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Photography In The National Parks: Reading The Book Of Nature

The coming winter might be the last one for this old bull, which was visibly hampered by a swollen right leg. Deby Dixon photo.

Editor's note: Photography is one of the most popular hobbies among national park travelers, and so it only makes sense to offer you regular columns revolving around that subject. Beginning today and continuing twice every month we'll bring you thoughts from photographers we've come to know and whose work we appreciate. Those columns might approach photography from a technical aspect, or, as Deby Dixon does below, revolve around life in the parks and how it can impact you and how you view it through the lens. We hope you enjoy them.

“It is good to realize that if love and peace can prevail on earth, and if we can teach our children to honor nature's gifts, the joys and beauties of the outdoors will be here forever.” -- Jimmy Carter

I am sitting in Yellowstone National Park and watching an injured bison struggle in my direction. The bull's right front leg is swollen and he is unable to put weight on it as he hobbles from one bite of food to the next. My heart is torn from my chest, watching this animal suffer and I can not help but wonder what will become of him.

I have backed up, away from the bison, five times now and yet he still comes my way. As he crossed the road my heart and silent voice cheered him on - "come on, you are almost there..." A couple of times I worried that he might plop down in the road.

I flagged down a ranger and asked about this bull's chances of survival and he told me about bison that were injured way worse than him and said that they had been able to survive through the winter.

"It will depend on how much snow we get," he replied.

"What about predation," I asked, knowing that there was nothing that the park could or should do. He did not believe that the bull would be a target of predators unless a really big wolf pack came along.

"Really, even in this state of disability the bull would be difficult for the wolves to take down?" I asked. The ranger told me yes.

I have so much to learn out here in the real world where daily life is all about survival. The bull continues in my direction, taking a step every minute or two. His struggle is difficult to watch, but I remind myself that I am here to see real nature in this real world.

Focusing On Nature's Struggles 

A few years ago, when I first began working at being a wildlife photographer, my goal was to take pretty pictures of pretty animals. Nature photography soon became a burning passion that consumed my waking hours. Back in the beginning, I did not think about how animals survive, how they struggle and how they die, I just wanted to capture their essence. And the thought of them dying was too painful for me to contemplate.

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Wolves in Yellowstone offer photographers a challenging subject. Deby Dixon photo.

And then, in May 2011, I read a story in the local newspaper about grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park that were delighting photographers and nature lovers by raising their new cubs close to the roads. I packed my camping gear and left.

My trip began in Glacier National Park, continued on to Yellowstone, and then finally to my real destination of the Tetons where I had planned to spend 3 to 5 days and hopefully see the grizzly bears.

Within an hour after my arrival I saw grizzly sow 399 and her three cubs for the first time. Three weeks later I returned home only because the dog sitter said it was time.

In my haste to leave on this solo camping trip and my eagerness to upgrade my wildlife camera for more megapixels and HD video, I stopped at the camera store on my way out of town and purchased a new Nikon D7000. Taking an untested camera on what was then, a journey of a life time, proved to be a fatal error, photographically speaking, because even though the scene looked sharp when I pushed the shutter, the camera's focus system was faulty.

Grizzly bears and new cubs crossing the road in front of me, literally, and maybe one image in 200 was usable. I'm still weeping.

But, life is all about learning and making the best out of every situation, and what I gained personally was immeasurable. Everything that I had once believed about nature changed one evening in Willow Flats near Jackson Lake when a wolf hunt suddenly erupted onto the landscape.

About 300 yards away, four wolves ran a herd of elk back and forth, temporarily disappearing behind willows, only to emerge into an open area. A calf went down and the most incredible thing happened - the elk gathered together and charged the wolves, freeing the young one from their grips.

My dark and blurry photos showed the calf getting back up and running away with the rest of the herd, all except one cow. During the charge the wolves grabbed the cow elk behind the willows and that was the end.

Eight action-packed minutes had gone by, from finish to end. I had always been anti-hunting, anti- anything that had to do with killing animals, but during the eight minutes of the elk hunt I saw the beauty of life, death and survival in the natural world.

All of us, man and creature, were given life and charged with the task of surviving, during which we all have to eat.

Learning From Nature

Before leaving Willow Flats that evening, my entire outlook had changed and I found acceptance and peace knowing that nature was exactly the way that it was intended to be. This encounter and the profound way in which it changed my thinking had such a big impact on me that I wanted to learn more. Books, videos and conversations with others are informative and useful, but my needs were to witness real nature and to learn from my own experience.

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Sometimes you might not have the optimum equipment in the field, but you still aim for the best shot you can grab. Deby Dixon photo.

