By John Warden
‘I saw that’, I said to Murray Phillips.
Murray is a wonderful Canadian painter whose work focuses on capturing the elusive beauty of the western wilderness. He lives in B.C., but a lot of his work is from Banff, Jasper, Kananaskis and Waterton. Murray has long white hair, a huge white beard and a twinkle in his eye. He’s very personable, amiable even and passionate about his work. He’s easy to talk to and we were chatting as I stood in front of one of his canvasses at an art show in Edmonton. ‘I was right there’ I said wistfully, remembering the incident.
Attending a conference at the Banff Springs Hotel, I had gone back to my hotel room around 4:00 PM. I happened to glance out the window and there was the scene as captured in Murray Phillip’s painting. It was one of those moments. The October light cast warm, yellow-gold, rays over the Banff Springs Golf Course and the Bow River. Downstream, a big bull elk with a massive rack was standing guard in the middle of the river while his harem waded across. The elk were lit up by the light coming from the west, while the river behind them faded to darkness. Lighting conditions like this are called ‘chiaroscuro’ (light / dark) and for painters and photographers it doesn't get much better.
For me though, there were several problems. The elk were quite a distance away, at least half a kilometer or so and I was still dressed in a suit. My cameras though, were right there beside the bed. I had to try! Pulling my tie off, I jumped into blue jeans and running shoes, grabbed my camera bag and I was away, sprinting through the hallways and down the stairs of the Banff Springs Hotel.
Once I was out onto the golf course the pathways led me to the elk. I got within camera range just as the last of them scrambled up the bank of the Bow River.
Phillip’s painting is really quite wonderful, it’s a large piece and he has elegantly captured the lighting and the drama of the river crossing.
‘I almost had that picture’, I said to Phillips. And that’s one of the differences between photography and painting.
The following year, I went back to Banff, looking for the elk crossing the river, I was ready, excited. I was in the right place at the right time, but one of the golf course attendants said he didn't think the elk used that route anymore.
I walked the river bank hoping, but no luck. I finally found the herd down at the far end of the golf course. By then, it was cold, overcast and the light was fading. The bulls were bugling though, a wild, exhilarating sound. And then it started to snow. Perfection. I was definitely in the right place at the right time and I got the shot. Not of the elk crossing the river, but of a young bull with a nice rack, bugling as the snow falls around him.
That’s the thing about being out there in nature. You might not get what you want, but by being open to the possibilities, by taking the time to really see the potential of the moment, there’s always something.
Another morning I was into Jasper National Park at dawn and came across a couple of cars parked along the side of the highway, usually a sign that someone has seen something interesting. I stopped and sure enough, there was a big bull elk in the meadow, standing guard over his harem. It was still too dark for photographs but I walked over to the edge of the meadow, standing back in the bush to wait for more light.
The big bull was amazing. He carried a massive rack of antlers and in the cool morning air, his breath was steaming. He was agitated, bugling and running around the meadow trying to keep his harem together.
Then people started showing up. A videographer set up his tripod, and then two still photographers wearing camouflage clothing and balaclavas appeared ninja-like out of the bushes. Cameras were whirling and clicking away, there was a flurry of activity and then suddenly everyone was gone, the Ninja photographers melting into the morning shadows.
I decided to wait. It took about thirty minutes or so, but when the light came up, I got the shot and it’s a great shot.
It was another day at Jasper when I finally got my ‘elk crossing the river shot’. Late one afternoon, I was coming out of the Lake Annette loop by Jasper Park Lodge. I looked down from a viewpoint and saw a heard of elk on the far side of the Athabasca River. They were just about to cross. I parked my car and was off on foot, scrambling down the river bank, through the trees and bush to try and ‘be there’ in the right place at the right time.
I got the shot. It’s not the panoramic view that Murray Phillips captured in his painting, but that’s his. Mine is a tighter shot with a long lens. The bull elk has a wild ‘rut’ look in his eye, the river water is streaming off of his flanks and he’s looking back to make sure that the last of his harem got across the river okay.
Painters and photographers, we see the same things and go to the same places and this time, by being there, I got the shot.