The Home of Oomingmak
Reprinted from the BT Journal, Vol. 7, Issue 2, May 2002
I’m sitting on an Alaska flight, heading to the Arctic while reading Ordeal by Hunger, the story of the Donner Party, when it dawns on me the irony. I left snow at my home; I’m heading for snow, reading about people who perished in snow. But for me, I know I’m going to be guided by someone who has lived, worked, studied and photographed on the North Slope with great passion for nearly three decades. While with the wind chill it probably reached well below zero, I was in good hands! I was afraid our scheduled week of exploration would be too brief for the slope, as I was incredibly excited about fulfilling a lifetime dream of venturing to this land. I was not let down with the time I spent at the home of the Bearded Ones!
Back in 2001, my good friend David Neel, Jr. had invited me up to a very special place on the North Slope, about 80 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, to photograph Musk Ox. David knew of my keen interest for these amazing animals from the help he had previously provided me with in photographing the Musk Ox of Nome. He graciously invited me up and teased me with incredible emails for over six months prior to our departure of the grandeur we were going to explore. In a land thought of as a desert, totally white in the winter, cold and austere to the unloving eye, the beauty, wonder and life we discovered, explored and photographed during our week will always be etched forever in my heart and soul! The Arctic in the winter is simply, brutally beautiful!
This B News is atypical as it’s not about the biology of one critter, but about the biology, ecology and passion I have for what is perceived as a barren land. I am by no means an expert on the Arctic. I haven’t even scratched the surface of this frontier and have a lifetime of plans racing through my head to get to know and photograph the Arctic better. Nor am I encouraging you to explore this region on your own, especially alone because it is a brutal place that can swallow up every trace of the novice. But rather, I want you to know the life and romance this region has to offer the wildlife photographer so if someday, you have the opportunity to be guided through this region of the north, you’ll know to take advantage of it. There is a lot more to the Arctic coastal plain, North Slope, than oil and ANWR; there is a life of abundance, of seasons and hardships. This is the land of Oomingmak (the Bearded One).
Our adventure began without my presence. David and his life long friend Earl packed up near Anchorage and started the long drive up prior to my arrival in Fairbanks. When they arrived at the airport to pick me up, I understood David’s emails much better in regards to prep time for the trip. The two pickups with two trailers in tow were packed with no less than 10 spare tires, 168 gallons of gas, sleeping bags and tents, food and supplies, snow machines and snow shoes, arctic clothing and camera gear. We were going to spend 24 hours on the Dalton Hwy, also known as the Haul Road, which has a very well earned reputation for eating up vehicles. So after buying food for the week (which was put into ice chests to prevent it from freezin g on our drive) and my buying new arctic footwear (LaCrosse Ice Kings, great boots recommended to me by David and another good friend who lives in Fairbanks ) off we went.
The Journey Begins
We left Fairbanks at 7am with the sun trying to break through the clouds. Despite knowing that I was in for a 12 hour drive, the anticipation of seeing all this new country made it seem so much longer! I had never been on the slope before; never driven the Haul Road but it had been a long time quest. Now, finally, I was living it. We had run into some friends of David’s while buying our food and heard about recent critter road sightings. But you know how that goes, “you just missed” stories. When nearly right from the start of our adventure I saw a Northern Hawk Owl perched right where the pavement ends and the dirt road begins, I knew the myths were true. I was stoked!
The Dalton Hwy follows the Alaskan Pipeline for the most part, to me a marvel of engineering. It winds its way up and down hills, through valleys and eventually across the Arctic Plain. In some places you’re right next to it, other places it’s far off in the distance while other times it goes underground. When you start to get to know the Haul Road, time and distance is ticked off by the passing of the seven pump stations that heat the oil and keep it moving. This very graphic line is a reminder of the distance being traveled down this very bumpy road!
We weren’t very far down the road when the stories began to flow about trips of the past. Sightings, adventures, mishaps and legends were told to me as the spruce trees slowly started to get shorter and then thinner as we traveled north. Along the road Ravens and Gray Jays were about. Here and there we would see a flash of red as a Pine Grosbeak went by. While the calendar might say it’s spring, no one seemed to have clued in the Arctic. Because while the sun appeared at 05:00am and set at 10:30pm, there was still plenty of snow and cold temps to convince us otherwise!
