Photographing Banff Wolves II

It’s official.  I’m firing myself from my blog because of a broken promise.  That’s right, in my first installment of Photographing Banff Wolves (Part I) three long days ago, I brashly pledged that you would be seeing a few of the photos from that encounter in Banff, along with the story behind those photos and the accompanying wolf video, the very next day.

So what did I do that very next day?  I got up at dawn, then promptly abandoned my computer (and blog) for the next ten hours while I cruised the mountain parks for said wolves (see the previous entry’s note about my wolf addiction reaching new levels). 

And yesterday, the second day?  Uh, yeah, same thing.  Except that I left an hour earlier in the hopes that it would somehow change my luck (it didn’t).

And today?  While my desk lay cluttered with To Do lists and giant piles of Petty Cash receipts from 2010, I again decided that a wee trip out into the parks would be a good idea, but “just for a few hours.”  So I left my driveway and headed out at 7:30 a.m.

I got home at 8 p.m.(for those of you that are poor at math, 12.5 does not equal “a few hours”).  Wolves?  No, again.  Long day in the field?  Yes, again.

So it really is official, I’m a terrible blogger (feel free to disagree!).

In a weak attempt to make up for it, I’m now going to get to the actual story and a few wolf photos.

I returned to the Bow Valley from my holidays on December 29th and on the 30th headed out looking for wolves in Kananaskis Country, but didn’t have much luck.

The next morning I got up early, figuring I’d put in a full day looking for wolves in Banff before the night’s New Year’s Eve festivities (a Rock Band marathon with friends) kicked off.  I was out in the dark and before noon I had cruised the entire length of the Bow Valley Parkway, I’d driven up the Icefields Parkway to Bow Lake, and I’d driven down the Kootenay Parkway to Dolly Varden.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t even find a track, let alone a wolf.

Rather than waste more time driving, I decided to walk a route through the lower Bow Valley (near the Town of Banff) that I often hike on no-luck days.  There are several areas that the hike goes through where wolves have killed elk or deer in recent months and in winter’s past, so there’s often lots to look at.  The walk also goes through a number of areas that the wolves frequent when they’re not near roads, so I was cautiously optimist that I’d find something.

Outfitted in full camo (a sight to behold!), I left at 1 p.m.

The first area I headed towards was where the wolves had killed an elk over the Christmas holidays while I’d been gone.  A friend had told me about it and I knew that the area was a favourite rendez-vous spot of the pack, so even though the carcass wouldn’t have much meat left on it (if any), I thought there may be a chance that that’s where the wolves were holed up.

I walked towards the area slowly and deliberately, making sure to keep myself upwind.  To do that, I had to circle around the large opening, then slowly sneak towards a vantage point overlooking the kill site.

As I got within sight of the opening, a surge of adrenalin shot through me as I realized that the black lumps laying at the back of the meadow were wolves!

Two adult wolves at the back of the opening

Photographing wolves on foot is extremely difficult.  They see better than we do, they hear better than we do, and they smell far, far better than we do.  So as much as I wanted to march right out and start snapping award-winner after award-winner of the pack frolicking in my presence, that just wasn’t gonna happen!

Instead, I was forced to slowly, step-by-careful-step, creep in towards the wolves and photograph them from behind a series of willow bushes (which you can see blurred out in the foreground of the photo above) with my 500 and 1.4x teleconverter.  I had to freeze every time any of the adult wolves looked in my direction.

As I was photographing the four wolves in the back of the opening, I suddenly realized that there were two pups laying concealed in the snow less than two hundred metres from me by the old elk hide.  I quickly repositioned myself and waited for them to get up and move around, which they did after about twenty minutes.

Two wolf pups by the elk carcass, Banff National Park

The wolves could hear my camera clicking (I do have a sound muffler that I sometimes use, but I didn’t have it with me) and would occasionally look up, but for the most part they had no idea that there was a person sitting up on the ridge above them in the willows.

After twenty minutes near the carcass, the pups slowly moved towards the back of the meadow and followed the four other wolves into the forest in the direction of the river.  I quickly debated whether to hike over to the next rendez-vous spot to intercept them or to go back to my car.  But since it was now getting late in the afternoon, I guessed that they might be on the move for good and that they would use the river to move down the valley.

