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Steamboat Magazine

Frozen Moments

04/23/2020 01:22PM ● By Alesha Damerville

Copyright by Thomas Mangelsen Images of Nature. Republished by Steamboat Magazine Ski Season 2018/9

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

By Todd Wilkinson 

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – During his youth, wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen ran a trapline until one day when he caught a raccoon that was missing a front paw. The critter had chewed it off to escape an earlier incident when the paw had been caught in the steel jaws of a trap.   

Later, as a college student, a prominent waterfowl biologist gave Mangelsen a research project. His assignment: Document how ducks come in and off of marshy nests. The life-changing tool he was given: a camera. 

For the last four decades, Mangelsen has devoted himself to celebrating – and conserving – wildlife using nature photography as a medium. In 2011, he was named “Nature’s Best” Conservation Photographer of the Year. In 2017, a producer from “60 Minutes” who was on vacation in Steamboat Springs stopped by the Mangelsen Images of Nature Gallery and was so stunned by Mangelsen’s dramatic grizzly bear picture, “Mountain Outlaw,” that the CBS news show aired a profile of the photographer in spring 2018. It featured observations from Mangelsen’s friend, primatologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, as the two of them observed 100,000 sandhill cranes massing along Nebraska’s Platte River on their way north in March.  

“One of the qualities that I love about Tom is his passion,” Goodall said in the ‘60 Minutes’ interview. “It's when you have that kind of passion and that kind of commitment that you're more likely to get other people involved. Because we can never win an argument by appealing to people's heads. It's got to be in the heart. I use the power of storytelling and writing, and Tom uses the power of images.

“All of us will rise to protect what we love,” Mangelsen says. “For me, I want to give viewers a visual connection to the last wild places on earth and the sometimes rare or imperiled species that inhabit them. If they can encounter them every day, they will open their hearts, and then they will care, and that is the first step in becoming a defender of the natural world.” 

Mangelsen condemned Wyoming’s push to recommence a trophy sport season of grizzlies after a four-decade-long absence when the population in Greater Yellowstone was brought back from the brink of disappearing.  Last summer, he made global headlines when he applied for a coveted bear hunting tag in Wyoming and won one in the lottery. Mangelsen said he would use the tag to shoot a bear, not with a rifle, but with his Nikon D5 camera, as he has always done.   

At age 72, he says there is no such thing as a retirement that would allow him to stop caring about animals that have no voice. He is a founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers, which comprises many of the world’s most renowned photographers who are committed to following the ethical practice of their craft. For example, members agree never to take pictures of captive animals at game farms, “where animals are rented out by the hour like models,” he says. 

Mangelsen, who makes his home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the jagged peaks of the Tetons rising outside his living room window, says winter is one of his favorite elements. For him, “cold” is a relative term.  

To Mangelsen, the memory of low thermometer readings actually delivers a warm and fuzzy feeling in looking back across his nearly half-century career behind the lens. Some of his most resonant images have emerged from almost cryogenic conditions that could turn a glass of tap water, its contents tossed skyward, into an instant poof of smoke-like powder. 

There was the time in Yellowstone National Park when the ambient temperature along the Madison River was about 20 degrees below zero. “Balmy,” Mangelsen says with a wry expression, noting that a biting 40-mile-an-hour breeze had created a wind-chill factor three times as cold. Mangelsen’s high-tech mitts had been tossed aside into the snow, his bare hands exposed to the extremes. They were turning blue, yet a single index finger was frozen in place to the shutter button. He refused to cower. A wild bobcat he had heard about for years was now prowling the streamside, coming into view, picking off ducks with ice on their wings, and Mangelsen didn’t want to miss the shot.  

And then there was a fleeting stretch of evanescence before sunset, out on the frozen ice pack of Hudson Bay, when a polar bear with an arctic fox at its side lifted its head and sniffed into the breeze, trying to locate a seal. Mangelsen, then employing an arsenal of pre-digital Canons and Nikons, didn’t know if the cameras would still function. His tenacious determination delivered the image “Born of the North Wind,” counted today among the finest examples of wildlife-related nature photography ever composed.  

“The clarity of mountain air in winter is unlike any other season,” Mangelsen says. “It seems to close the space between you and your subjects. It enhances the sensation of intimacy, at least for me. I love being able to have viewers know the pure joy I felt being out there in the middle of January and having them along as vicarious witnesses.” 

“I savor winter because each new day can be stunningly different from the one that preceded it. It is a parade of life and death, survival and empathy for the other creatures sharing it with you,” he says, observing the chiseled, snow-sheathed summit of the Grand Teton rising through his window.  

Steamboat and the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies have yielded some of Mangelsen’s most celebrated pastorals, such as the triptych “Colorado Splendor,” a portrayal of Wilson Peak on the Uncompahgre National Forest. 

Slopes blanketed with aspens around Steamboat are, for him, a four-season muse – botanic and life-affirming in spring and summer, radiant and effervescent in autumn and “surreally-wonderfully austere” in winter, he says. “Many of my panoramics in the West feature aspens and whenever possible I enjoy being there when a herd of elk or maybe a coyote or red fox moves through the scene. Wildlife pull your eye in, but it’s the landscape backdrop that enables you to wander. Hopefully, it allows you to discover something new about nature and remind you of the strong feelings you have every time you return.” 

·       Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning environmental journalist who writes for National Geographic and has written several acclaimed books, including a biography about the environmental legacy of CNN founder turned bison rancher Ted Turner.