This story was originally published in Alaska magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes an image requires a bit of explanation. Because I run Wild Departures, a wildlife-viewing company, I have had the opportunity to return to certain places over and over again, allowing me to see changes in the environment and within generations of animals. Every photo I take has a story behind it, but some are more interesting or noteworthy than others. If any of the below images look familiar to you, it’s because they may have been published in earlier issues of Alaska magazine. They are repeated because their story didn’t end with the image you saw or reveal the whole story. In this photo essay, I take you behind the scenes to expose the bigger picture.
Youngster in Denali
I encountered this gorgeous juvenile black wolf in Denali National Park toward the end of the Park Road, while using a pro photo permit within the park, which allowed me the flexibility of a private vehicle. I spotted him wandering across a bridge, parked my car, grabbed my lens, and started shooting. I assumed I’d only get a few shots before he disappeared, but instead, he approached me, getting within a few feet, so close that I could no longer focus on him and instead, set down my lens and said, “Hey, buddy.” He trotted off and I watched him try to hunt. Because he was young and without a pack, I knew hunting—and survival—would prove difficult for him. I climbed up a hillside and watched him sneak up on an unsuspecting herd of caribou. He began his chase much too far away, never got close to the scattering herd, and did a less-than-graceful triple somersault on the way. His bravado ebbed after that, and I found him later eating a small rodent, giving me hope that he might make it through winter on his own.
On an ATV trip out to Saltery Cove, I found this red-coated fox among the wildflowers, tall grasses, and seed puffs. He stayed for a while, curious about our group, before disappearing into the wispy camouflage of the landscape. Photo by Michelle Theall. This cross-colored vixen in Chiniak skirted through the mossy forest in an area where recent logging had taken place. Photo by Michelle Theall. On an ATV trip out to Saltery Cove, I found this red-coated fox among the wildflowers, tall grasses, and seed puffs. He stayed for a while, curious about our group, before disappearing into the wispy camouflage of the landscape. Photo by Michelle Theall.
Most people have seen a fox before, but you’d have to go to Kodiak to spot this one. The Kodiak red fox (Vulpes vulpes harrimani) is a unique subspecies, native to Kodiak, and can only be found on the island. While individuals are a variety of colors, the Kodiak fox possesses several identifying traits: large size, a mane-like ruff around the neck, course fur, and a huge tail.
One of my favorite stories is this. In 2019, I watched a sow named Agro with her three spring cubs in Lake Clark National Park. Agro defended those cubs with a mama bear’s ferocity. The bears played, at one point pouncing on a dead fish and stealing it from one another. In 2020, Agro wandered the beach solo. Two of her cubs were never found. A third she had evidently abandoned to go into estrus again and mate. No one knows how the third spring cub survived the winter, but as a second-year cub, he was found trailing behind an unrelated sow with her own new spring cub. Keep in mind that the second-year cub likely couldn’t fend for himself yet—couldn’t fish or clam. Though the sow chased him off, he remained persistent, until she tolerated his proximity. Then, her spring cub started playing with him. Soon, the sow was seen nursing both cubs together, having adopted the second-year cub as her own. The size difference can be seen in the image below at left.
A young sow with her own spring cub (right) nurses Agro’s second-year cub, taking him in as her own. Photo by Michelle Theall. Agro in 2019 fiercely defending her triplet cubs from a boar. No one knows why two of her cubs didn’t make it through the winter, or why the third was abandoned. Photo by Michelle Theall.
In 2021, I returned to Lake Clark to find that “foster mom,” as she had been named by the park guides, hadn’t kicked out the cubs yet, and was still protecting and nursing them both. Having spent three years watching this story unfold, and having an adopted child of my own, my time spent with these bears touched me profoundly.
Proceed to the route
The “vent” I had to open that sucked out my brand new, $1,000-dollar, iPhone 12 Pro at 2,500 feet. The insurance claim is still pending. Photo by Michelle Theall. A photo of me minutes after I lost my phone, taken by my friend Chuck Bass, who enjoyed the moment at my expense. He was in the co-pilot seat, and for the record, he was pushing the pedals and getting warned by the pilot about it, which likely caused me to lose my grip on the phone in the first place.
As a photographer, I’m always in search of the perfect shot, which is how I lost my brand-new iPhone 12 Pro out the window of a small plane at 2,500 feet. Thankfully, I had taken my phone out of its wallet case prior to chucking it into Cook Inlet, otherwise my driver’s license and credit cards would be floating with a pod of belugas. Ostensibly, the flap that opens in the plane’s window is a “vent.” But I of course saw it as a clever way to make sure any glare or glass smudges didn’t mar the aerial photo of the volcano I was taking. I held the phone out the vent, angled it just so—in order to make sure the wing wasn’t in the frame—and shwoop, just like that, $1,000 flew out of my hands. Evidently, the smartphone is a lofty bugger, because I had time to look at the other passengers—who looked as shocked as I did—and back out the window again to find the device still flipping end over end, as if in slow motion, below the plane. I watched it plummet to its death, and after my disbelief wore off, I joined my companions laughing until tears streamed out of my eyes, and the pilot shut off his headphones because we couldn’t stop. Jokes ensued. “Hopefully, my data was in the cloud,” “You should’ve used airplane mode,” and my favorite, “Somewhere in Cook Inlet, Siri is still saying, ‘Proceed to the route.’”
Reflections of a photographer
While photographing bears, I noticed that the bubbles on the sand reflected back the silhouettes of the photographers (lower part of the bubble), as well as the bears (upper). I continued to shoot until I got the exact shot I wanted to document our presence in a unique way. Photo by Michelle Theall.
In Lake Clark, we do a lot of standing around watching bears. We follow them on the beach in all kinds of weather, watching them fish and clam and play. Every now and then, I realize how odd this appears—how absolutely unusual—and I take the time to photograph the photographers in this other-worldly landscape.