Looking back, I find it interesting how the most powerful moments of my life often butt right up against my lowest lows. The story behind my 2012 trip to The Yukon for an important, conservation-focused National Geographic assignment is one of many examples.
The magazine had delivered me deep into Canada's Arctic with the expectation that I would capture bold, compelling images to help advocate protections for the Peel Watershed against impending mining industry exploitation. A recent wildlife shoot on the banks of the Fishing Branch River with my good friend Phil Timpany (a bear whisperer like none other on this planet) had been successful, but despite having many photographs of bears, wolves, and wolverines in the bag, I continued coming up short in terms of scenics. Only sweeping, majestic photos of The Yukon's unspoiled mountain ranges would truly connect our readers to what was at stake, and I was struggling badly to deliver.
One cold October night, my friend Peter Mather and I were driving back to Dawson City after a long day of poor light and failed compositions when the clouds above us began to part. Within moments, the sky had transformed into a vast, velvety expanse of sparkling stars fringed with shimmering, green ribbons of light – the Aurora Borealis. I convinced Peter to pull over and lunged into the brush that lined the roadside with my camera and tripod, looking for a more suitable foreground than the endless, crumbling asphalt that stretched out before us. There was a small lake not far from where we had stopped, but the willow bushes crowding its shores kept creeping into my shot. I returned to the car, donned some waders, and carefully navigated four or five feet into its icy cold waters to try again. As my slow shutter lazily captured the faint light of the distant stars above, I anxiously hoped I was finally on to something.
There was a rustle from the shore, and I called out, thinking Peter had decided to join me. No response. More rustling. Too stealthy to be a bear, I thought. A wolverine, maybe, or some other small animal prowling under cover of darkness. Another possibility crossed my mind, and I decided to test it the way any good biologist would – I threw back my head and let out a long mournful howl.
I stood motionlessly in the silence, waiting for a response to my call, when a single howl began to swell from across the lake. Soon, the entire pack joined in, including the wolf behind me, the Northern Lights rippling across the sky as if energized by their chorus. Two hundred miles above us, the Mir space station flashed as it passed overhead. I remember feeling very small and insignificant in that moment, humbled by the opportunity I had to play a role in preserving such a unique and beautiful place. My perceived failings as a photographer were suddenly irrelevant, and all that mattered to me was the future of the region's wild inhabitants. I returned to the car with a renewed sense of confidence, believing for the first time in weeks that I would successfully deliver on my obligation.
Several years later, the Supreme Court of Canada referenced our article when it overturned the territory government's plan to allow harmful development in the region. It was a well-earned victory for the Yukon First Nations and environmental groups that held the line, and I feel honored to have contributed even in some small way. I will never forget the brief moment of clarity I experienced in the company of wolves beneath the Northern lights.