This past December I turned thirty, with what I assume is the usual trepidation and conflicting feelings. I’m not old yet, but I’m out of my twenties, and I can now start to measure things in fractions of my lifespan, such as “I got my driver’s permit half a lifetime ago.” Which is a very odd thing to be able to say, from my perspective.
At any rate, I don’t much believe in birthdays, and my general rule is to ignore them, or at least my own. Cake and parties are forbidden, and the most I’ll agree to is dinner out with Mandy or a few close friends. Otherwise, it’s just another day.
Mandy, on the other hand, celebrates birthdays for whole weeks, and was not about to let my 30th pass without note. So she spent several months researching and planning, and ended up with what is easily the most amazing birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.
We got up early and she drove us east, across the Delaware into New Jersey (or Dirty Jersey as I call it) on a secret, surprise trip, telling me only that I needed my camera. It wasn’t until we were in the car that I got the details – she was taking me to the Lakota Wolf Preserve for a private photography tour of their wolf packs.
Needless to say, I was floored. I have never photographed wolves before, and to be honest I’m not sure if I’ve ever even seen a wolf before. Maybe in a zoo somewhere. Maybe.
The vast majority of my wildlife experience has been with birds, both because I find them so interesting to study and to photograph, and because they are easily accessible. Mammals, on the other hand, tend to be much more evasive and difficult to locate and work with, and my encounters with them have been by chance instead of design. So working with mammals, nevermind apex predators, was going to be a whole new experience.
I want to pause here for a short tangent. First of all, all of my wolf photos were taken at the Preserve, and while they were shot and edited with the intent of looking like authentic wild animals, they are indeed on a preserve. Each of the four wolf packs, numbering 4-6 members each, is contained within a multi-acre fenced enclosure on the preserve. I’m not trying to pass these off as wild, in-nature shots.
Because this is a preserve, the behavior of these animals is different from how they’d act in the wild. They are not domesticated; these wolves are still very much “wild,” and there were two layers of fencing, one of them electrified, separating us. I have no doubt that, given the proper opportunity and provocation, they would be plenty dangerous.
However, they were also acclimated to people, and especially the Preserve employee who served as our guide that morning. The Preserve staff works with the wolves to care for them, providing food and medical attention as necessary. And on the tours, the guide comes packing a bag of wolf treats, which they use to help keep the animals engaged for the photographer.
Our guide told us that the wolves were also more engaged in the mornings, when they were fresh. By mid-afternoon, when the larger tour groups tended to visit, the wolves often grew bored and would retreat into the depths of their enclosures, out of sight and away from their admirers.
Personally, I have mixed feelings on the treats. On one hand, I was glad that the wolves remained engaged and that I was able to work with them and get such a wide range of photos. On the other hand, there is an element to it that makes me slightly uncomfortable, and outside of a preserve environment I’d never have tolerated it. To be clear, I am adamantly against baiting animals in the wild – and I’m talking throwing fish on the ice to attract eagles, not setting up a backyard bird feeder to attract songbirds, as those are two completely different things.
So with the disclaimers out of the way, here’s the cool stuff. We started just after sunrise and I ended up spending 2-3 hours with the wolves and came home with something like 1600 photos. I maxed out a 16GB card and moved well into a second one. That’s a LOT of photos, even for me, and is probably the most I’ve ever shot at a single time.
I was also able to do all my shooting with the E-M5 + Lumix 35-100mm combo, which was awesome. That lens is one of my favorites, and is a very strong performer. I started out shooting at f/2.8 while the light was weaker, and moved up to f/4 as the morning progressed. It’s range was perfect, and I was able to shoot with it – and get much, much better results – than I would have gotten from the Oly 75-300mm.
That’s the perk of the Preserve, the close quarters access you’re able to get. In the wild, I expect I’ d be using a 600mm lens with a teleconverter, and would still be praying for more reach. In each of the four enclosure fences, the Preserve had small fenced lens slots that they’d open, so there was a variety of options and angles available, which made it pretty easy to track the action.
I found the wolves’ response to use fascinating. They were interested in the guide’s treats, but only to a certain extent. They were also curious about me (and Mandy, who was there to watch), and very clearly did not perceive us as a threat. But they also grew bored with us, and would go back to doing whatever it was they would otherwise have done. Sleeping, playing, swimming, even a little minor fighting. They may have been inside the enclosures, but they were very much in charge of the situation.
More to come in Part 2!