About four hours into our journey, we came to Coldfoot (no, I didn’t make up the name). A “truck” stop, it’s the last fuel and food until you reach the Arctic Ocean and Deadhorse (no, I didn’t make up that name either). You drive in a little ways off the road and are greeted by a sign that states, “On January 26 th, a new record was established when -82F degrees was recorded.” Knowing this was the last “civilization,” I did a mental check one last time to make sure I was prepared for the cold to come! After filling up the gas tanks and ourselves, our merry band continued on up the road. (I should note that by this time, we had already acquired 3 of our total of 7 windshield rock strikes. This road really does in a vehicle!)
To say we stopped a few times on our travels is nothing short of an understatement. This was all new country to me and my questions and desire to shoot would have driven the normal person nuts. It was a pleasure to ride with David whose love for the Arctic made it very easy for him to answer my questions and stop and look whenever I would holler. One of our stops was at the ” Arctic Circle.” No more than a pull off with a sign telling you that you were at the Arctic Circle, I was surprised to find spruce trees all around. We had to travel a ways before we would be in what most folks conjure up in their mind as the Arctic.
David was great at showing me all the “tourist” spots along the road (even though most “tourists” don’t make this drive). One such spot was the “The Northern Most Spruce Tree.” We stopped, stretched our legs and I went over to take a few shots of the “tree” (which David thinks was planted just for the sign). I was at the tree when Earl called out “Lynx!!” Sure enough, up the slope perhaps 50 yards out was a Lynx just out cruising. It stopped for a moment to check us out before venturing on its way. While we had seen the typical Alaskan wildlife like Moose, special glimpses of critters like Lynx was what I was so looking forward to on our adventure and was not disappointed!
We were now in the Brooks Range, a locale I’ve longed to see and explore. Shrouded in clouds most of the time we were there, I passed through yearning for more and asking even more questions. I could see this was a place just longing to be explored! I was amazed how deep the Brooks Range was as we drove. I didn’t realize that but I should have known that just like everything else in Alaska, the Brooks is one big ass piece of real estate. It wasn’t long after our Lynx sighting that we went up Atigun Pass, not a very friendly place for anyone who has never driven on snow.
While heading north, we could see the tops of the surrounding peaks. David told me of the Dall Sheep in the area and their summer habits in the pass, so I was on the look out. I didn’t see any heading north but on our southern trip out, I saw a couple up the slope in the fog. Their trail in the snow led my eye right up to them, deepening my amazement for these critters.
It was not too far after Atigun that the Arctic we all picture in our minds began to unfold before us. At first, low rolling, white covered hills spread out for what appears as far as the eye can see. It looks so barren at first, the eye latches onto every dark form in the white landscape, trying to make each rock a wolf, grizzly or caribou. Then as if someone opened up thousands of cages at once, the dark shapes begin to move and transform into caribou. At this time of year, the bulls don’t have any antlers, just the does. Driving along, some are way off in the distance while others are right next to the road. While you watch them graze you can sense they are on a mission; spring is in the air and it has them thinking of migration.
We had spotted one or two Willow Ptarmigan here and there all along the road up to this point (along with Snowshoe Hares). They come to the road to pick up gravel mostly and being, well, rather stupid (the locals call them stupid chickens) they tend to wait until the last minute if not too late to get off the road. The truckers, and there are a lot of them driving back and forth on the Haul Road, don’t slow down for the stupid chickens. Seeing them dead by the road is common, so is seeing the scavengers grabbing this quick and easy meal. There was one locale that I’ll tell you about shortly where the ptarmigan were flocked up in a group of at least 150 birds, it was stunning!
Once on the “flats” we traveled up the road in company of the pipeline. About thirty minutes after seeing our first caribou, we had gone past them all and it was back to checking out every black dot. Some snow had melted so there were many to look at. We passed pump station 5, then 4 and finally came up to the DOT station at Sag River. I had been looking forward to this point! Though the weather had started to close in on us (it changes seemingly at every bend in the road) I knew the one herd of Musk Ox, the point of our adventure, were around the DOT station. Sure enough, not too far down the road, there they were! We stopped of course to look and photograph them, but not for a really long time, as we still had a little ways to travel and we had already been on the road for 11 hours. Our destination wasn’t too much farther up the road.
