Patience and Wildlife Photography

By Thomas D. Mangelsen Back to


As we rounded the curve in the road above Wonder Lake, Chip Houseman and Helen Gromme waved to us from the edge of a tall stand of alder, a hundred or so yards below the road. They were obviously trying to get me to stop. I couldn’t tell what they were excited about, but I figured it was either a moose or caribou. The first rose-colored light was touching Denali’s 20,320-foot summit, and I knew from the direction Chip was pointing his camera that the moose or caribou was between them and the mountain.

This wasn’t my normal photography trip to Denali. My friend Michael Fitzpatrick, at 53, was in his final stages of brain cancer. In the back seat of the camper was Spence Wilson, my 85-year-old “surrogate” father. Both were a bit shaky on their feet. Because of the similar impacts of their conditions—which mostly affected their balance and walking—Michael and Spence, who had never met before this trip, bonded immediately. Although we had talked about them joining me in Denali for a number of years, it had never happened, and I knew this likely would be our last chance.

Chip was motioning for us to come quickly, and Michael and Spence, the consummate good sports, wanted to go but sensed my dilemma in having to wait for them. They urged me to go ahead and said they would catch up. I was reluctant to go without them, but grabbed my cameras and headed down the hill. When I turned and looked back, I saw Michael and Spence tripping over the tangle of dwarf birch, both falling, then taking turns helping each other up. They were mumbling and cursing one moment at life’s dealings and roaring with laughter the next. I couldn’t help laughing myself. In spite of their handicaps, they were having more fun than possibly the rest of us. It was a glorious Indian summer morning in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

I quietly made my way through the alder and then realized what all of Chip’s gesturing was about: There stood a mag- nificent bull moose, just 75 yards below, with the Alaska Range and Denali in the distance. Just past the bull, in another stand of alder, was his harem of three cows; they already were moving up the hill toward a small pond. I knew the bull would follow. We turned back and went to the opposite side of the pond, hoping the bull might go up on the small rise and be silhouetted with Denali in the background. As we hurriedly went to the far side and scrambled down the steep embankment to set up, I saw the bull coming through the alders toward us and into the scene I had previsualized, and hoped for, with Denali’s reflection on the water. The odds that the moose would walk into the clearing were probably one in twenty and the odds of him actually stopping there were even greater, but we knew if he did it would be wonderful.

Chip and I rushed to get our tripods set up. The bull was moving more quickly than we had anticipated, following his cows, and then suddenly he stopped in the clearing. It was the perfect scene. But, just as I was about to press the shutter release, he lay down. Chip just missed it, too. We both did a little jig out of frustration in the willows and said a few not- so-muffled four-letter words, both at ourselves and at the moose. Both systems, Chip’s 16mm Arriflex movie camera and my 617 panoramic, take time to set up; changing lenses, leveling the tripod, taking handheld light readings and checking composition and distance is invariably slow and frustrating. We had just missed the perfect scene! Then we turned to each other and I said, “Well, he’ll get up sooner or later and maybe we’ll have another chance.” We fine-tuned our compositions and exposures, and Michael and Spence finally caught up with us, frantically asking, “Did you get the shot?” We all waited.

Chip and Helen were shooting a documentary for ABC television; we had all been best of friends for many years. I had known Helen since she was a baby.

Four hours later, the bull stood, noticing one of his cows was on the move. The breeze had quieted and the pond was like glass. He looked around and contem- plated the situation for a few seconds before moving down the hill and out of sight. It was better than we had imagined. We walked to a higher vantage point, where we could observe the moose, glassing the McKinley River bar for cranes and grizzlies. We ate lunch and talked about the wondrous morning. Michael kept asking, “Did you get the picture?” He didn’t believe me until he received a large, framed Reflections of Denali for Christmas. Michael had not only bought the first of my limited-edition prints 23 years earlier, but was the one who encouraged me during those years when I needed it most. Though we had been best friends for decades, he had never gone photographing with me. Now, he finally understood.

Just a few months later, on December 17, 1998, Chip and Helen were killed in an airplane crash while filming macaques in the jungles of Thailand. Michael succumbed to his brain tumor the following spring. Spence is still alive and kicking.

Since this beautiful September morning, I have returned to Denali many times, but no Indian summer morning will ever be as memorable. Some experiences and some photographs are obviously more meaningful than others.

About the Author

Thomas D. Mangelsen
Thomas D. Mangelsen, a Nebraska native, is recognized as one of the world’s premier nature photographers. In addition to several books on his work, it has been published in National Geographic, Audubon, National Wildlife, Smithsonian, Natural History, Newsweek, Wildlife Art, American Photo, National Wildlife, and other publications.