We got out of the truck to look at the tracks. They were fresh. Huge.
“There’s no question,” Joe said. “These are wolf tracks. See the nails? The size? Look how the ones heading west are less distinct. They have a bit of snow sifted into them, probably from early this morning. These, the ones heading east, they’re much more fresh. See how the pads are really defined, how the toe claw hollows haven’t caved in yet?”
“Wow,” I replied, not sure how else to respond to the clearest wolf tracks I had ever seen. “They’re so big. What are these next to ‘em?”
“That looks like coyote. They’re smaller. Pretty fresh though, hard to tell how fresh. Maybe a couple of hours apart…or half a day?”
“Look!” he said, moving five paces further. I follow, waiting for him to tell me what I’m looking at. “One is following the other, weaving in and out a little.”
“Do wolves eat coyotes?” I asked, wondering if I sounded like an idiot.
“They might,” he answered absently as he began to follow the tracks more quickly east through the snow. “Let’s follow the story here. This is interesting.”
We walked 200 hundred feet or so, following the wolf tracks, the coyote tracks, to a point where another wolf track joined from the south, a smaller track, “Maybe a female wolf here,” he speculated, walking still more briskly. “There is a real story unfolding.”
“Yeah,” I said, struggling to follow the complex plot line. “Is the coyote being surrounded by the wolves?”
“I don’t think so,” Joe replied as we approached a crossing back and circling of tracks, both coyote and wolf. “See how this loops back, and it’s not really churned up around the prints, so we aren’t seeing signs of a struggle here. It’s more of a chase, almost like they’re playing with each other,” he laughs, “or following tracks for fun. In reality, they might have never seen each other.” We continued to follow the tracks another couple hundred feet. “If the wolves were chasing the coyote, we would at least see some fur, some churned up snow as the coyote picked up pace to get away.”
We stand in the snow, talking about tracks. I’m thinking about coyotes and wolves playing in the snow together, a cartoon image taking shape in my untrained mind. I’ve seen coyotes dozens of times. I’ve only seen wolves on video. This summer I attended the Oregon Wild Wolf Rendezvous, camping for 3 days in the wolf country of Wallowa County. By day, we hiked drainages known to be used by the Imnaha pack and met with wolf biologists, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials, and ranchers concerned about wolf depredation of their stock. By night, we sat around the camp listening for howls, talking about wolf habitat, wolf behavior, and wolf politics, getting to know each other, this group of 10 from as close as Elgin, Oregon and as far away as Chicago, Illinois. We were all brought together by interest in Oregon’s growing wolf population. We never heard a howl, just an eerie likeness from a wolf hybrid owned by the nearest neighbor.
I came back out to the Wallowas in November to spend a month on the Zumwalt Prairie, part of the Imnaha pack’s winter range and the largest natural bunch grass prairie in the country. Elk graze here in the winter, and the wolves follow them, and so I’m following the wolves with some folks I met through my Rendezvous connections. Only we are in the mountains, not on the prairie today.
Standing in the snow, talking about canine habits, Joe gets quiet. He turns his head slightly and tilts it 20 degrees. His parted lips stretch to a smile as his eyebrows raise and eyes twinkle. “Did you hear that? That was a howl…………….There!” he says as the low, soft howl breaks the silence again.
I nod. “It sounds far away,” I say. “Was it one wolf or two calling to each other?”
Joe shakes his head, “I don’t know.” He looks up and smiles: “You just heard a wolf!” he says with elation, slapping my shoulder, and we instinctively go in for a gloved high-five. “I can’t believe we saw tracks and heard a wolf!”
Joe spends a lot of time out here, and he has only seen wolves three or four times. This is only the sixth time he has heard them. We are laughing, talking about how effortlessly we happened upon tracks and sound. The pressure is off for the day. This is what we came for, and we are happy and cold and about to head back toward the truck, which I left unlocked with the keys in the ignition 500 yards away on a Forest Service road.
Joe is telling me about his other experiences hearing and seeing wolves when, behind his head, I catch movement in a narrow clearing. Moving slowly and silently toward the trees, the unmistakable canine shape and gait of a very large, black wolf slips across the clearing and disappears into the woods.
“I just saw a wolf!!” I say in explanation as Joe’s puzzled expression registers my obvious distraction and widening eyes. “It went across the snow just past those stumps and slipped into the trees! It almost looked like a black bear cub in size and color, but it was absolutely canine in shape.”
“Up by the stumps??!!” Joe asks, excited. The stumps are maybe 100 feet away. Joe takes off at a jog. “Let’s see if there are tracks. If there are, then we KNOW you saw a wolf!!” I jog after him and point to the place in the trees where the wolf disappeared.
“Right over this way. It was going this way,” I say breathlessly, calling him over from the other side of the clearing. And we stop and look down at the clearest wolf tracks we have seen all morning. They are big. They are pointing the direction I saw the wolf moving, and I see Joe take off after it. And I follow him. Follow them.
