission to put two of my images of Delinda in the online ‘cover vote’ that they do with subscribers to confirm their selection of each month’s cover.

My two images (see below) were up against a red fox.


Fortunately for me, the readers chose one of the images of Delinda, though as this week’s Banff Crag & Canyon article on the cover selection suggests, I wasn’t sure I’d win. In fact, I was pretty sure that my two wolf images would saw each other off at the pass in the voting, handing the next cover to the image of the red fox.

Thankfully I was wrong! It’s my first cover of Canadian Geographic magazine, though I’ve had several covers with them for their catalogs and calendars over the years and am quite regularly published in the magazine via my stock photography agents.

The Canadian Geographic website is also doing a feature story on the cover shot and on my experiences with Delinda, the former matriarch of the Bow Valley wolf pack who died tragically on the Trans-Canada Highway a year ago. You can read more about her untimely death in the article below from Macleans magazine in September 2008 (click on the picture to see the full-size article).


A year later and Delinda’s death is still no easier for me to take. Every time I drive the Bow Valley Parkway I’m reminded of the cherished time I got to spend watching and photographing her and her pack. Her death signaled a changing of the pack structure and the beginning of chaos amid the Bow Valley wolves. Today, 14 months after her death, more than half her pack has been killed just like she was on the busy roads of Banff National Park, Canada’s supposed ‘flagship’ national park. And with no sightings of any members of the pack in the past few months, no one is even sure if any of them are still alive.

Since this coming December issue is the special first anniversary of Canadian Geographic’s annual Wildlife-only issue and one of the topics in the magazine will be the state of wildlife conservation in Canada, I think it’s very fitting that this iconic image of Delinda, one that already greets millions of Banff visitors from the back of one of the town’s hybrid buses, will be gracing the cover of Canada’s most-read nature magazine.

I can only hope her picture and her story lead to an improvement in how wildlife is managed (an oxymoron in itself) in our national parks.

Wildlife of the Canadian Rockies Photography Book

In June 2008, I released my latest photo coffee table book, a 96-page full-colour hardcover titled Wildlife of the Canadian Rockies: A Glimpse at Life on the Wild Side. While this wildlife book has been available for several months in local bookstores and in Chapters, Indigo and Coles bookstores throughout Western Canada, it only recently became available online, together with my Banff book, Banff & Lake Louise: Images of Banff National Park, my first photo coffee table book.


Wildlife of the Canadian Rockies: A Glimpse at Life on the Wild Side has already sold more than 2000 copies nationwide since it was released in June. It features many of my favourite wildlife photographs, including several of Delinda, the matriarch of the Bow Valley wolf pack who recently passed away on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff.

Soon after the wildlife book was released in June, my Banff book celebrated its one year anniversary by surpassing 5000 copies sold in Canada, making it a Canadian bestseller!

You can order either book online with a substantial discount (34% off the cover price) and excellent shipping rates from Canada’s most trusted online bookstore, Indigo-Chapters.

I’m off to Churchill soon to chase polar bears in the subarctic, so watch for a blog update in late November with some of those pictures!

Cheers,

John

Lynx Photography – The One That Got Away

Wildlife photographers are like fishermen in many respects. A mutual admiration for the great outdoors? Check. A desire to proudly show off the pictures of the day’s great ‘catch’? Check. An ability to spin a tall tale when the ‘big one’ gets away? Check, check, check!

In fact, half of wildlife photographers’ time in the field is spent sharing glorious yarns with fellow wildlife photographers, and anyone else that cares to listen, about the pack of twelve wolverines they saw kill a wild boar on the outskirts of downtown Vancouver just last year. Thing was, of course, it was kinda dark and none of the pictures turned out. So the story has to stand on its own, soon embellished to fifteen wolverines and extra bonus points for a sabre-toothed tiger on the side.

[Note: no, wolverines do not travel in packs, especially packs of twelve or fifteen. No, wild boars do not live on the outskirts of Vancouver. And no, sabre-toothed tigers are not still kicking around somewhere.]

However, occasionally, we do get some photos to back up our stories. And even more rarely, we get photographs to back up our stories of the one that got away. You know, the big fish…or in my case, the big lynx.

Lynx are beautiful wild cats, but they’re shy and elusive, so they’re rarely seen. I’ve only had a handful of sightings of them in the Canadian Rockies, so when I heard from friends in Jasper last week that lynx were being sighted fairly regularly in several areas, I immediately packed the car and drove up.

For three straight days I searched from dawn to dusk, but couldn’t find a thing other than some old tracks. By 9 am on the fourth morning, I was done. No lynx, no luck, so I started heading back to Jasper.

Not five minutes after ‘giving up’, I drove around a corner and was shocked to see a large lynx casually crossing the road right in front of me. A surge of adrenalin instantly snapped me out of my trance and my instincts took over. Grab cautiously! Open lens! Drive up window calmly! Errr, grab lens, open window, drive up calmly and cautiously.

As I pulled up, the lynx stood on a short bank and briefly turned around to look at me, just long enough for me to get my big lens focused and snap this shot – so close that it barely fit into the frame!


Not really sure if I’d gotten a good shot or not, I watched with dismay as the lynx then wandered off into the bush to the left. But I quickly realized there was a good chance the lynx was going to walk through a small clearing a hundred metres up the road, so I whipped the car around and stopped at the clearing.

The little clearing was so close to the road that I flipped on a smaller lens, turned off my engine, and got ready. Sure enough, before I even had time to think, the lynx popped its head out of the trees, strolled out a few feet, then stopped and stared right at me. I aimed, pressed my shutter button down…and…what the #*%@! My autofocus wasn’t on!! In the extra second it took me to flick it on, in THAT extra second, the lynx turned around and walked back into the bush.

“You have GOT to be kidding me!” was the first thought that raced through my mind, followed closely by a few choice expletives. What kind of wildlife photographer doesn’t have his autofocus turned on?? Still stewing and desperately hoping for one more opportunity, I cruised up and down that stretch of road incessantly for the next nine hours until dark, but didn’t see a thing.

So finally, in the waning evening light, I returned to the spot of the ‘tragedy’. Then, as if to torture myself for eternity, I pulled out that same lens, aimed at that same spot, and took this picture:


The one that got away, indeed….