It’s the Finnish lemming migration that did it. Rivers of small pudgy furbearers rippling across the tundra, their sights firmly set on destinations unknown, and my friend Tarja right in the thick of things, camera in hand. Trying not to crush any participant in this exodus underfoot, trying to gather in the hurtling brown shapes with her camera lens like so many fish in a net.
It finally shamed me into photographic action – not so much the lemmings as the knowledge of the lengths my friend has to go to for taking wildlife pictures. She will set off into some forsaken, bug-infested bog at 2 a.m. in the pursuit of strutting grouse, hide in a cramped, clammy blind at some ungodly hour to shoot pictures of owls and drive endlessly to catch up with the lemmings. Whereas out here, it’s just a matter of toting a camera along. A grouse drums in our garden every spring, easily observed after a good night’s sleep and with a coffee in hand.
I can’t help but feel though that there is a certain degree of soul snatching involved, trying to distill the essence of what I see into a photograph. Somehow, something of what I’m looking at is lost when I pare it down to a little square, fiddling with exposure settings and composition. It’s not snatched from the land or animal but from the picture I end up with and from myself because I’ve been concentrating on a gadget instead of what’s really there.
It’s not so bad with landscapes: they’re still in place after the picture is taken, even the light often lingers for another moment. But something of the mood is lost to me after I treat it as an object, reduce it to palm size. Animals drift and move, the subtle expressions of their bodies constantly expressing the land around them and their relationship with it. I cannot possibly gather it all in with a sensor in a metal case, the sky, the summer smells and sounds, the vibrations of hooves on the ground and the wind on my skin.
Animals I see only rarely, like wolves and grizzly bears, I’m loathe to photograph, to squander the moment for a picture that will fail to do them justice. Writing about it is different somehow. I do it later and it feeds off the full unadulterated experience. No soul snatching there, it seems.
But now, spurred on by the latest efforts of my Finnish friend, I feel compelled to at least try and take some decent pictures of our beaver neighbours. They are familiar and easy enough to observe. Something in exchange for the pictures I’ve been emailed by my friend.
Careful not to bump into the beaver lodge with my canoe, I listen. We haven’t seen any sign of them this spring – what if they died over the winter? I can barely make out a faint mewing sound, but does it come from the beaver lodge or the birds? The wind nudges me against the mudpacked pile of sticks. Just as I put down my camera to grab the paddle, a brown mat of fluffy, luxurious fur floats out of the lodge, followed underwater by two more beavers. They’re alive!
I nose the canoe further out into the lake where late-evening sunshine sprinkles small golden pools across the water surface. It’s like floating on the skin of a rainbow trout. The beavers circle closer, glossy fur sticking up from the one that didn’t dive yet, giving him the appearance of a mobile hairbrush. I grope for my camera again as one of the beavers swims up behind him and rests her chin on his back. Click.
When the wind drifts me back towards shore, my beaver entourage follows. Two of them swim to what seems to be their pantry at the bottom entry of the lodge and pull out a couple of sticks. Pushing them onto shore, the beavers rest their dinner of bark against the slick rocks and start eating. The rodent sound of busy chewing becomes interspersed with the clicks of my camera. It’s when the beavers slip back into the water that I put my gadget away, happy that I’ve done my duty and can now simply float on the sunset water, its icy chill undulating underneath my feet.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.