It’s been 23 years, but I still see those bulls. Tom Walker and I were boating up the Kobuk on a brooding, shower-swept September evening. We’d been out for days and had hit the Western Arctic caribou herd’s southward migration in full stride, a wildlife photographer’s dream: a procession of big, wild creatures streaming past. By the time we met that small bunch, we’d seen some amazing stuff: a horde of caribou swimming the river at twilight, framed by a deep red sunset; dozens pouring down a cut bank we were hunkered against, one so close it put a hoof on my shoulder and passed where I could have brushed his flank with my hand; lines of white-maned bulls trotting on fall-bright tundra that seemed painted.
So here were a dozen or so big guys forging into the current as we pulled up in my skiff. Just a passing chance for a shot or two. But as we raised our cameras, a burst of golden light spilled over them, the water depth changed, and the bulls began to plunge, antlers and splashing water incandescent, everything spot-lit against that dark sky. I got off three shots before they were swimming, backs to us, and the light flattened. We both knew what had just passed: a no-fooling chance for a shot better than good, the sort that comes along just now and then. The question was whether either of us had captured the instant and had gotten the rest right—exposure, shutter speed, and so on.
Those were the days when you had to wait weeks for your slides in the mail to find out if you’d nailed a certain image or had trashed an entire roll. You got none of the immediate, in-field feedback we now take for granted as we peer into our digital screens, sorting and deleting and adjusting, and far less of the amazing, baked-in electronic alchemy—exquisite metering, quicksilver auto-focus and in-camera processing, blazing ISO speeds and burst capability—that these days makes practically anyone a decent photographer. For the couple dozen rolls of film I’d shot on that trip, 36 exposures each at fifteen bucks a pop including that mail-in processing, I knew not to expect much. But this time, I couldn’t help hoping. All those opportunities, with one of Alaska’s top photographers at my elbow, coaching me along my greenhorn way.
In fact, I’d just recently crossed the threshold of owning gear someone in the know would recognize as mid-line professional. I’d come to Alaska in 1979 toting some thirty buck, 110-film point-and-shoot piece of crap. I worked my way upward through a series of steadily better compact cameras, but somehow talked myself out of buying serious pro gear. I already had a rifle in one hand and a fishing rod in the other, I told myself. One more thing to do and carry? Nah. But over the course of a decade, I met and became friends with Michio Hoshino, Kim Heacox, filmmaker Joel Bennett, and Tom, watched them work, peered through their tripod-mounted setups, and caught the bug. I bought my first 35mm SLR body and a couple of lenses and kept trading up; subscribed to photography magazines and pored over manuals; burned through more and better film; got in-field tutorials from my buddies and kept trying to suck less. Nature photography was, I discovered, one hell of a lot harder than hunting. And this trip, opportunities or no, had proven no exception.
Two weeks after Tom had departed, the slides began to show up at the Ambler post office, two boxes one day, four the next. I’d dash home and hold them to the window, peering through my loupe…and spiral one after another into the box by the woodstove–wrong exposure; shutter speed too slow or depth of field too narrow; out of focus. And many, technically solid, were just blah: scads of animals in indifferent light, devoid of subject or composition.
Remember, too, this was before the days of editing software like Photoshop to tweak, crop, and sharpen. The slide you took was the image you had to show, period. And even with all the great action Tom and I had worked, I’d gone through several boxfuls without a single pro-quality keeper. At forty-some cents a shot, I’m glad they made fine fire starters. So far, for that whole trip, 800-some slides, I had about thirty that I really liked—and back then, my understanding of what was good was far more generous than it is now.
Part way through another box of mostly ho-hum, there they were: those bulls, caught in mid-stride, bathed in golden light against that dark backdrop, miraculously sharp for 100 ISO film shot at marginal shutter speed, hand-held from a drifting boat. The other two shots in the sequence weren’t worth squat. To this day, I have no idea how I pulled it off. I later found that Tom, with his superior equipment and skills, had swung and missed. On the other hand, he’d used one hell of a lot less film than I—and had more to show for it.
In the end, that one shot proved good but not great from a purely professional, money-wise perspective; it sold several times for modest fees through a stock agency, plus I self-published some notecards and moved a couple dozen prints—once the smoke cleared, maybe enough to pay for the gas for that one trip. But the bulls remain, beyond time, suspended in that perfect instant. That’ll do.