We run through the trees, staying close to the tracks without trampling them. Joe turns back once and puts a finger to his lips, as if I were not speechless anyway. Joe follows the tracks, and I follow Joe and the tracks, as we weave through the trees, coming out into a small snow-covered meadow, dipping into a dense young stand of fir and spruce on the other side. We continue tracking through what feels more like a thicket of trees than a forest and out across another clearing before dipping back into another stand.
“He’s trying to ditch us,” Joe whispers, still tracking as he makes a couple of quick jogs to the left and right through the trees where wolf tracks mix with blow down and thawed patches of underbrush. “He knows we’re following him” and I keep following Joe as we weave through the trees, our pace quickening as our route twists through an older stand of fir, more naturally spaced and easier to navigate. We trip and hop over blow down and branches, crossing a Forest Service road, where Joe slows momentarily and points, “Look! It’s his tracks and your tire tracks! You have literally crossed paths with a wolf and he with you. Ha-ha!” Joe seems giddy as we pick up pace again, and I follow, breathing hard now, as we dip into another stand of fir and pine.
As we enter the woods, Joe stops abruptly. “He peed here,” he says. “Interesting. If he stopped to scent mark, he’s not worried about us gaining on him anymore. He wouldn’t have taken the time.”
Our pace slows to a jog and then a walk, and I’m grateful. I hike regularly, but I probably haven’t jogged 2 miles in a decade, and I’m estimating that’s how far we chased the wolf to this scent post. We haven’t seen him again in any of the larger clearings. He is well ahead of us now, but we continue following the tracks out across another clearing on a ridge line, traversing first down and then back up. We are talking again, no longer believing we can catch up with him if we are swift and silent.
“You saw a wolf!!!” Joe says, slapping my shoulder again and smiling ear to ear. He didn’t see it. He’s a little envious, I think, but thrilled to have seen tracks, heard howls, and chased a wolf through the woods with someone who saw it lope in a known direction. I’m still speechless, and now, for the first time, a little worried.
“Are you still oriented to where we left the truck?” I ask, thinking about all of our dips, jigs, jags, crossings, and the excitement of the chase as the clouds begin to gather, the winds pick up, and conditions no longer look as conducive to following our own footprints as easily as we had the wolf’s.
“Totally,” he says, and we continue another 100 yards or so and stop. Look around. Listen. We look out at the gathering clouds, register that it’s getting late, that sunset is 4:20 these days, and without a word, we turn and retrace our steps.
“You saw a wolf!!” he says. “And we chased it!!!” We both laugh and begin reliving the story even while we are still writing its end. He laughs again. “Most people would be like, ‘Holy shit. That was a big wolf. We better get back to the car.’ I didn’t even bother asking whether you were up for a chase,” he laughs only half apologetically.
I’m laughing too. “I saw you take off and I sure as hell wasn’t gonna stay there by myself!”
We get back to the road where wolf tracks cross Les Schwab tracks and head left down the road, taking a shortcut back to the truck. I’m a little anxious about having left the truck half on the road, unlocked with the keys in the ignition and cameras in the back seat, so I warn Joe about the potential for an unforeseen development in our adventure. I mention that I figure anyone seeing that truck would assume a hunter was 100 feet away with a rifle, and Joe agrees.
My worries ease as I note that our tread is still top tread on the snow. As we round a bend and my gnarly ’92 Chevy pickup comes into view, Joe chuckles, “It definitely looks like a Wallowa county hunter’s truck.”
“Yeah, I love its ‘Don’t Fuck with Me!’ attitude,” I laugh.
We open the doors to find everything exactly as we left it. Joe grabs his water bottle. I grab mine and take a long drink. My lungs still burn from the run. We haven’t had a sip of water since before we started tracking. I breathe deeply a few times, cough to clear the burn, and take another long drink before grabbing my camera off the back seat and heading over to the first clear print we saw. I take a few pictures of what now seem like hopelessly indistinct prints in increasingly flat, gray light.
“You saw a wolf—and we chased it!” Joe says again, grinning as I walk back to the truck. “How cool is that!?”
“I saw a wolf—and we chased it!!” I say, still nearly speechless, but punctuating each word and laughing as we prepare to head back toward town.
Visit Joe Whittle’s WINDING LIGHT ADVENTURES to learn more about my field partner for this adventure.
As a few of my followers may remember, I’m not a big fan of Photoshop. My objections, however, have more to do with the complexity of the program and the relative simplicity of younger software programs, such as Lightroom, Photomatix, and Nik. Most people who object to Photoshop do so because it makes possible dishonest photographic representations of reality. You know, things like “photoshopping” George Bush’s head onto a Neo-Nazi’s body or something like that.
While the use of Photoshop, LR, or Photomatix to alter documentary images is clearly a breach of ethics, using it to blend exposures for increased dynamic range, depth of field, or compositional creativity in nature photography is an effective way to represent the photographer’s vision of the location.