Coming over a ridge, David said, “There’s Happy Valley ” where I knew their lodge was located. Up and over a couple of small rolling hills and we were pulling into the lodge. While the snow was falling, the generator was started, heaters turned on (it was below 20 degrees inside) and a path shoveled to and from the lodge to the vehicles. In very little time, we were warm and inside.
When folks think of an Alaskan Lodge, they conjure up beautiful log structures on the edge of a bluff, overlooking a glacier river. We were at such a lodge except.it was winter and the lodge is only running during the summer. This is for a very good reason! Little things like, no running water because the river is frozen solid (and while a beautiful river, it’s not under a bluff) so there’s no running water. (That outhouse is a long walk late at night, and oh, that seat!) We were warm and comfortable, but we weren’t being waited on by a lodge staff nor had a hot shower to get warm in after shooting. With that, my first day’s adventure in the Arctic came to a close.
The Purpose of Our Journey
The reason for our travels up to the Arctic at this time of year was to coincide with the calving of the Musk Ox. Before I get to that and photographing them, let me tell you a little bit about Musk Ox.
The first thing that strikes folks when they see Musk Ox for the first time is how small they are! Probably slightly smaller than a Shetland pony, these “walking carpets” or Oomingmak, the Bearded Ones were historically natives of the Arctic. They were hunted to extinction in Alaska back in the 1860s. In the 1930s, they were reintroduced (all Alaskan Musk Ox of today come from a group of 34 relocated to Alaska ), using Musk Ox from Greenland, which are the smaller of the two subspecies. The Musk Ox found in Alaska is the Greenland or “white face.” A big bull might stand five feet tall and weight around 800 pounds. While they can run up to 20mph for short distances, they would rather not because even in the dead of winter, they can overheat with their incredible thick coat. They are ungulates, related more closely to goats and sheep and not ox or bison. Like cows, they have a four chamber stomach (just what I’m sure you always wanted to know).
The Musk Ox doesn’t venture much nor do a big migration like Caribou. Their incredible coats permit them to survive in the harsh Arctic climate and their small size permits them to live on the little grasses, lichens and forbs they dig from under the snow. Their fur is truly amazing, not only how long and how much they have, but also its insulating qualities. In the spring/early summer, they shed their “winter” fur (as much as 6 pounds!) called Qiviut. This is collected in many regions to be used in special clothing. The Qiviut sells for as much as $90 a pound. When you see Musk Ox in a driving snow storm, the temperature way below zero and they’re laying and rubbing in the snow, it’s not hard to understand the insulating qualities of their fur! (It was amazing to me that the first day we saw the Musk Ox, none were shedding any Qiviut yet within a week, huge sheets were blowing off in the wind!)
Musk Ox are best known for their “circle” of defense behavior. This is where the Musk Ox form a circle and lock horns around most of the time new born calves to protect them from predators. While I was hoping to see wolves (which we never did) I was also hoping to see and photograph the Musk Ox protective circle. The problem is if they don’t perceive you as a threat, they don’t form a circle. They might bunch up a little, but with David’s expert guiding and our “no hurry” approach, the Musk Ox just went about their daily routine as if they are photographed every day. (David and I surmised that the Musk Ox figured that any critter willing to stand out in the cold, wind-driven, freezing snow must be too stupid to be a threat!).
Did we get to photograph any newborns? Regrettably, no. We were just days too early, which was a bummer on one hand, but on the other it gives me a great reason to go back, and I will! I found that no matter the age or sex, the Musk Ox have really great faces to photograph. Each and every one of the 25 in the herd that we photographed (typical herd size is less than 40 animals) was different. The combination of their age and gray hair (not related I think) gave each animal a distinct look. The horns grow differently between males and females and at different rates. When first born, they have no horns. They do not shed their horns; they just keep growing throughout their lives. As they grow older, the horns grow longer. If it’s the male, they start to grow by angling straight down to the ground whereas the female’s horns grow out from the head. As the males get older, the boss (big horn mass on top of the skull) grows closer together until there is no fur between the two horns. After this, the male’s horns start to grow in bulk. And just like a hunter, I kept looking for and focusing in on the biggest bull for my photographic trophy!
