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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

Wolves and Ravens:  An Intertwining

Steve Foss / Timberjay News / March 20, 2006


A thing I'd read about in cherished writing and gazed on through inspiring photography happened right in front of me this weekend.

It had seemed like such a long time coming, though my payments to karma over the last three years have been neither steep nor especially bothersome. An apprenticeship served in the woods is time invested in pleasure.

Saturday and Sunday, I watched wild wolves play with ravens.

Barry Lopez has written of this relationship between the two eaters of meat. Jim Brandenburg has photographed it.

Until this weekend, I'd only dreamed about it.

Two other photographers and I had set up our gear behind cover near a dead deer on the edge of a spruce-tamarack bog, ready to spend the weekend with supertelephotos pointed at the carcass.

Wolves were what we hoped for. Anything else was what we anticipated settling for.

We did not have to settle at all, and I was able to capture my first images of wild wolves.

That's gratifying, of course. A photographer has only his images and his experiences to sell, and a bank of stock photos of two separate wild wolves is a needed thing for anyone who calls himself a wildlife photographer. More than 90 percent of the wolves that appear in most wildlife magazines and on calendars are of captive animals, after all, and attempts to shoot wild and captive wolves often cost photographers many thousands of dollars.

I'd heard, read, thought so much about this relationship between raven and wolf, all through the work of others. How wolf kills help ravens survive.

That ravens sometimes lead wolves to animals to hunt so the ravens may continue to exist is a concept dismissed by the hard-headed, but I have always been a bit of a mystic.

Makes perfect sense to me.

Ravens and eagles had found the carcass by Friday afternoon, the rest of the day a deliverance of black, brown and white feathers, chattering birds, clutching talons in competition for meat. Images captured and cherished to swell our portfolios, grand predator and scavenger birds serious about living.

Wolves pay attention to these birds.

Shortly after dark, I looked out the window as clouds parted around the moon - and saw a shadow moving by the dead deer.

"There's a wolf on the carcass," I said quietly.

"Yeah, right," disbelieved Scott.

Thomas said nothing, simply walking over to the window to gaze out at the moonlit scene. Thomas often treated sacred moments with silence that weekend.

We got out binoculars and watched while one wolf pulled on and dismembered the carcass. Every few seconds it would look up and stare right at us, three shadows in a line peering through open windows. A second animal lay 20 feet away, alert but unconcerned, a sentinel several shades darker than the snow.

Scudding clouds alternately obscured and revealed the waxing gibbous moon, sending undulating waves of burnished light that traveled across the snow of the bog. An aurora borealis pinned to the earth.

Dark wolf shadows moved through it, and I broke the silence with a plosive exhalation, unaware I'd been holding my breath. Half a lifetime in search of such beauty. I struggled not to weep.

The first wolf left with a chunk of meat pulling its head low, heading northeast. The sentinel got lazily to its feet, sniffed the carcass and moved away to the northwest, an effortless bicycling trot known well to wolf watchers.

Thomas, Scott and I simply looked at each other. There was little to say, but excited as children we gabbled for the next half hour about our expectations the wolves would return with the light.

Next morning, Scott and I were setting up out back to shoot passerines when Thomas stuck his head out the door.

"Wolf," he intoned.

Moments later we were Canonizing the moment at 8.5 frames per second, three shooters in a perfect synchronicity.

The animal, beautifully conformed, ate for several minutes. It appeared to be a yearling or perhaps last May's pup. An adult sat down across the bog to watch, a perfect model in front of a wilderness backdrop of spruce and pine, the rich light of morning a kiss for bog and photographer alike.

We imagined they were the same animals from the night before. The adult watched closely, the younger wolf as well. Both knew we were there. The young wolf would not turn its back on us.

Ravens attended the wolves, ebony outriders whose raucous alarm had drawn the canines to food.

In no great hurry, the young wolf eventually grabbed up a chunk of food and trotted north, pausing now and then, working its way toward the adult. The ravens went along. They left behind a wonderful bounty of meat on which no bird or animals fed at that moment in order to hop along with the wolf, to hover overhead, to swoop and dart and harry, their carks and clicks the good-natured laughter among those who, if not friends, appeared at least to appreciate an intertwined relationship.

Rather than feed on a meat ready at hand, they played a game with the wolf. Stolen meat has twice the sweetness. Most of the way across the bog the wolf squatted. Ravens shot straight over, somehow more intrigued by feces than meat.

This relationship, then, was what Lopez had written so eloquently about, what Brandenburg had captured in his work.

It was hard to concentrate on the camera, on composing the elements just so to tell a visual picture. I simply wanted to watch. Who knew if such a chance would come again.

The wolves eased their way into the woods, one or two ravens swallowed up with them, the others sprinting back on wings shiny in the hazy sun toward the carcass.

The moment passed. My hands trembled. Smooth and focused I'd been, the camera like a weapon on its tripod during the last half hour, but the adrenaline's job was over and it had nowhere to go. It had its way with me. I was silent for a time until I steadied down some.

I took a deep breath and muttered under my breath a Lakota supplication. An acknowledgement, a salute, a hope.

"Mitakuye oyasin," I whispered.

I ducked my head to examine the images on the back of the camera. Began the process that, if done carefully on images competently composed and exposed, can transform nature into art, a gift in turn passed on by a photographer to those whose dream.
Contact Foss at (218) 365-3114 or ely@timberjay.com. View his nature photography at www.stevefossimages.com.

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