While in Hong Kong, I tried my best to convince my mom that it was not dangerous to photograph wolves and that I wouldn't be eaten. She looked quite worried when she saw this photo I took back in last Oct.
I went on to tell her the story of Lobo again. I was 9 when I first told her that story, after I read the book by Ernest Seton, my favorite book of all time.
Little did I expect that tears still filled my eyes when I was telling the story after so many years, the story of Lobo and Blanca.
As I was reading the Wiki page now, I can't help but think of the conversation I had with a world-renowned photographer few years ago when he had a one-year assignment to photograph wolves in Yellowstone using remote cameras.
He said he had set up numerous remote trigger cameras for the last couple of months. Yet, the wolves were able to break the wires of each camera from behind. He got zero picture at the end and was giving up.
“That's why I'm here photographing bobcat instead,” he said.
I couldn't help but feel … happy, cheering for the wolves.
Isn't it amazing how smart wolves are?
Well, I had given up on wolf photography too for the last ten years in Yellowstone.
Most of the time the wolves in Yellowstone were miles away because hunting wolves was and is legal outside the park, and since the wolves are free to roam in and out of the park, they had mostly been shot at or seen their pack members killed.
I only had three “closer” encounters with wolves over the years.
The first one, I was using a 500mm and a 2x teleconverter shooting down a river where a gray wolf was feeding on an elk carcass. Bad quality shots.
The second one we just drove into a pullover when a black wolf walked right by. The wolf never looked back and I only got butt shots.
The third one, I saw the wolf walking towards my car on the road. But there was a big ugly collar on the neck, and the heat shimmer was so bad I only got a blurry shot.
So when my friend Henrik asked me if we could spend at least two days in Lamar Valley last Oct to look for wolves, I hesitated.
To have a chance to get a decent photo of a wolf, I think we need to spend at least two months there.
“I heard there were great gray owl and moose in the Tetons,” I said.
But one never knew, so I said yes, knowing how much he wanted to be there.
“Just two days, okay?” I said.
Let's talk about wolf photography for a bit.
To me, I am only interested in photographing wild wolf in winter coat without baiting.:
- Wild: means I'm not interested in captive or zoo animals.
- No baiting: I don't know for sure, but I heard that some places in Europe, one can rent a blind and they use bait to lure the wolves in. To me that's cheating.
- Winter coat: I think wolves look their best in long winter coat. I heard there is a place in coastal British Columbia where one may be able to photography wolves catching fish. Well I would still love to go some day even though I heard it's hit and miss. My good friend went once and told me he didn't see any wolf. The coastal wolves, however, are in summer coat during the salmon run… hmm not that good looking…
- Arctic wolves? I also heard of the Ellesmere Island, where photographers Jim Brandenburg and most recently Ronan Donovan, and Vincent Munier (not exactly sure if Munier photographed them there) went to photograph Arctic wolves. It would be extremely expensive to go.
- Banff? My friend Steve also asked around about the wolves in Banff and Jasper National Park in Canada, but he found out that the sighting is even rarer than Yellowstone and one needed to go snowshoeing into the park to have a better chance.
So that really leaves Yellowstone in Winter to be one of the best places on earth to photograph wild wolves in winter coat without baiting.
Henrik and I didn't see any wolves on our first day in Oct, not even the far away dots.
I smiled. Told you.
But it was okay. Wolf photography is supposed to be extremely difficult.
The next morning, we took our time. We didn't even try to look for the wolves.
Instead, we bought some salsa and chips from the gas station, and hiked up a little hill to just enjoy the scenery.
It's been a tough few months. We both knew we were here to really just escape from reality for a little while and to catch up with each other.
After a nice conversation about life and other random stuff, we packed our stuff and walked back to our cars.
Within a few minutes, we saw something crossing the river below the road on our left.
We slowed down. Wait, we saw some movement just to the right of our cars on the small hill.
We were surrounded by 5 wolves. I opened the moon-roof to look out, and the wolf was just right there on the hill.
I was trying hard to put my dropped jaw back to its position when Henrik yelled.
“Look behind you!”
Without knowing what happened, I saw a pair of orange eyes looking right into my soul.
I raised the camera. No time to check the exposure. No time to switch lens. To be honest I forgot I had another camera with a shorter lens. But it didn't matter. I knew the moment was fleeting. It was backlit. Black. I dialed the exposure compensation to plus 1 and clicked on the shutter. Please lock focus. I said gently to the camera. Please don't screw up this time.
600mm f/4, 1.4x teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 500
You can check out the rest of the images here.
At almost the same time, the rangers came and we all had a nice chat after the wolves left the area.
It did take me 5 minutes of hyperventilating before I could catch my breath and talk again…
“We are spending the rest of the trip here in Lamar Valley,” I told Henrik once I caught my breath.