I photographed the Musk Ox five days in a row and each day had totally different weather and light. This is typical for Alaska and especially the Arctic. We heard the weather forecast a couple of times before and during our trip. Not one forecast, no matter the source was even close to what we experienced! When it comes to photographing the Musk Ox though, I couldn’t have asked for anything better because I wanted in my short time to experience as much as possible! In my five days of shooting, I captured and brought home over 3000 images of just Musk Ox!
Photographic gear was really simple. I shot the vast majority of the images with the 400f2.8AFS on the D1H. At times I shot with the TC-14e and 80-400VR or 28-70f2.8AFS. My settings were the normal ones I use for the D1H, capturing everything on my new Lexar 512 24x cards (really sweet cards, nice and fast, which considering I was photographing a slow subject, was important!).
Personal gear was simple as well. I had my new LaCrosse Ice King boots which were fantastic, never a hint of cold. Normal Carhartt pants, thermal shirt and t-shirt with Nomar jacket and at times, Balaclava and Ice Climbing gloves. With all of this, photography was plain simple and fun!
Our first day of serious shooting found us in overcast and windy conditions. The wind was really nasty and cold, bringing the air temperature down to well below zero, which made shooting with a long lens a real challenge! Proper long lens technique was a must to dampen the wind’s vibration. Shooting with lots of depth of field with a slow shutter speed with all that wind was basically a no win scenario. Even though I knew that, I had to try on some images anyways, yet most of which ended up being deleted later.
I always find getting to know a critter for the first time real exciting. While having read the books and had the help of someone who has worked with the critter before, actually seeing and learning for myself is exhilarating for me! When we first slowly approached the Musk Ox, they sort of bunched up, a sign that they were not comfortable with us. Sadly I thought, as they did this all too seldom because I had no sooner begun to photograph this behavior when they went on about their business and ignored us. They did have a distance they would let us approach before slowly moving a step or two, it was enough of a distance that I would have to add the TC-14e if I wanted a tight head shot. The majority of the time, we were no more than 20 yards from these beasts.
What do Musk Ox do with their day? Man..darn little! They basically do like little babies – eat, sleep and make pooh! Upon first observing them you might ask yourself, just what am I going to photograph for five days? This quickly disappears as you train in and watch the dynamics of the herd, as there is a lot of social activity that goes on! It almost always centers on sex!
The herd is never really that spread out, as all the members seemingly are kept herded by the dominant male. Much of the activity we witnessed centered on the dominant and sub-dominant bull, nosing herd members around and the ripple effect caused by that. Intermingled with this were the activities of sleeping and eating, eating and sleeping. You could say that my first day with the Musk Ox was spent learning this trivia. (Keep in mind that what I’m passing along is “antidotal” information and not biological gospel).
There were at least two other younger bulls in the group. (I wasn’t about to pull up their hair to check for sure.) These two seemed to feed off the anxiety of the dominant bull at times and pace about literally being a pain in the butt. We didn’t ever know for sure what all the smelling of rears and lip curls were all about. We assumed it had to do with calving about to begin as the rut for Musk Ox is in fall.
This first full day with the Musk Ox found them in and amongst willows (mere bare branches this time of the year, perhaps six feet tall). Not very tall, not thick, just enough cover to make life difficult for clean shots. While some ate sparingly at the willows, the majority of their time was spent rubbing the Qiviut from their hides. In the big wind gusts, the Qiviut would leave the ox and fly for literally a couple hundred yards before ever touching the ground. I found documenting the large strands of Qiviut blowing in the wind to be a challenge, especially to get it sharp. It is much lighter in color and seems to “float” to the top prior to being shed. When a huge clump would float off, I was often distracted by thinking about finding it until the thought of my lens being blown over in my absence snapped me back into shooting mode.
