The less glamorous side of wildlife photography

May 24, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

I love wildlife photography. I love the exploring the vast forests of Northern Minnesota, the rush of finding wildlife, hearing the click of my camera’s shutter as I capture images I have been dreaming about. I love the gratified feeling at the end of the day as I scroll through photos on the back of my camera, reliving each moment. Finding wildlife and capturing images is so rewarding. It more than makes up for early mornings, thousands of miles in the car, crappy coffee and car snacks, the lack of sleep. 

But when those moments don’t happen, when wildlife can’t be found, when there are no opportunities to capture the image I am after, it can be deeply disheartening. All of a sudden the thousands of miles, early mornings and lack of sleep, and crappy coffee don’t feel quite as worth it. 

Often I feel that a bad day in nature is still better than a good day indoors. But an entire trip of failure starts to outweigh that motto. This last trip I set out with a new goal: to photograph black bears in northern Minnesota. I picked a new spot, did some research, and felt confident that, even if I didn’t get the photos I was after, I would at least find my subject and gain a better idea of how to go about getting images in the future.

It can be challenging to venture into something new with wildlife photography. Namely new subjects and new locations. A new subject in a familiar location is more comfortable than a familiar subjection in a new location. But the combination of new subject and new location can be daunting. Nonetheless, I had to try. I have had a burning desire to check out this particular area for bears for some time now and my portfolio is lacking images of bears from my home state. I’ve come across a handful of bears, but all I have to show for it are a few images of blurry bear butts as they run in the opposite direction.

So I set out to a new area, searching for a new subject. Four hours north of my home I found myself in Kabetogama State Forest. I found the backroads that I had picked from time spent browsing Google Maps and started searching. I had never visited this area before, but based on my research, I felt that I was in the right place. 

I searched and searched. Back road after back road. I searched until sunset and was up again before sunrise. It’s hard to not get discouraged and I quickly found my spirits sinking. A couple hours passed and soon it was time to return to the hotel and get ready for the rest of the day. Even though I had walked away empty handed so far, I was excited about where we had planned to search next - Voyageurs National Park and the surrounding area.

Having never visited Voyageurs, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that most of it was accessible only by boat, but I figured there’d be a handful of trails and backroads that would lend themselves to opportunities for wildlife viewing. We opted for the Ash Bay entrance as that seemed to have a handful of trails. By noon, we had hiked all three available “day hikes” and had really seen most of what could be seen without being on the water. The scenery was beautiful, but again, not what I had expected and with no sings of wildlife, the writing was on the wall that this trip was going to be a bust.

We just decided to enjoy the rest of the day by grabbing coffee and visiting some northern Minnesota towns we had never been to before. By late afternoon we had returned to our haunts around Kabetogama. We found some new backroads and explored them and revisited some old ones, hoping that frequency would yield results. Again, we were met with nothing other than a few piles of scat and a faint track.

We had planned on spending more time in this area, but by day three we were ready to move on. It had been awhile since a wildlife trip had felt like such a fruitless endeavor. It had also been awhile since I had explored an entirely new area. Because it was new, it was worth the experience of the visit and trying something new, but it left me missing some of my more familiar territory where I have had some luck over the past couple years. 

Our drive home took us through one such area, and we were treated to watching two great gray owls taking advantage of the overcast weather. But aside from that encounter, I returned home with relatively empty memory cards and full camera batteries. 

I value new experiences, therefore this trip was not a complete waste. Plus, any encounter with great gray owls is special and added some redeeming value to the trip. But all in all, it was a reminder that wildlife photography can be a grind and there are never any guarantees you’ll get a photo of the subject you’re pursuing, much less even get a glimpse of it in the thick forests of Northern Minnesota.



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