Story and Photos by Gordon & Cathy Illg
The day before Thanksgiving we took a short drive hoping to see some bighorn sheep. Maybe it was because we were already in holiday mode, maybe it was just nice to lie in bed on a cold morning. Whatever the reason, we ended up sleeping in and eating a leisurely breakfast. By the time we made it to the Waterton Canyon trailhead it was already 11 a.m., and we had a couple of miles to walk—not exactly the behavior we endorse in our wildlife photography lectures. Do as we say, not as we do.However, even though the sun was high and we didn’t expect to come home with any great shots, it was nice to get out and walk. About 2 1/2 miles up the road we spotted the sheep feeding on a hillside. We climbed about 100 feet above the road, trying to guess which direction the sheep were feeding, and then we sat and waited. Sometimes the magic works. In less than 20 minutes, the sheep fed their way right past where we were sitting. And even though the light wasn’t great, we congratulated ourselves on being accepted so close to the herd.
We thought our day with the bighorns was pretty much over, but by the time we picked our way back down the hill to the road, the animals were standing beside it only 1/4 mile away. We worked our way up to the herd, shooting as we went, and stopping when they looked up at us. Before we knew it we were a part of the herd. We worried a bit about disturbing them, until they walked right up to me as I was kneeling beside the road. To top things off, the light changed. Heavy clouds, the forerunners of a Thanksgiving snowstorm, swallowed the sun, giving us even light with very little contrast.
For more than an hour we had bighorn sheep on all sides of us, sometimes close enough to touch. The rams were touching noses with the ewes and checking to see who was ready to mate. The ewes were concentrating on eating for the most part, although a couple of them were flashing encouraging glances at the rams—probably just teasing. The lambs of the year seemed caught up in the overall excitement, trotting back and forth from one group to another. Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a group that would have me as a member.” Even though we were obviously the deficient members, it was incredible to be accepted, even as only honorary members, by a group like this. When we turned to walk away, we had bighorns walking all around us for the first 50 feet or so, as if they actually enjoyed our company. Most likely we were so unimportant they were just ignoring us, but it’s nice to pretend.
It ended up being the most productive bighorn shoot we’ve ever had, but that was secondary. It was the experience, the unlikely opportunity to be an uncoordinated member of the herd that was so special. The most important thing the cameras did was drag us out of the house, giving us a chance to see something so wondrous. I want to reiterate that we advocate getting up early and trying to capture your subject in that golden sunrise light. However, sleeping in apparently works for us…no, no, no. That’s not the lesson here. The lesson here is that if you can only get away in the middle of the day, go then. You never know what treasures are waiting for you.
Cathy and Gordon Illg have been full-time nature photographers since 2000. Now their livelihood is dependent upon their ability to share the magic of wild things and wild places with other photographers. Their work is widely published and includes numerous covers of magazines like Backpacker, Defenders, National Geographic Young Explorer, Ranger Rick and National Wildlife. Several of their images decorate the tails of Frontier Airlines’ jets, and they’ve done well in photo contests, the highlight of which was being flown to London to accept awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest. Both of their first two books, Dynamic Wildlife Photography and Worshipping With A Camera, have been well received, and they lead nature photography tours under the name Adventure Photography. Information on their photo tours and blogs can be found on their website, www.advenphoto.com.