The wind was really my main subject that first day. The “shag” on the Musk Ox is four feet long or better, starting at the curve of their back and nearly reaching to the ground. (We rarely saw more than a hoof and only an inch or two at best.) This incredibly long hair is what permits the Musk Ox to survive the cold of the Arctic and in the wind, makes for amazing patterns as it blows about. The challenge is: shooting with enough depth of filed to make it all sharp, at a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion while capturing the patterns you see as fast as they appear and disappear. My first day then was all about hair and wind.
You’ll notice that Musk Ox have very light patches of fur across their backs. The color contrast between the dark surrounding fur and these light patches just fascinated me because at times, the graphic nature of these combinations was striking. I thankfully noticed this the first day and started to play with the graphic nature of Musk Ox. I’m so glad I shoot digital because as I was going through my images that night I could see what was working and what wasn’t. I’m not sure I ever really captured exactly what my mind and eyes were seeing, but I kept working at perfecting it over the week.
This contrast in the hair I also used to my best ability for backgrounds for other Musk Ox photography. I found it frustrating and David commented on this fact as well. It seemed to us that as soon we focused on just one ox, it would do something so we no longer saw its face. Of course this could have just been snow blindness affecting our minds, but this in combination with using the hair contrast for backgrounds, made composition hairsplitting quick! We either got the shot within seconds of seeing it or didn’t at all!
The next day of shooting was an even greater challenge! While the day before we had overcast skies and wind, this day we added driving snow! Now it’s true that I wanted shots of Musk Ox in a snowfall, but I didn’t ask for driving snow. (Keep in mind the weather forecast was for blue skies all week!) From shooting in my own backyard, I knew that to capture the “blowing snow” effect I needed to figure out the correct shutter speed in correlation to the speed of the snow fall. Normally in the Sierra, I need to drop down to 1/30 to capture the falling snow. On this day, I was at 1/125! The wind was blowing that hard. In fact, I had my first ever weather problem in twenty years because of the wind driven snow.
I didn’t know it, but the wind was blowing so hard that it forced moisture behind the front filter of my 400f2.8AFS. I kept blotting the snow from my front element, nearly an every five minute task but it wasn’t enough. That night when I was tending to my gear I saw the condensation inside my lens, something that would plague me the next day!
When you have driving snow, you obviously need to point the lens in any direction except into the wind. Lucky for us, we could shoot at ninety degrees to the wind so we didn’t have too much snow building up inside the lens shade, but had to hold the lens incredibly still to capture a sharp image. Man, was this ever fun! (And yes for those inquiring minds, if you were not dressed properly, you would be done in within minutes!).
The driving snow slowed down the Musk Ox, not moving about a whole lot this day. Even the dominant bull (not as big as they can get by the way) wasn’t up to much. What really amazed me was that in this weather the Musk Ox could sleep! Now, I thought that with this driving snow the ox would turn their backs to the wind so as not to have it smashing into their faces as they slept. Wrong! The Musk Ox laid down seemingly wherever they felt like it (not doing any ground prep), flopping down like a big shaggy dog and facing right into the wind!
It was at these times that some snow would build up on their coats on the side facing the wind. I was amazed that while it did crust, it wasn’t a blank coat. When they stood up they didn’t make a big effort to shake off the accumulation of snow but rather, it kind of just disappeared by either falling or being rubbed off by a passing ox. To say these critters are adapted to their Arctic climate is nothing short of an understatement. I stood their in amazement, thinking about the evolution that had taken place to make it possible for these creatures to exist in their environment.
It was this day that we found the Musk Ox limit to our presence. We kept slowly moving closer as the day progressed until we saw the ox slowly move away from us. We were close, closer than normal David said. Like I said, we just figured that the ox must have assumed that anything stupid enough to be out in that weather wasn’t something to be afraid of!
The third full day we found very dramatic light dotting the landscape on our travel to the herd. The wind had ceased and clouds dotted the sky, creating God beams all about. This dramatic light was to die for! Upon reaching the herd, I instantly set up the 400f2.8. Seeing the contrast of the dark furred beasts against the snow, I was puzzled to say the least when I looked through my lens. I kept going back and forth, looking at the scene and through my lens until I realized the “flat” image I was seeing in my viewfinder was from condensation in my lens! Eeegads…great light and my lens was messed up! It was a photographic challenge to say the least, thank goodness again I was shooting digital.
