I don’t know where I am going this morning as I cross the bridge from Douglas Island toward downtown—out, I guess… somewhere… to take pictures of something. I am, of course, alone, so I am not required to have an agenda. I’ll make it up as I go. My only intent so far is to turn left at the end of the bridge.
The Douglas bridge offers a good vantage for assessing the sky, and as usual, I scan all directions. Juneau, being situated at the foot of steep mountains, on the edge of a narrow fiord, where glaciers generate cold winds, and sea water delivers heavy moisture, is known for its microclimates. Temperatures in the valley are typically several degrees cooler than Douglas Island, and when the air is calm at Auk Bay, there can be seventy mile per hour gusts downtown.
This morning, however, there is only one weather: low clouds and thick fog. There are no mountain peaks in sight, and if you didn’t know any better, you might question if there are mountains here at all. Anything taller than the buildings of Juneau is cloaked.
The forecasters tell me the clouds will burn off mid-morning, and I look forward to changing conditions, and dynamic light. Until then, I will look for the more subtle subjects, and almost immediately, I find one.
On my right, below the bridge, not bothered in the least by the conditions, a reliable friend is putting on his usual show. No matter the season, regardless of the weather, Tahku is always there. And standing only twenty-five feet tall, he remains immune to the morning meteorology.
Later in the day, as the clouds break up and the temperature rises, Tahku will have plenty of visitors. His is a popular spot on sunny days. But this early in the morning, especially in these conditions, I would expect him to be performing alone. Yet, I see he has one guest, and I want to get a photo. I hit the gas, race across the bridge, and ignore my one intention. I turn right.
The creation of sculptor R.T. (“Skip”) Wallen, Tahku is a life-sized statue of a breaching humpback whale set in a reflection pool on the edge of Gastineau Channel. In winter, the pool is necessarily drained, but during the summer season, fountains splash the whale at regular intervals, giving it the look of a live whale jettisoning itself from the ocean. Everything about the statue is to scale and very accurate, with one small exception. While living humpbacks do have tubercles, or oversized hair follicles, on their jaw, they do not usually take the shape of the big dipper and the north star, nor are they usually highly polished bronze.
Tahku is frozen mid-breach, his back arched, his chin to the sky, pectoral fins outstretched. The scientific name for humpback whale is 𝑀𝑒𝑔𝑎𝑝𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑎 𝑛𝑜𝑣𝑎𝑒𝑎𝑛𝑔𝑙𝑖𝑎𝑒 or “long-winged New Englander,” and though there is a vast continent separating Tahku from New England, the “Megaptera” part of his name is apt. Each of his extended pectoral fins is fourteen feet long.
This morning, lighted on his long, upturned right pec fin, is an adult bald eagle. Eagles don’t often use Tahku this way, presumably because his bronze skin is hard and slippery, and for this reason I don’t expect this one to stick around very long. I park, I rustle my camera from its pack, and hurry to a better position where I can capture both eagle and constellation in the frame.
I am afforded one quick burst of exposures before a harassing Bonaparte’s gull, wearing the black mask of a bandit, chases the eagle from its perch. The moment is over. I got lucky.
Three decades ago I met nature and wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen at his gallery in Jackson, WY. He is in town for an opening later that evening when the gallery will be packed, but for now, in the middle of the afternoon, I have him to myself and he is very gracious to walk the room with me and tell stories about a few of his pieces.
We stop in front of a beautiful photo of an ermine in white winter coat, and he tells me about waiting in subzero temperatures to get that shot. I look around the room and comment that he seems to have quite a knack for being in the right place at the right time, to capture so many incredible wildlife moments.
Not unexpectedly, he bristles at this notion, and tells me that he is first and foremost a naturalist and a biologist. He studies wildlife, comes to understand its behavior. “You can’t wait to be at the right place at the right time.” he says. “You have to put yourself in right place all the time, and you do that by studying your subject, learning where they are likely to be at any given time.” The more you do that, he explains, the more often that proverbial 𝑟𝑖𝑔ℎ𝑡 time will manifest itself.
Twenty-five years after that encounter, I met Mangelsen again, this time at Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival in Kearney, Nebraska where he and I were both speaking. I asked him if he remembered that encounter twenty-five years earlier. He swore it never happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Regardless, even if it was a dream, it changed how I think about watching and photographing wildlife.
Yes, this morning I got lucky to find that eagle perched on Tahku’s bronze wing, and even luckier to have it stick around just long enough for me to get a nice shot, but I also have to accept some credit for getting up at the crack of dawn and getting out, even when visibility was naught, and my warm bed was more than just a little appealing.
As I walk away from the statue, I still don’t know where I am going this morning other than “out,” still have no concrete plans for the day other than “to take pictures of something.” A little while later, driving out the road to the glacier, I am recalling that conversation I may or may not have had with Mangleson, and reminded by it that this pandemic time of walking alone is a great gift. Right now, I have the luxury of being more intentional about my days, to focus on being in the right place, if not all the time, much more of time than I would be were I reporting to a job every day.
Last week I encountered an ermine on one of my favorite trails alongside a beaver pond. Unlike Mangelsen, my encounter was mostly luck and I did not get a great photo. What I did get from that experience, though, was a little bit of knowledge. Now I know where that ermine 𝑚𝑖𝑔ℎ𝑡 be, and armed with that knowledge I can improve my luck by being in that place more often. And maybe next time I am there, I will gain a little more intel, and eventually, I will understand the ermine, and I will get the great shot.
At the very least, whether looking for the ermine, or waiting for the next eagle to land on Tahku, I am reminded that even if I am just heading “out… somewhere… to take pictures of something,” getting up and out early, and being intentional about my day, will always net some unexpected result, and if I am doing my homework, it might even lead to something more expected than not.
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I credit any success at photography I have to lucky times when I have my eyes open and my mouth shut – it is during those times I get an inkling that there might be an interesting image available. And then the only good advice my father ever gave me kicks in. “Figure out what you’re take a picture of before you click the shutter,” he once told me, “and then take out everything thing else.” It was good advice for saving film 45 years ago and it is good advice now, both before taking the photo and in post-processing. I once laughed at a story about someone who went to Alaska and came back with 15,000 images — but a weighty (and philosophically) smelly) albatross I came home from India in January with was 3600 photos. I wish my father had been with me.
I enjoy both your writing and your photography.
I poured a glass of wine and prepared to go on your journey with you through wilderness and snow. But I got a wonderful surprise–a visit to Juneau. I have been mourning not being able to travel. You included place, philosophy, photography, and reminded me that I am too much frittering my life away by detail. Time to simplify in the woods and wildlands of my small but abundant home.
Well said. And shot. Speaking of the element of luck I wrote a little poem about looking up at the right time. Perhaps lost was the thought of the hundreds of other observations that I miss.
Between me and the rising sun
airborne diamonds glisten
as a red squirrel scampers
across a spruce bough
spring-loaded with fat drops
from last night’s shower.