I raced back to my car and drove to a spot a few kilometres away where I could hike in to the river.  I got down there and was happy to see that there weren’t any new wolf tracks passing by the spot I had chosen, so I set up and hid myself in the trees along the bank.  Sure enough, within a few minutes, I spotted three black wolves come around the corner in the distance on the river’s ice, soon followed by two more.  Because they were still four or five hundred metres away, I set my camera to video mode and recorded the video you saw in Photographing Banff Wolves I of Blizzard, Chester, and Meadow romping around in the snow.

The wind wasn’t working in my favour at this spot, though, and the wolves soon detoured around me through the forest and disappeared.  I immediately hiked down the railway tracks along the river to get to a spot that wouldn’t give my location away to the wolves’ noses, and got there just in time to set up behind an old log before the wolves wandered out into a narrow opening on the ice.

The pack crosses the ice on the river (five wolves including the one in the trees)

I fired off a dozen shots of the pack before they melted away into the darkening forest, then began to hike back along the tracks towards my car.  That’s when I realized that I had only seen five wolves, not all six.  I looked up across the river and to my surprise the sixth wolf was right opposite me, intently watching what must have been a strange sight: a fully camo-ed human figure against a dark green forest!

The sixth wolf eyeing me from across the river

I slowly lowered my camera and took a few photos of the wolf, then continued on towards my car.  Every few steps I’d glance over to see if the wolf was still there, but it just sat there watching me until I finally went out of sight.

By the time I got back to my car it was almost dark, so I packed up and headed home, content in the knowledge that the day had definitely been one of my most interesting and prolongued encounters on foot with wolves in Banff and in the mountain parks. For parts of three hours I was able to observe and photograph the wolves in several different locations, and most importantly, for the most part I was able to do it without disturbing them from their normal patterns.

If any of you are interested in reading more about my wolf encounters, I’ve put together a page of my best wolf photography blog entries and photos.  You can also read all about one of the former wolf packs in Banff National Park (the story includes a gallery with several of my best wild wolf photographs) on my main website.  Hope you enjoy the photos and stories!


12 Comments on “Photographing Banff Wolves II

Matt Graham
January 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Great story John and have no apologies for being late. Its always great to hear whats going on in the Alberta Parks.

January 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

i am so envious!

Jenn Jilks
January 9, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Well, it is about time. We've been waiting with baited breath! 🙂
Glad to see the photos. Amazing creatures. This is as close as I want to be to them!

January 9, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Excellent, John. I too am envious of your encounters with the wolves, and your perseverance and patience to find them. Thanks for the great story.

Chad Griggs
January 9, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Very cool John! Take your time, it's worth the wait!

Bill Cubitt
January 9, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Amazing encounter. There is plenty of activity in the Park that no one get to see and enjoy.

January 9, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Hi John, I think your blog is great and I do find it quite interesting. How lucky are you to be able to go out there and photograph wolves, that's pretty cool. As well, the rockband marathon sounds like fun

January 9, 2011 at 7:00 pm

The Rockband marathon was fun, Consuelo, thanks! Ha-ha! And thanks for the comments everyone, it was an amazing day.

January 10, 2011 at 5:53 am

Hi John, your narrative is great. It makes it easy to visualize what was happening. As far as the blog entries and being out all day, isn't that what it's all about? I would much rather be out chasing wolves in western Canada than in an office, or wherever, typing on a computer.We will be right here waiting for you next amazing images and wishing we were ther too!

Steve Woods
January 10, 2011 at 5:53 am

Great images John and very much enjoyed the
blog story you write wonderfully
keep up the great work hope you have
many more wonderful encounters with
the wolves and hope you had wonderful
happy holliday's take care

Andrew Lipsett
January 11, 2011 at 6:03 pm

I enjoy your writing and no worries on the blogging delays! Great info:)

January 31, 2011 at 6:41 am

I disagree: you are a wonderful blogger. 🙂 Also, you make up for time delays with transporting photos and narration, so you're forgiven. Def got some goosebumps to think of looking over and having the 6th wolf just watching. Cool!


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