I was able to still function by thinking harder than normal. First, I changed Custom Setting 24 to High to deal with the “flat” light coming through the lens. Next, I learned where I could shoot so I would not to be really totally affected by my fogged lens. Snow can flare just like if you were pointing somewhat towards the sun. Finally, when not shooting with the 400f2.8 and with another lens, I would point the 400mm towards the sun and remove the rear filter to let air move through the lens. I managed to keep shooting, but I sure didn’t enjoy having my attention taken away from my subjects and onto technical things! (This was of course my own fault as I was the one shooting in the driving snow!)
With the warm sun, the Musk Ox were busy feeding and being Musk Ox. With the light, the challenge was to capture this activity at the same time the dramatic light lit it up. It was this day that my favorite cow, the one with the most character in the face really started to shed her Qiviut. This natural contrast in the fur was incredibly eye catching! She seemed to sense I was watching her because when light and subject lined up and I swung my lens on her, I would loose the shot nearly every time. I was always surprised that when I checked my watch that hours had ticked by when it felt like just minutes.
It was on this sunny day that the faces of last year’s calves really struck me. While not as cute as the face of a spring calf, they are darn cute! They are really shy and often “hide” around a cow. They don’t hold still but like to rock back and forth slightly where they stand. This just adds to the challenges of photographing Musk Ox. I was scanning the herd one time and noticed a year old calf at the back of one of the cows; it seemed to be burying its head in the cow’s long fur. I stared at it for awhile until I realized it was trying to nurse. The cow soon shooed it away, but we took this as a sign that the cow was producing milk and perhaps a newborn would soon appear (which it never did while we were there).
The one aspect of the year olds that I liked were their horns. Mere nubs at this point, they are the same basic color as the fur on the top of their heads. The horns stick out and as such, look like the youngster is having a really bad hair day.
With the snow not stinging my eyes, I was able to watch the Musk Ox feed a little closer as well. Between an awkward kicking motion in which they try to paw at the ground and a nose shovel technique, they move the foot deep layer of snow. I had the opportunity this day to actually look at what it was they were digging for and eating. To me it looked like mere grass stubble and lichens so small I couldn’t see them without bending over and getting really close.
Our fourth day was much like our first, weather wise. I was out a short time on the last day where I captured the last thing I had preset in my mind. The weather had changed again; the temperatures were dropping and with it we could see the breath of these mighty animals. Finding a dark background so their breath was obvious wasn’t a problem. I have to admit that I was saddened when I had to pack up my gear on the last day and say goodbye to this herd; I had really come to enjoy being around and watching what it is to be a Musk Ox in the Arctic.
More to Photograph than Musk Ox
Like I’ve already mentioned, the Arctic in April is one vast, rolling white carpet as far as the eye can see. It takes little training or concentration to pick up any black dot on this carpet, not any luck to find a moving black dot. Finding other subjects that would cooperate photographically in the Arctic is just the same as anywhere else. Good examples of this are Willow Ptarmigan, Caribou and Red Fox.
The Ptarmigan are a chicken sized bird, the state bird of Alaska. In the winter, they are pure white with only outer black tail feathers to separate them from the snowy background. I’ve photographed Willow Ptarmigan for over a decade, but never when there were pure white, so I was more than excited when we sighted our first ones. It wasn’t until later the next day that I was able to photograph them.
My first photographs of them were of a smallish flock of perhaps 30+ birds not far from the Musk Ox herd. This group wouldn’t permit me to approach on foot, so I had to photograph them from the truck. That was fine, as it gave me an opportunity to watch how they worked as a flock, socialized and foraged. It was a windy day so they were scrunched down most of the time, trying to get out of the wind the best they could. They also stayed to the lea side of the willows, which photographically left a lot to be desired. It was a couple days later that we really struck ptarmigan gold!
On our great light day, we ventured south on the Haul Road to see what else we could put in the great light. We were coming up to the Brooks Range when we ran into the Caribou again. We were heading towards them when we came into a group of Ptarmigan on the road. Like the others, they wouldn’t stick when we got out of the truck, so we proceeded on. We came back to the same spot about ten minutes later and stopped to get out and see if we could find the ptarmigan. We heard them all around us but it took a couple of minutes to visually acquire them. There were well over 150+ ptarmigan in this flock! They were everywhere once you found their little white heads, peering out over the snow covered tundra. It took my breath away!
