Chasing the Light and Chasing the Wolves08/02/2023 10:53AM ● By Mary Jackson
(Photography by Abby Jensen Photography.)
Steamboat Springs, CO - I had a chance to catch up with Abby Jensen, wildlife photographer, after she returned from a trip to Northern Manitoba, Canada where she spent one week observing and documenting the cloud wolf pack near Churchill Wild’s most remote eco lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. This subarctic climate zone, known for brutal long winters with temperatures dipping as low as -40 F at night, is home to packs of some of the only truly wild wolves humans are able to observe in an organized sense. That is, this wolf pack, also known as the Opoyastin pack, does not wear tracking collars, like the packs in Yellowstone, for example. They have never been hunted so they are curious about human activity in a unique way. They are just beginning to be studied thanks to Churchill Wild’s efforts to bring humans and wolves closer. Literally closer. Nanuk Lodge is located near the Kaskattama River in an area more than ten times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Yet, here photographers like Abby can walk in the footsteps of this pack and observe them as they are in their element.
“I was hopeful that we would see wolves on multiple occasions,” she says. “I was not expecting them to want to see us!” She was surprised at how close the wolves came to the human group. “One day the wolves settled near the lodge and we were able to spend nearly the entire day with them. It seemed that our group and the pack had a flow between us. This day we observed the respect the pack has for the Churchill Wild guides. A clearly established hierarchy was honored between pack and humans, with simple physical language.”
This, she says, was one of the highest points of the trip. “Balance between humanity and nature is not easy. Churchill Wild seems to have figured this out. This pack is not invasively studied by humans, not hunted by humans and is basically left to live as they do. This respect for them seems to have fostered a balance between humanity and the wolf pack. I believe this way of interacting allows for a more even playing field between humanity and nature. We need to find a way to weave worlds together for the success of everyone, and that’s not a simple task.”
In Steamboat Springs, the subject of reintroducing wolves is not new. We are aware of the packs of gray wolves that have been spotted in Jackson County. As we navigate Colorado’s (narrowly approved) reintroduction of the species in 2020, photographers like Abby Jensen can also help us observe, through photographs, these animal’s behaviors in the wild.
“The first day out when we came upon the pack feeding on a moose kill,” Abby remembers. “None of us expected to spend nearly five hours out in the field that first afternoon. I didn’t have hand warmers…I was so blown away I didn’t even know my hands were cold; it didn’t matter. To experience the pack happy and satisfied after a full meal in beautiful light was unimaginable.”
Always fascinated by wolves, Abby and her father talked about photographing wolves together for years. When her father was approaching 80, she knew trip planning was a priority.
“When I learned about the cloud wolf expedition I knew it was the trip to take,” she says. “When I go on a trip like this, I spend a lot of time researching the wildlife that I may encounter. So I would have to say that the wolves looked like I was expecting and behaved like I was expecting, but I got to experience so much more. Their natural curiosity really showed when we would encounter the pack. They had a clear structure - they would, mostly in pairs, come up fairly close to investigate, sometimes breaking into singles and separating while walking the perimeter around one or two of the human guides. As I expected, they were large, beautiful canines. It was really something to see the size of their paws up close and their expressive eyes, and of course their very large sharp teeth. I try to remain very open to what I’m going to experience. In doing this, I allow my wildlife encounters to really build my knowledge base of the animal during a specific encounter. As much as we try not to - we always have an impact. I would like mine to be as honest and positive as possible. In practicing this openness to an experience, I stick to just photographing and taking everything in around me, saving the processing for when I get home.”
Much of what makes Abby’s photographs intriguing is that she does not overuse imaging software for her work, rather she uses it like a darkroom – it is simply a tool. All of the light captured in her photographs is real and what is printed on paper is what she saw the moment she took it. She is a purest in that sense and that is why she easily spends hours, sometimes weeks and months, waiting outside in the elements for the precise moment to capture. The framed piece on the gallery wall is exactly what she witnessed in the wild. The hours it took to capture that image are another story only she can tell.