The story behind 'Huntress'
I often wonder at the odds of getting the shot 'Huntress', and I often come to the conclusion that they were slim to none. To see a wolf in Yellowstone is a rarity unto itself, to be able to see one with the naked eye is that much more rare; to have one cross 45 feet in front of you at the crack of dawn, well let's just say I don't think it'll ever happen to me again. Indeed it was a great rarity, perhaps if not statistically then personally, because I feel I'll be hard pressed to experience such majesty again.
We were up and in the car by 6:10 AM that morning, which gave us ample time to get into Lamar Valley before sunrise. An absolutely crucial time of day for wildlife photography is the crack of dawn, and we were not planning on missing it. We had our cold brew coffees ready and waiting in the car, along with some Cliff bars or something- at that time of morning food was the least of my worries. We had left from Gardiner, MT, and by the time we had reached Roosevelt Lodge the first glimmer of morning light was making its way up and over the horizon.
As we made our way towards Lamar Valley, we saw a group of roughly 20 or so wildlife watchers and enthusiasts setup outside of Slough Creek. Quite a few of them had spotting scopes setup and plenty were simply enjoying the cool air, company, and warm coffee in their thermoses. Since it's customary in Yellowstone to pull over when you see a large group gathered with spotting scopes, we did just that. However a quick conversation with a few folks there quickly tipped us off that no wolves had been seen, and that folks were merely hoping that the Junction Butte pack would make an appearance. We headed back into the car and made our way out into Lamar, rolling the dice on finding wolves elsewhere.
Slowly but surely we made our way across Lamar Valley, not seeing much wildlife aside from smaller herds of Bison scattered here and there. A curtain of sunlight was slowly creeping its way down the Western side of the valley, and I began to lose hope; I'm thinking, "shoot, we're out here too late". Also the complete lack of die-hard wildlife watchers had tripped me up, not many souls were in Lamar Valley that morning with most opting for setting up at Slough Creek. As we're nearing the Lamar River Valley Trailhead, and as I'm just about to give up hope, I saw a few cars pulled over up ahead.
My heart actually began to race a bit- say what you will about wildlife photography, but if you're crazy about it there's definitely an adrenaline rush aspect to it that you cannot deny. We pulled up alongside a few cars that were off the road, and through the windshield I saw two black spots across the river that shared enough resemblance with wolves to make me hop right out of the car and start setting up my tripod. I get my 300-800mm lens mounted and snap a few photos of the two wolves across the way; they're too far for the shots to be "good" but I'll take any chance I can get to photograph these rare creatures. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement in the sage maybe 80 or 90 feet in front of me.
I made a hushed shout over to my girlfriend and immediately turned my lens towards the movement. Then it happened; she walked out of the deeper sage, saw me, stopped, and stared directly at me for only a few seconds. Looking back, I don't even really remember taking this particular picture- time seemed to both stand still and move way too fast at the same time. I was in awe of this amazing creature, as beautiful as she is deadly; a huntress. Then it was over. With a casual turn of her head, she moved diagonally away from me, across the road behind me, and up and over a hill. Just when I think this experience was drawing to a close, I'm greeted with an iconic wolf interaction.
I began watching the other two wolves across the river, only seconds later to see one of them throw back its head and send its howl echoing across the valley. A short pause and then the huntress behind me responds with her own howl, crisp and clear and loud. Not only hearing these animals communicate, but also seeing it with my own eyes, was as amazing as it was moving; our natural world really is full of wonders. Moments later, the other two wolves made their way across the river (though not so close to me) to join the huntress in the hills to the East, and were soon out of sight.
I'm always thankful for the opportunities I get to photograph wildlife, because it serves as a sincere reminder of the all the wonder and beauty this world has to offer. However, I am beyond thankful for the opportunity I was given that morning; that experience, and this photograph, will forever hold a special place in my heart. I hope that perhaps now it may hold a special place in yours.
- Sean McKinley