And so, 18 months later, the desire to learn more about nature led to a decision to spend the winter at Yellowstone, when and where survival can be at its harshest for many of the animals but at its best for the wolves.

Before heading to Yellowstone I bought another new camera because my beloved Nikon D700 was on its last legs and after four D7000's it was time to give up. I purchased the new Nikon D600, which is a full-frame, 24.2 megapixel workhorse. I use this camera with the Nikkor 80-400mm 4.5-5.6, which is a slow lens but, as with the D700, takes a sharp shot. This lens is not by any means the best for capturing wildlife, especially in low light and at long distances, but it has taught me about capturing the animal in its environment.

And, I cannot count the number of times when other photographers have complained about missing a shot because they had too much glass.

There is no perfect lens for every situation, and I just do the best with what I have. My sudden encounter with three members of the Canyon Pack in Yellowstone was one of those times when a shorter, VR (vibration reduction) lens that can be handheld, was a blessing.

One morning, well before dawn, I left Gardiner, Montana, and headed towards the southeastern portion of the park. Not long after the sun came up I saw a fox hunting in a field, with the precious new light upon its back. The fox was at a distance and by the time I had gotten set up at the right angle it had moved even further away. As the fox moved off towards the Yellowstone River, at Nez Perce Ford, several elk came running down the hill to the river.

I drove down to the picnic area in hopes of capturing the elk in the water. There, I saw three wolves chasing four elk down the hill. While putting the car in park and grabbing my camera I noticed two photographers rushing and fumbling with their own equipment. There was no time for me to do anything but point and shoot, while wishing that the camera was on the tripod.

Even though my lens is short, I zoomed out to capture the entire scene - the wolves, the elk and the river. The chase ended when the elk went into the water and stood looking back at the wolves.

Grabbing the tripod, I cautiously made my way towards the river where, to my amazement, the wolves lingered on the opposite bank watching the elk, stretching, and yawning. We had the amazing experience of standing on one side of the river while the wolves stood on the other. And, of course, now that the chase was done and my equipment was set up I wanted a close-up face shot but my lens was too short.

The wolves appeared to have no interest in us, other than possibly some curiosity, and I felt no fear of them. The alpha female of this pack is a gorgeous light grey and her beauty has haunted my dreams ever since. She alone re-emphasized my need to learn more about the wolves and about nature.

Yellowstone's landscape and ecosystem provides a unique opportunity for watching and studying the wolves and millions of people visit the nation's first national park for that experience. For many visitors, seeing a wild wolf, bear, pronghorn, bison, or big horn sheep is a once in a lifetime opportunity and they carry those experiences throughout their lives and share them with others.

For the past week or ten days, during my forays into Yellowstone, there has been a quiet sadness, anger and frustration - feelings of powerlessness - after three collared wolves were shot and killed when they strayed a short ways across park boundaries. Gone were a favorite of the Lamar Canyon pack, the only collared member of the newly named Junction Butte pack, and a member of the Mollies pack from the Pelican Valley area of the park. In all, seven wolves have been killed, five from the park and two that made brief visits into the park.

I have no history with any of these wolves, but am experiencing those same feelings of anger, frustration, and powerlessness. Not only for the love of nature and the wolves but also for the way in which their deaths impact my ability, and that of others, to learn more about them. With each new sighting of the wolves, eyes light up and joy fills the air. Come and read nature with your own eyes.

Deby Dixon travels the national parks of the West with her cameras in a trailer currently parked outside Yellowstone National Park for the winter.

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Thanks to all who decided to start regular columns about photography in the parks. Excellent story Deby Dixon. I have often had the same issues about new equipment as well as which lens is best all around. Thanks for sharing.

Great addition to an already great site. Two of my favorite activities are photography and visiting our national parks. Now if you could just work horseback riding in there somewhere...

I visited Wyoming and the parks a year ago and fell in love with it all ! Every time Isee some of Deby's new pictures or posts I remember the wonderful time I spent out there ! Thanks-you so much for printing her story and pictures !!

Wonderful point of view and photos by Deby Dixon. It is a tough life for wildlife, even in our National Parks where they should be safe. Deby's vision of the parks inspires me to try harder to protect what is left.

Thanks for giving her the opportunity to share her experiences.

Very good read, the trials, troubles and triumphs of nature photography. Deby is now leading a life that I only wish I could.

A wonderful insight into one of America's most beautiful national treasures. Deby Dixon does a tremendous job retelling the powerfully humbling experience of photographing these animals. If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in reading an excerpt and viewing photographs from the newly published "Shadows In Winter", on our blog at

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