When was the last time you did something for the very first time? Do you remember how exciting and overwhelming it was? Do you recall feeling exquisitely alive? Me neither. That is until my first trip to the Triple D Game Farm in Kalispell, Montana with PAW leaders David Middleton, David Muse and Jeff Wendorff.
Hard for my photography friends to imagine, but I had never before ventured to Triple D (DDD) to take wildlife photographs. I guess I’ve always been too busy photographing rusty chains or old trucks and never gave much thought to mountain lions and snow leopards. Don’t get me wrong, I am an animal lover as much as the next gal, it’s just that photographing them didn’t beckon to me. I had no idea what I was missing.
First thing I noticed, very first day, very first shoot, was not the snow or the even the light – it was the fact that I was standing 20 feet away from a gorgeous mountain lion and it wasn’t trying to kill me.
We had hiked up a snowy hillside path and waited in anticipation as the DDD trainers calmly brought the mountain lion to us, walking it on a leash with much less trouble than I have when I walk my rambunctious dog. I was awestruck by the large cat’s grace and beauty. It was as composed as I was distracted. After several long minutes I noticed the sound of shutters being released by my peers. This insistent sound jogged my brain into remembering why I was there. Frantically, I attempted to focus, literally and figuratively, and at least capture a few frames of the mountain lion.
Perhaps the only creatures more amazing than the wild ones are the DDD trainers. The trainers are unsurpassed in their knowledge of the animals, the trusting relationship they have established with the animals, and their understanding of what a photographer specifically requires to capture the best images. Our trainers, Lacy and Logan, did everything possible to make sure my trip was a success photographically while keeping the safety of the animal and the humans as the first priority. I would never have gotten the good shots I did without the extremely hard work of Lacy and Logan at DDD.
The second animal I was lucky enough to see that day was an extremely rare and stunningly beautiful snow leopard. This is an animal you are never ever going to happen across in the wild, but if the gods are smiling on you, you might get the chance to see one up close at DDD. For 15 years David wanted to photograph this particular animal in fresh snow on a serrated rocky ledge he found the last time he had a chance like this. The conditions were perfect for getting a spectacular shot. This was an opportunity not to be squandered.
As the trainers prepared the snow leopard, I was determined that this time, unlike with the mountain lion, I would be ready. My camera was out, my 8 gig card freshly formatted, and my background selected. Click, click, click, I was snapping away with the unbridled enthusiasm of the novice. Damn, I knew I had it nailed…..until checking my playback screen I noticed that I had inadvertently chopped off the poor cat’s tail 92 times. Ugggh. Snow Leopards tails are as long as their entire body. Who knew?
Upon hearing my cry of dismay David and Jeff gently reminded me to consider the length of the tail, the annoying branches in the foreground, the ugly blank sky. Someone even mumbled something about the expression and posture of the animal, as if I could take it all in. Some of their advice did register in the field, but their help was even more precise after we got back to the hotel and had the chance to review my images.
Armed with new knowledge and a little more experience my learning curve did start to improve. Just like in the rest of my life, if I slow down, focus and pay attention, things will go better – or so I am often told. Fortunately, the next sets of cats were lynx and bobcats; and the photography gods had already taken care of my tail issues. All I had to do was keep the head in focus and all four feet in the frame. Oh, and did I mention lie flat on my belly in the fresh snow to enter the world of the cat? That was Jeff’s suggestion. Surprise, he wasn’t trying to torture me, he was sharing his many years of experience photographing wildlife in order to help me get the best shot possible.
Pretty soon I was feeling more confident; almost Zen like. I even remembered to check the background occasionally and the word composition floated randomly into and back out of my awareness. Then, just as I was clinging to a tenuous sense of composure along came a member of the weasel family, more specifically a pine marten.
If you’ve never encountered a pine marten imagine a crazy little brown ball of fur on speed. They are really cute, and nearly impossible to catch in the viewfinder. Screw the Zen like composure, it was a scramble for sanity. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or just throw my camera into the trees.
Like all first time undertakings there are accentuated highs and lows. The excitement of the possibilities is constantly at war with the frustrations born of lack of skill or experience. In a word, it was fantastic. And despite myself, I got some great pictures, pictures I would never have gotten anywhere else in the world. If you ever get the opportunity to go to DDD, go. You won’t regret it, and you might even run into me, because I am going back the first chance I get!
If you would like to visit the farm, my friend Jeff Wendorff leads workshops there several times a year. Check out his Wildlife Photography Workshops website.