Nature photographers tend to be avid nature lovers. We are passionate about landscapes, fauna, flora, and even the weather and astronomy that make human life on earth, and especially outdoors, so exhilarating. This love for nature does not necessarily translate, however, to a low tech approach to photography for all nature photographers. For some of us, the limitations of the camera, combined with the extraordinary sophistication of the human eye and human mind, make blended and composite exposures not only acceptable, but also thoroughly understandable.
Consider first the limited light gathering capabilities of a high-end digital camera compared to the human eye. The typical professional level digital SLR can capture only about half the dynamic range of light that the human eye can perceive and appreciate. While the camera can capture 10-11 stops of light, the human eye can perceive 14-24 stops, partly because the eye constantly dilates and contracts, adjusting to the full range and taking in multiple gradations between the highest highlights and darkest shadows. The human mind processes all of this information very efficiently, so we are not typically aware of how complex this process is.
To capture photographically what we actually see, therefore, we often need to take 2-3 separate exposures to cover the full dynamic range appreciated by the photographer’s eye to convey the light experienced at the time the picture was taken.
Just as cameras have limited dynamic range relative to the human eye, lenses have limited depth of field. The eye can focus selectively and sequentially on an enormous depth of scenery. For example, we are able to take in the all the details of a distant mountain, a rustic barn 100 yards away, and a field of sunflowers at our feet. Few lenses can capture that depth of field effectively, even stopped down to f/22 or higher, because diffraction degrades the crispness of focus. Taking multiple images — one focused on foreground and one or two on more distant objects in the scene — and merging those images through software enables photographers to represent more precisely the full scene. Some lenses, like dedicated macro lenses that record subjects at 100% or more of their actual size, even require focus stacking to get full depth of field in a subject as small as a flower.
While photographers typically enjoy working within the limits of the medium, finding creative ways of using dark or unfocused parts of a scene, we sometimes encounter situations that demand pushing the technology. Whether we use filters in the field, exposure blending or focus stacking, we are making sure that the resulting image will have all the drama, color, and detail that we saw when we were there.
Sometimes we push it further still, creating compositions in which an element that was not in the original scene is added for effect. This is the most controversial use of software, and doing this has become synonymous with Photoshop. The limitations of the camera relative to the human eye justified the examples above, but in this case, it has more to do with the limitations of photography in general relative to the human mind. The human mind takes in 360 degrees of nature. We experience a three-dimensional world with all senses available to us, and we have both memory and yearning that can and should leave a mark on our work.
When I am in the field, mesmerized by the perfect sunset, or captivated by a particular composition, my mind often brings together multiple experiences of the place. As I watch both a sunrise and a moon set over a spectacular landscape, my eyes might see the moon at a focal length comparable to 100mm, but the landscape and sunrise color beneath it at 24mm. To capture the field of vision that impresses me, I have to use two lenses, take two pictures, and blend them to make one photograph. Hiking a slot canyon, I look up at the sky and bring to the moment a memory of the moon I saw the night before. To recreate for a viewer the feeling of that moment, I have to combine my image of the sky and the canyon walls with my image of the moon. I don’t see an ethical dilemma in blending images taken with different focal lengths or even on different days from different locations if the resulting composite represents my experience of the place, my memory of a moment, or contributes to a mood or feeling I hope to produce with the image.
Purists, I know, will find this reprehensible. They feel deceived or confused, perhaps even envious. Many full-time professional nature photographers spend hours of planning and thousands of travel dollars getting to the right place at the right time in the right light for that right composition of sky, moon, and landscape, and they might see the image I made above as a cheap shot or shortcut. I understand their frustration, but we all make our choices in how we practice our craft.
I also believe, strongly, that it is possible to feel something and see something that is not there in an objective sense but is real on a personal level nonetheless. Representing that convergence of multiple experiences in one moment in time is part of the artistic license a nature photographer has. What makes photography an art is, in part, using our creativity and allowing the imagination of the artist to interact with the natural materials around us.
Of course, the world of nature photography is so diverse and exciting because we all take different approaches in the field and in the darkroom, not to mention in how we present or display our work. I defend such artistic license when it is done honestly and for artistic rather than documentary effect. We see things differently, and we think differently. Our processes are, and should be, as varied as our lives and experiences of the natural world.
Is it appropriate to ask, “Was the moon really that big?” Yes, of course. Is it fair for photography contests to restrict entry to those shots without composite elements? Absolutely. Do we all have the right to know whether a scene existed as shot or has been “photoshopped” for effect? I suppose so. And I would always tell the truth about such things if asked, and often even when not asked.
The point, I think, is that when we see an image that makes us say, “Wow!” or “cool,” we tap into what it means to be human and to relate to our world. When we see something that seems too beautiful to be real, we should remember our own experiences of being overwhelmed by surreal beauty or feeling awesome gratitude in nature, and we should welcome the image that sparked the memory.