After reading our stories from the wild, you might be under the impression that it’s always me who is near death, suffering from one bout or another of bizarre follies. To be clear, it’s not. Back in the summer of 2013, Jill experienced her flirtation with death.
With bears disappearing to the high country and the otters having traveled downstream and out of Trout Lake, we were left looking for a new photographic focus in Yellowstone and were extremely fortunate to find a shoot that was truly once-in-a-lifetime: A great grey owl nest.
Great greys are the grizzly bears of the sky, in my book. They’re stunning birds that have the same deep yellow eyes as wolves, having the ability to stare into your soul and leave you a changed person. And they’re also relatively elusive.
In 2013, we had only ever spotted one great grey – the largest owl in the world by length – and that was during a hike the previous summer in Grand Teton National Park. Yet that one experience was enough to leave us wanting more and when rumours appeared in online forums about a nest somewhere in the expansive and densely forested northeast corner of Yellowstone, we decided to go on a search.
It took us considerable time and a lot of bushwhacking, but eventually we deduced where the owls lived and, along with a very small contingent of photographers in the know, we became embedded with this family of owls.
The reason we discovered the nest in the first place was because we had that creepy feeling of someone watching us and, when we looked up, discovered a massive owl sitting on a branch right above our heads. As we continued to explore this part of the forest, we were joined by an odd and somewhat mysterious birder from Indiana, who we think had flown to the park just for this sighting, and together we found the exact spot of the nest, complete with two fledglings that had yet to learn to fly.
While the birder yapped away about warblers and chickadees (and then disappeared almost as quickly as he appeared, having stopped to enjoy the sight he’d flown 2000 miles to see for maybe two minutes, before moving on to look for something “cooler”), I noticed Jill was hitting herself.
While I was in awe of the family of owls and was doing my best to hurt my neck, tilting it backwards in the most challenging pose you can image in order to get photos of the fledglings, I wasn’t really that aware of what was going on around me. What was bugging Jill? Well, the bugs as it turned out.
The mosquitos were vicious. They were even biting our eyelids. But it was the black flies that were really bad. And they had a very special love for Jill.
Flies by the hundreds were surrounding her body, but – ever prepared for bug warfare – Jill was equipped with full body armour, including mosquito face-netting and a large sweatshirt, despite the sweltering heat. Full body armour, that is, minus one hand.
Amazingly, in our bush-whacking preparations, Jill had even remembered to bring gloves. The only problem? At that time, Jill didn’t own a good pair of gloves – just ridiculous mittens that were capped off with a huge puppy dog where the fingers go. Cute as a joke, maybe, but practical for photography? Not in the slightest.
So as Jill began to accept that bugs were landing all over her, but not biting thanks to her preparations, she set-up her gear, removed one glove in order to start shooting.
Most people might get bitten once or twice on their exposed hand in such a situation. I had far more exposed skin and, so long as I was calm, the bugs didn’t get me nearly as often as you’d assume given their numbers. But Jill’s not your average person and she received dozens of bites within a minute of exposing her trigger hand.
Owls be damned, she couldn’t take it. She stopped taking photos and put her mitten back on. While frustrated, she also realized that photography was the least of her worries.
Her hand started swelling. And then she started to lose feeling in her arm. This should have been a sign of problems to come, but she kept these facts to herself and swatted away for another half hour.
As Jill began to complain more and more about the bugs, she realized she had a problem. A big problem. Jill was having trouble breathing.
Immediately, we agreed we should go back to the car, as her breathing became more laboured and panic was very quickly setting in for us both.
I ripped down my gear and we started running to where we parked. Running, I’ve learned, is easier on roads and trails and not so much when you’re bushwhacking. It’s also easier when you can breathe.
By the time we finally reached the car, Jill’s hand was the size of a baseball and she could hardly muster a breath. She was most certainly in no shape to drive.
Did I mention I don’t know how to drive?
Aside from a few lessons when I was sixteen and one quick lesson during our prolonged and bizarre first date three years prior, I had never been behind the wheel of a vehicle, much less have the legal authority to drive one.
But this was an emergency and dammit, I was up to the challenge – as soon as Jill reminded me which pedal was brake and which was gas. Jill gave me a brief look of terror, before squeaking out the answer and resigning herself to death – by bug bite or my driving.
I, on the other hand, felt like John MacLean in Die Hard, driving the car as quickly (read: jerkily) and as safely (read: luckily) as I could through bison herds and across mountain passes and tight corners to reach the closest medical clinic – Mammoth Hot Springs – on the complete other end of the park.
We made it in one piece. I learned the difference between brake and gas. Bison learned to fear small grey cars. Jill survived. And bugs everywhere know whom to attack if they want their pound of flesh. Jill even managed to develop a new phobia: Needles! But that’s another story.
Founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson is a storyteller, connector and movement builder committed to improving our pubic discourse and shaping a better balance between the needs of people and nature. His GhostBearPhotography.com column appears on the first Saturday of every month.