Elk Rut: Action in Jasper

The Elk

I arrived to Jasper at 9:30 the next morning, found a campsite in Whistlers, and met up with Joey and Sarah in the afternoon…and began to find some elk….

Out of all the days in Jasper, Sunday 9/21 was the most productive on all accounts. I saw and photographed my first “real” rutting action at the Lagoon at sunrise.  Then at sunset, we were on a different bull along in the Athabasca River, near the Jasper Fairmont. Out in the flood zone, we were in the middle of it all, 3 or 4 competing satellite bulls bugled in various directions, near and far, agitating the alpha with the harem. He didn’t get lucky down by the river, but the light and action there was phenomenal. However, after calling it quits, as we walked back to our cars, we came upon this bull getting lucky with a cow on the lawn of the Jasper Fairmont Lodge. Two matings in one day, I was beginning to feel spoiled!

I can honestly say that photographing these hormonal elk may be equally as dangerous as bear photography. The fact that they are deer may lull you into a false sense of security. Its true that elk doesn’t have the teeth and claws to maul, but they are well equipped to rake and stomp. Joey’s advice on the matter was to always have an exit strategy when going in close, never leave yourself exposed.

This was sage advice. These hormonal beasts were fickle and prone to irrational spurts of sudden aggression. At one point while viewing a bull and his harem, the bull casually got closer to a group of us. We reacted immediately by increasing the space.  On both sides of the bull’s path were stone piles, about 4m high with stones the size of basketballs. On my side, two of us scurried up one of the piles, while the man across the path scrambled up the other one. As the bull slowly passed us by, he suddenly charged at the other man, who fortunately still had room to scramble even higher.

In terms of photography, the conditions in the morning were better for moody shots with backlit smokey bugle vapor puffs.  The evenings were better for dramatic and rich light, but no smoke breath. It was also much colder in the morning, around the freezing point, while the afternoons were still hot from the day’s heat.


Each wildlife trip has its own unique way bringing a variety of people together, and Jasper was no different. Wildlife is unpredictable, and it is the people involved that distinguish a good trip from a great one. As is often the case, wildlife photo trips are made special by the beautiful locale, wildlife and people that are there. When you have good people to chat and connect with during the lulls in action, I find the overall productivity will increase. And the people who participate in the Jasper Elk Rut may have the strongest sense of community that I have yet experienced.  The crowd was a nice blend of full-time and retired professionals and semi-pros, skills ranging from beginner to expert, and and non-photographers alike.  The collective knowledge of this group was impressive. Many were veterans of the Jasper elk rut, people who understood elk.  Many of my most inquisitive questions were not only entertained, but graciously answered….which is not something that normally happens!

Elk Rut: Arrival in the Rockies

Elk Rut 2014: Jasper National Park

Setting the scene…

The blue of the Canadian Rockies...
The blue of the Canadian Rockies…

The Canadian Rockies, a magnificent place to visit any time of the year, rarely disappoints those who visit. For my most recent trip, I was fortunate to experience the jewel of the North American Rocky Mountains during the autumn elk rut. For most of the year, elk keep to themselves and live relatively benign, and quiet lives. Not so during the elk rut. Bull elk dash back and forth, vocalizing and clashing violently with other bulls and careless photographers; defending harem and territory….

Snow Striped Peaks, a signature of the Canadian Rockies
Snow Striped Peaks, a signature of the Canadian Rockies

Their bugles bounce off the nearby peaks and aretes in an attempt to intimidate and impress. In turn, impressed cows will present themselves to the crazed bull for mating. Yellow larch and aspen trees and turquoise glacial silt add a splash of vibrancy to the landscape with snow striped mountains.

Getting there

I landed in Calgary at around midnight Friday night/Saturday morning, hopped into my rental car and headed west for what would be a long weekend in the Canadian Rockies. Following the Trans-Canada Highway, I reached the Banff entrance gate in just over an hour.  Another hour beyond the park boundary was Lake Louise. With no time to waste, I didn’t stop. I had night photography on my mind, and needed to find a spot to do some shooting. At Lake Louise the Trans-Canada Highway intersects Alberta Highway-93, also known as The Icefields Parkway.

Looking north, Vega and traces of a distant aurora, or airglow, difficult to know for sure
Looking north, Vega and traces of a distant aurora, or airglow, difficult to know for sure

Following this road north I made my way to Peyto Lake, and took a stab at doing night photography on the moonless, but clear night. After a full day at work, plane ride to Calgary, and 3 hour drive into the rockies, I wasn’t feeling particularly ambitious for a night photo session. Plus I was here for the elk, so I took it relatively easy this first night, only shooting for 90 minutes.  At Peyto Lake, there was a hint of the Northern Lights to the north and some clouds moving through the sky. At 04:00 I broke down my gear and sought out a quiet parking lot to take a nap in, which I came upon a few miles down the road. I would cover the final two hours of the Icefields Parkway drive to Jasper the next morning…

Yellowstone Winter 2014: Canid

Update May 2017

A few weeks ago, when I heard the death of the 12 year old Canyon Alpha female, I held hope her injuries had been natural, not due to man. My disappointment was palpable when I learned she had in fact been shot. The bullet didn’t immediately kill her. The shooter only managed to fatally wound her. She still clung to life but, after surviving 12 years in Yellowstone’s unforgiving wilds, she was euthanized due to the injuries. Nature is brutal and a comfortable death is not expected for a wild animal, but it is a shame how this iconic wolf met her demise.

