This is the story of one of Jill’s greatest photographic achievements. And one of my greatest photographic (near) disasters.
Yellowstone’s Trout Lake is likely the single best location for finding river otters in the world. The population is healthy and the animals are so at ease with people, it provides an exceptional opportunity for viewing and learning.
But even sure things sometimes don’t pan out. 2014 was one of those years.
Though we had some luck with the otters…
…we probably spent 15 hours waiting and striking out for every hour we were able to photograph them. Seeing as Trout Lake is a beautiful spot – as are the nearby Buck and Shrimp Lakes – we didn’t really mind.
It’s a place where you can see bear, bison, muskrat, various types of birds, frogs and even snakes.
But what you don’t anticipate seeing at Trout Lake is a badger.
One evening, while circumnavigating the lake for the 17th time that day, Jill and I decided to call it a night and make our way pack down the steep trail to our car.
As we began our walk out, a couple told us we had just missed a badger.
Yes, they were, and they had the images to prove it.
We picked up our pace and tried to see if we could find any sign of the mustelid, knowing full well it was likely a right place, right time type of moment.
Then we saw dirt flying. Lots of it.
The badger was right in front of us, on the trail, and as we approached, it did something very un-badger like. It didn’t run. Not only was it focused on finding a meal, it seemed completely oblivious to our presence.
Not wanting to have him suddenly discover us and a) miss his dinner and b) showcase those famous badger teeth for our troubles, we decided to do a wide arc around him.
I should back-up slightly.
When hiking up to Trout Lake, I almost always hand-hold my camera in one hand and carry my tripod in another. Though steep, it’s a short hike and once you reach the lake, you often have to run (at least, I often have to run) around the lake numerous times in pursuit of otters.
If I were to carry my gear up like a normal person in a camera backpack, my fear is I could fall into the lake, bag and all. At least by handholding the equipment, I could drop it in the grass on my watery decent. Or so my brain assumes.
Now, as we’re walking wide around the badger in deceivingly high brush, it occurs to me that hand holding equipment is easier on marked trails and not so easy when bushwhacking. But it’s only for a minute, so what’s the worst that could happen?
As Jill knows, whenever I utter those words, bad things happen. Like not realizing our wide arc was taking us near a steep hill. And not realizing that said steep hill would have to be descended in order to reach the trail without bugging the badger.
At least there was sage brush to hold onto – at least until my friend turned into an enemy, as it camouflaged a uinta ground squirrel hole.
And I lost my footing.
And down I went.
My first thought should have been to protect my head, after all I have had a few concussions. It wasn’t. It was to protect the camera.
The tripod goes flying downhill and my face breaks the fall.
I know I’m going to lose my camera, but I focus on protecting my camera body, without snapping the lens off on impact. The very heavy lens has a long hood on the front that I hope will snap, soften the landing and save the glass and, thereby, the lens in the process.
Dirt flies. My face bounces. My camera, miraculously, hits the ground softly.
But I’m sliding. And I can’t stop without losing control of my now protected camera.
So I continue my downward decline until I reach the bottom of the hill. Dirt-covered, bloodied and sore. Again, though, my cameras is fine, even if it is covered in a fine layer of dirt.
I’m a little disorientated as well and it’s around this time that I realize I’m not alone.
I look for Jill but find a rather large family staring at me, slack-jawed, from the trail a few feet away. I’m sure they wanted to laugh, but were equal parts concerned for my health and my sanity. After all, why was I bushwhacking with a perfectly good trail just to my right?
All I muster was a weak “badger!” and a point up the hill.
Speaking of that badger and up the hill, where the hell is Jill?
Is she off to get me help? Is she freaking out about my gear? Did she fall? Is Jill dead?!
“Jill!”, I yell. ” Jillllllll!!!!!!!”
I hear a whispered reply and an urging me to be quiet.
What?! I’m lying bruised at the bottom of a steep embankment and you’re asking for quiet?
Then it occurs to me Jill didn’t fall. And Jill didn’t see my fall. Or did, but decided I’d survive, and needed to focus on matters more pressing.
You see, around the time I stepped on the wrong sagebrush, Jill took a peak back at the flying dirt and noticed that it wasn’t flying anymore.
In fact, she realized the badger had snuck its way through the sagebrush to within a few feet of her.
Though I’m sure she was most concerned about disrupting the animal, I think a small part of her didn’t want to be attacked. So she froze, as you should do, and waited it out.
And here is where she made a really important discovery. The badger, it appeared, was not only not aggressive, it still was unaware of her presence. The badger was deaf. And mostly blind. It clearly could smell something and searched, but couldn’t place it and would juts carry on carrying on.
Armed with this belief, she backed up slowly – and watching her steps, I might add – until she was safely on the trail and started shooting.
As for her fiancee at the bottom of the hill? I should join her! It’s incredible! Best ever!
Up I get, dust myself off, join the still somewhat shocked family and limp my way back up the hill, on the trail this time.
I reach Jill in time to capture this…
Not bad, given my state and the fact I was handholding the camera (the tripod remained lost for another half hour). But it wasn’t this…
When the badger took off, Jill finally took a look at me. Shocked by the sight, she asked very innocently, “What happened to you?” Followed up by, “Did you get any good shots?”
Thank Jill. Thanks a lot.
Seriously though, if I was a little more self-aware and a little more properly packed (as in carrying my gear in a pack), I wouldn’t be covered in dirt with good, but not great badger shots to my name. Jill made the most of an incredible encounter and I couldn’t be more proud.
But mostly, I was amazed and in awe of the badger itself. Clearly older, it was surviving in this unforgiving ecosystem without full sight or hearing. And it looked to be doing more than surviving and indeed was thriving. That’s perseverance and that’s the wild kingdom at its finest.