Osprey with fish
Osprey with fish
I’VE HAD some pretty crazy moments in the woods and on the lakes over the years, taking photos of everything from bear and angry fishers to fawns, fox pups, dive-bombing eagles and albino deer.

While the list of species is quite long, some of those outdoor experiences turned out to be real adventures because of the unexpected things that occurred.

For instance, I can’t explain why on one Monday night in early June a pair of common loons with two newborn chicks decided, after an hour of distant encounters, that a long white boat with a human aboard was suddenly worth trusting.

I had followed the family  for what seemed like an eternity, using a trolling motor to stay just far enough away not to stress or alarm them but certainly too far away for any decent photos.

And then, suddenly, they came swimming right for my boat. It was a collision course and my expectations were that there would be loud calls, alarm-filled dances and pretty much a mid-lake spectacle.

They swam so close to the boat that I had to lean over the gunwale to get them into the view­finder, but they didn’t freak out. In fact, they seemed perfectly calm.

And then it happened — totally unexpected — that both adults dove and left their three-day-old chicks floating right next to me. It was a shocker.

We were in 20 feet of water, so it took some time before one of the adults emerged, and then the second one, both with some sort of minnow or dead larvae in their mouths that they plucked from the bottom.

They held the bounty in the faces of both chicks until the little puffballs responded by opening wide and grabbing the food. And back down went the adults, an exercise they repeated more than a dozen times.

That’s what you call the right place at the right time, with some extra luck tossed in for good measure. It’s something that usually doesn’t happen — an experience of a lifetime that hasn’t occurred in a decade of outings since.

It was one of the few times in my career that I was out in a boat with rods in the lockers, no bait aboard and no plans to fish that evening. I was just trying to snap photos of some newborn loon chicks.

My average photo outing, you see, centers around fishing. That’s the sport that draws me into spending hours and hours on the water, and that increases your odds of being at the right place at the right time.

As I’ve said before, don’t go fishing with the scribbler if you consider it a problem to abandon a hot fishing spot in order to chase after a bald eagle that just landed on a low perch across the lake or bay. When photo opportunities knock, you’ve got to answer.

One of my craziest land adventures occurred a few years back in early July, when I chased after a huge black bear that had just crossed a road in the national forest.

I came over a rise in the landscape, running straight into a setting sun, and there was the bear at 30 paces. It was sitting on its butt with its back legs straight out and slightly to the side.

Flies were buzzing all around its head and suddenly, it violently shook the upper half of its body — loose skin around its neck and above its shoulders going in all directions like floating Jello.

And when it finally looked at me, it occurred to me that I was a lot closer to a large black bear in the rut than I was to the truck I’d left back on Divide Road. 

The picture opportunity was a bust because the too-bright sun merely silhouetted the bear. Black objects without direct sunlight are just a big black blob. So I backed off, slowly, hoping the normally poor eyesight that bears have would keep me safe.

Can’t win them all. Sometimes it works and more often than not, it doesn’t. Just chalk up the failure to experience, or a nice try, or whatever.

The point is, you never know if it’s the right place, right time for photos if you don’t try. Chances are the animal will run off as you arrive. But once in a great while, they just stand there like you don’t even exist.

Persistence pays. So does patience. Nothing teaches more character and skill than failure. And the only real failure is accepting defeat instead of trying again.

I’m sharing some experience with wildlife photography, as I do every July, hoping that somebody taking up this hobby might find some added confidence.

One benefit of the digital age is what these cameras can do in lowlight conditions, often eliminating dreadful shadows that always haunted photographers in the film days. And you can shoot hundreds and thousands of photos with no extra cost for processing.

The digital equipment is so much better today, and so inexpensive to operate without film and processing costs, that learning to shoot photos has never been easier.

I’m still using a Canon 50D digital body that doesn’t have a full-frame sensor. That means you get more zoom, about 60% more, out of every lens. So a zoom lens that goes out to 300mm is effectively a 480mm lens on that camera body.

What the would-be outdoor photographer has to avoid are cameras with slow focus speeds, which cause serious delays between pressing the shutter button and actually getting the shot. We use Canon ultrasonic lenses, and they are affordable.

Good nature photos are just part of this hobby’s reward. More interesting are the stories behind some of the photos — the fabric of what makes the North Woods such a special place to live, work and play.

Whether it’s watching beavers in a trout stream, pine martens in the national forest or a red fox on the hunt, photos are a great way to preserve those stories and memories for a lifetime.

So get outdoors with a camera and eventually, the unexpected will happen. Remem­ber what you’re out there for. Don’t miss the shot.