Monday, November 8, 2010

Best of the Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop - Part I

From October 12th-17th this year I hosted my first Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop and we had a fantastic week, with five very eager photographers from Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Montreal joining me for some great adventures along the Maligne Lake Road, the Icefields Parkway, and beyond.  We had all sorts of interesting photo encounters, including a close run-in with a giant bull moose (the largest I've ever seen in the Rockies - see below) and a surprise sighting of eleven mountain goats near the Columbia Icefields that had my group running about in a frenzy trying to decide which goats to photograph.

However, there were two real highlights of the trip for me:  the blizzard and the bighorn rut.

The blizzard was a typical Rockies' 'storm-outta-nowhere' that caught us high in an alpine pass while we were trying to approach two bighorn rams above us on a ridge near the Icefields.

The hike started off innocently enough that morning with the trees and hills enveloped in a light fog, temperatures hovering just below freezing, and a forecast that called for sunshine in the late morning and afternoon.  Sure enough, within an hour of departing the parking lot, we had climbed out of the fog and were greeted by a stunning open sky over the icefields and the surrounding mountains.  It looked like a perfect day to chase bighorn.

And it was...for about five more minutes.  That's when I noticed what looked like clouds from the Storm of '53 hovering on the horizon.  Another five minutes later and they had blotted out the sun and a slight wind had begun.  But it was at that point that I spotted two huge rams up above us in a very reachable spot, so despite the ominous-looking clouds, we kept moving onwards and upwards, cameras and backpacks in tow.

By the time we got within half a kilometre of the rams, it had started snowing.  Just lightly at first, then more and more forcefully, accompanied by a howling, frigid wind that began to eat at us on the open alpine tundra.  As visibility got poorer, I finally made the decision to split the group.  The hardcore easterners (used to long, cold, windy winters, apparently!) took off like a rifleshot with our hiking guide, Trevor, and made a beeline for the rams, or at least for the spot in the blizzard where we had last seen the rams.  Meanwhile, I turned my back to the wind and started a quick descent with the two westerners, who were both content in knowing that they lived close enough to try again when the snow wasn't blowing sideways.

Unfortunately for the hardcores, by the time they got up to where the rams had been sitting, there was nothing to see.  Literally.  So they waited it out for another ten minutes and got a clear break in the weather for a bit and realized that they were alone up there...the smarter of the two species had abandoned the exposed ridge and had likely descended into the trees below, so they followed suit.

It was a crazy day, but karma paid us all back for our efforts two days later on our final night of the workshop.  We had gone four straight days at that point without seeing a single bighorn sheep ram any closer than "see that brown speck beside the other speck?" and I was getting antsy.  The usual spots just weren't producing. It had gotten to the point where the off-time I gave to the photographers on the final afternoon to prepare some images for an evening critique was instead used by some of them to wander through the Jasper Park Lodge parking lot taking pictures of the decals on every Dodge Ram truck they could find, just so they could say they had shots of a Ram!

Don's magnificent Ram © Don Surphlis

Anyways, that final evening we drove out to one of my aforementioned 'usual' spots and lo and behold, there were some sheep out on the ridge.  I got out the binocs and took a look.  Ewe, lamb, ewe, ewe, ewe, lamb...DAMN, not a single ram to be seen.  I walked down a sidetrail a bit for a better vantage point. Ewe, ewe, more ewes, lamb, and...a RAM!  Wait a second, LOTS of rams, an entire giant herd of them, tucked up under the dark shadow of the ridgeline near the trees.  I raced back to the vehicles and shouted out (yes, I actually did shout in a moment of glee), "Get your gear!  We've got rams!!"

After a short, but strenuous hike, we found ourselves looking at a group of 15-20 bighorn rams, including one absolute monster ram that dwarfed the other big rams.  And for the next three hours, until we were all too cold to hold our cameras any longer, we waded in amongst the sheep and took photo after photo after photo. 

The icing on the cake?  After two hours of taking images, one of the photographers decided that it was time to head back to the car and take a break.  So he started off with his camera and big lens and tripod and began hiking back.  An hour later, he had made it exactly ten feet from where he had started.  Just as he had finished packing up and was ready to sling his tripod over his shoulder, two rams in the herd suddenly reared up on their hind legs and charged into each other, beginning an hour's worth of the best bighorn rutting I have ever seen.  It was so incredible that I almost forgave myself for only taking my 70-200 and a backup camera body up there with me...almost

So without further ado, here are some samples of images (view the second set of Jasper wildlife workshop images here) from my photographers.  Thanks to Don, Michael, Marc, and Nathalie for providing their images and for easily being one of my Top Four groups of the year (I told them on Day 5 they were Top Four and they asked how many groups I had had so far, and I replied, "Four.").

The giant bull moose © Nathalie Fortier

Bighorn sheep silhouette © Michael Sonea

My car and a herd of bighorn ewes © Don Surphlis

One of the beasts © Marc Laberge

The terrible view from the ram ridgeline © Marc Laberge

Bighorn silhouette © Michael Sonea

Goat Nanny and Kid © Michael Sonea

White-tailed buck © Don Surphlis

Pika © Michael Sonea

Bighorn rams fighting © Nathalie Fortier

Bighorn Lamb © Nathalie Fortier

Slippery Descent © Nathalie Fortier

Young Ram © Don Surphlis

Athabasca River Valley © Don Surphlis

Maligne Lake Boathouse © Marc Laberge

Ice Patterns © Michael Sonea

Stay tuned tomorrow for the best of their Jasper wildlife images - Part Deux (II).  Including several more great shots of the bighorn rut!

Happy shooting,

John

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Mark Coffey said...

great photos - looks like a awesome experience!

November 9, 2010 at 9:06 AM  
Anonymous John said...

Awesome shots, John. Looks like you a really good time. We'll have to sign up next year and see if we can be so lucky.

November 9, 2010 at 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Bill Cubitt said...

When I read about the trips and see the photos I am always thinking "I wish I was there".

November 9, 2010 at 7:38 PM  

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