With no provocation they took flight in one giant mass. It has to be one of the most impressive sights I’ve seen! All these white birds with black V tails, flying in mass over the snow, it was just gorgeous! Well, I had to photograph them so the stalk began. With 400f.8 / TC-14e, D1H in hand, I slowly started to walk down to where the ptarmigan had flown to. I could see and hear them as I slowly approached. I noticed that many of the birds where slowly walking up the slope to the road I was on (not the main Haul Road ). I slowly approached, caught up to them and then slowly moved just past the leaders of this walk. There I stopped and waited.
The ptarmigan slowly advanced, feeding off the partially exposed tundra as they went. It didn’t take too long until the first birds had walked up close enough for me to photograph them. And in a short while, I was amongst 40+ birds as they approached, stopped and then walked past on their journey up the slope. I couldn’t press the shutter release fast enough as this moving carpet of white approached. Keep in mind this is the same group that just minutes before wouldn’t let us approach them. Now they were approaching us on their terms, whatever they were, and all things were just fine.
We found this same kind of thing with the Caribou as well. No matter if they were right next to the road or 100 yards away, if we stopped the truck, off they would scamper. Get out of the truck and walk and stop and in a short time they would wonder up to us. It’s that stupid factor I mentioned with the Musk Ox. Critters must figure if you’re stupid enough to be out in that cold, you must not be too big of a threat! Nothing against the Caribou but since only the does had antlers and the bucks had little nubs, I wasn’t really into photographing them up close, so I didn’t spend that much time focusing in on them. (Get it, photography, focusing in on.?)
The Red Fox.there’s a subject I wanted in my viewfinder whenever we could! But like any other critter, some stick and some don’t. We came across a magnificent Cross Fox (a dark phase Red Fox) next to the road, it was stunning! It was busy digging up something but when we stopped, it left. Darn is not the word I said when it left!
On our beautiful light day when all the other wildlife was out and about, so were the foxes. After photographing the giant flock of ptarmigan I just described we came across the Red Fox along the side of the road. It had found a Caribou leg to gnaw on. As we pulled up to it, it didn’t run away. That was the first good sign. I was on the opposite side of the truck from the fox so I could get out and set up and because it was slightly down a slope, it couldn’t even see my feet as I got ready to shoot. I came out to shoot over the hood and the fox looked up. It was momentary enough to stop my heart and make me think that it was going to run. But instead, it went back to its leg bone meal.
I started to shoot and was a good 40 yards away. This was way too far away! I started to approach the fox, watching its actions, stopping to shoot when it seemed to be reacting to my approach. After about fifteen minutes I was within ten yards of the fox, which was still gnawing away. After a few more minutes I was as close as I wanted to be, the fox still happy to just pull, tug, gnaw and work on that frozen caribou leg. I kept shooting away as the fox kept eating away. After perhaps 30 minutes it had had its fill and started to clean its muzzle in the snow. Then the fox approached me!
If I didn’t have a camera planted to my face, I’m sure the fox would have seen my jaw on the ground as it kept walking right up to me. It stopped just at my MFD long enough for me to capture some head shots before it walked past me and on up the slope to disappear in the white world it has come to survive in.
That’s the Arctic ! This is such a magical world where wildlife has adapted to live in what is to us a brutally beautiful yet harsh world. The magic I experienced was a life long quest, a dream I have had after reading such books as Arctic Dream or looking at the images of other photographers who had come before me. You have to keep in mind that I live in a place where 25 feet of snow in the front yard is common, so you could correctly assume that I like the white stuff. Those who know me know I don’t get cold either but when I sent a photo to my web mistress of myself bundled up and crusted with snow, she said, “it must be cold if you’re wearing a jacket!” While the cold could be hazardous to the unprepared, the warmth I felt inside from being on the Arctic and seeing its magic for myself more than made up for any outside temperature! This was my first venture to the land at the edge of the continent, but I am already planning my next trip to the home of Oomingmak!