As the first wild wolf I ever saw, alongside her longtime mate, the Canyon pack Alpha female held a special place in my heart.

See below for album that includes photos of the White she wolf of Canyon Pack.

Dogs of Yellowstone: Wolves and Coyotes

I had several first time wildlife encounters on this trip. At the top of that list were wolves. A wild wolf is not an easy animal to see in its natural habitat.  In fact, the primary goal of last year’s winter trip to Yellowstone was for wolf photography, and I didn’t see a single wolf on that trip.  It serves as a costly but useful reminder that in a wild place, the wildlife are in charge. And that you need to adjust your approach to increase the likelihood of success of finding a given animal.  Fortunately, this trip was different, not only did I see wolves, I saw lots of them.  A lot of that had to do with spending more time in the Lamar Valley, having a vehicle, making better connections, and weeks of research to prepare.

Not only are wolves difficult to spot, they are even more difficult to photograph.  As an intelligent and alert species, they are naturally wary of humans and keep their distance.  On top of that, the wolves weren’t particularly active when the light was abundant.  In fact, most of my sightings were in the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset.  In other words it was usually dark out when I saw them.  I was forced to shoot with my lens wide-open and push the ISO to 1600, 3200 and in some cases 6400.  The rest of the trip I was rarely above ISO 100. 

But the first wolf encounter is something that resonates deep inside the human animal. Before seeing them, you first hear their howls.   Long, deep cries that carry over long distances.  Echoing through the valleys and off the mountains in the dark and cold morning twilight. The sound is primitive and shivering to the spinal column. The cries are answered by other wolves, but its not clear where they are. You know the general direction in which the sound originated, but it is difficult  to pinpoint an approximate location.  All you see are trees, snow, and shadows, each which is fair game for the wolf. And then all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, and not in a location that I expected, a gray wolf is seen bounding through deep snow across the top of a ridge with another wolf following…. 

The day (my second in the park) was off to an exciting start!  Not only had I seen my first wolves, but the previous day was productive, yielding many usable photos of bison, elk, sheep, and coyote. Well it turns out that the highlight of Day 2 was seeing the wolves at sunrise.  The weather was windy and snowy for most of the afternoon, of all the animals in Yellowstone that day, it was the wildlife that seemed to have better judgement, by staying bedded down all day.  There were barely any bison to photograph.  Later in the day, we became aware of an injured bull elk on a cliff overlooking Soda Butte. It was reported that wolves overnight had ripped open his left rear leg and backed him into the cliff.  The mortally wounded elk managed to fight off his attackers through the night and remained on the cliff, alive, till the following afternoon. It is not clear why the wolves left their prize unattended. Likely the elk’s antlers behaved like a bayonet, and gave him the advantage in the cliff’s close quarters.  But the wolves, as is often the case, appeared to have a plan and weren’t gone for good. In fact, it was like they simply “put the elk in the fridge” and would return at a less risky time, after he had bleed out.

Later in the week, we got even closer to the Canyon pack between Mammoth Hot Spring and the high bridge heading out towards Lamar.  We tracked a lone gray wolf with a bloodied throat along a ridge by Blacktail Creek.  It was making its way back and forth across the road.  It was not clear if the blood was from feeding or its own.  Afterall, it was the start of mating season and this lone wolf may have been injured by the pack’s alpha male.  Lastly, on this day we were fortunate to see a pack of wolves, including two coupled alphas on the start of mating season.  This pack was seen over 2 miles away, and the photo of this included here was on 1200mm focal length on a 1.3x crop body, giving 1560mm of optical reach, furthermore I cropped it by 100%, which means the equivalent zoom on this photo is approximately 3120mm.  A lens of this size would be extremely difficult to handhold, as it would probably be 10 feet long and weigh up to 500 lbs. The wolves were far and it goes without saying this photo has minimal photographic merit.  I just thought it was interesting to have a single photo of 7 wolves.

Coyotes are quite prevalent in Yellowstone in winter, frequently misleading visitors into thinking they have spotted a wolf.  As you can see by two of these photos, some coyotes suffer severe cases of mange and have lost significant amounts of hair.  This an extremely uncomfortable and possibly deadly disorder for these animals when the temperatures drop to -56F like it did during our visit there.

Here is a huge dump of the various “dog” photos from Yellowstone….