For many North American wildlife photographers, if you ask them what animal tops their wish list, you’ll usually hear cougar or wolverine in response. Not me. It’s the pine marten.
I’ve been fortunate to encounter the small, beautiful member of the weasel or mustelid family several times in my life – I average one or two sightings a year usually – but I only have soft images or partial tail shots to show for my efforts. Well, that’s not totally true: I also have some fairly embarrassing, frustrating and ridiculous stories to go along with my many, many missed opportunities.
Finding a pine marten and being able to get a photo – even if it’s just one sharp shot – really, truly has been my photographic dream.
When Jill and I visited Fish Creek in Alaska in 2013, we met a photographer who casually mentioned that if we wanted to photograph pine martens, we had to visit Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park during the winter. We asked a few questions and tucked the tip into the back of our minds, noting that we could easily check on the lead, given that Algonquin is only a few hours north of where we live in Toronto.
But the winter of 2013-2014 was not kind to us. Car troubles meant we couldn’t safely get up to Algonquin during a season of intense snow storms and, from research we did, the martens were far from being a slam dunk sighting in the park.
When the temperatures began to drop this winter, equipped with a safer car and more information on where to look for martens, we circled the Valentine’s Day weekend as the perfect window for a marten search.
We had no idea what to except when we first crossed into Ontario’s largest provincial park, but the idea of finding a creature roughly the size of a large mink was more than a bit daunting. Not to mention, past bad luck made made me feel particularly pessimistic about the mission.
I was also weighed down by personal heartache: My Papa, who played a big role in my life, was not well. Though he’d lived a good, long life, it’s never easy to accept losing a loved one.
After shlepping from one ‘hot spot’ to another – and seeing no obvious signs of activity – we decided to flip a coin and pick a spot to sit and wait. We’re really not fans of the drive-to-find style of wildlife photography. We’d much rather sit and be patient.
The problem with this strategy on this occasion was the weather. It was brutal. Like minus 45 Celsius brutal. Like ten minutes of exposure and you’d likely get frost bite brutal. And we simply don’t own the right gear for extended winter photography.
While Jill remained inside, trying to take advantage of the last bit of warmth still lingering from when our heaters were on full blast, I set-up my tripod and camera, pointing into a small opening where one photographer had once seen a marten…three years ago.
I was cold. I was hopeless. I was miserable. I had been waiting for all of five minutes.
I closed my eyes and thought of my Papa; I thought of the times we shared and memories we created. I thought about how I knew in my brain that he needed to move on to a better place; I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to let him go just yet.
I decided that I’d wait thirty seconds and, when I opened my eyes, there would be a pine marten in front of me; that it would be Papa sending me a message he was okay.
I’m not a touchy-feely person. I never think thoughts like this or believe in messages being sent. I started to realize how ridiculous I sounded. Mystified as to where that sentiment came from, I opened my eyes knowing there would be nothing to see. And that I’d still be freezing. And that this entire adventure was insane.
But when I opened my eyes, a saw a dash of browny-orange.
It couldn’t be. I must be very, very cold and losing my mind.
But I wasn’t. Out from the cluster of trees ran a beautiful, healthy pine marten. It ran right towards where I was standing and then stopped, stood and stared at me with an inquisitive look.
I couldn’t take a photo. I was just in awe. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
I think Jill noticed my body tense, as she quickly exited the marginally warm confines of the car and joined me to look at this surprisingly calm marten. Often skittish, this marten didn’t seem to mind our presence one bit.
I finally started pressing my trigger and took image after image, marvelling at my dream come true.
For hours, the marten ran…
…and just generally melted our hearts.
Like otters, this animal displayed pure joy and, indeed, joy was the emotion I felt watching this stunning animal. Jill and I both felt honoured to be able to do observe and document such an elusive creature for as long as we did.
Later that night, my mom called to tell me my Papa had passed away. He passed away at almost the exact moment I opened my eyes and found my pine marten. One final gift from a man who gave me and this world so many.
Jill and I returned to Algonquin a few weekends later – the weekend before our wedding no less (because, you know, why plan a wedding, when you can freeze to death trying to photograph a marten). We amazingly found our marten…
…and a second marten…
…in the same location. Our friends, Kerrie and Julian, who joined us for this adventure, also helped us find a third marten while on a hike elsewhere in the park.
We did make a third attempt to find our mustelid friends, but struck out. Indeed, it seems marten season (if you can call it that) is over with the melting snow. And who knows if we’ll ever see a marten again – or, at least, have the kind of quality sighting we enjoyed on our first encounter.
But if you find yourself in Algonquin and stumble across a light-faced marten with character near Mew Lake, know he has a name: Gordon. My Papa would have loved to know a pine marten was named after him. The pine marten should be proud to have his.