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How I Shot It – Mountain Lion With Kittens
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This isn’t so much a post about the technical aspects of how I got this shot so much as it is a reminder to listen to your intuition. A lot of people confuse intuition with overthinking a certain situation. Intuition does not come with weighing the pros and the cons, nor does it come with analyzing options. It is usually referred to as a gut instinct that often requires you to change your plans to fully experience the true outcome of what it is it’s calling you to.
Such was the case when I got this photo of a mountain lion mother with her two, nearly grown, kittens. (On a side note, it’s been suggested multiple times that these are three kittens. In the tracks I had found that morning, as well as the next day, there was definitely a larger set, implying it was in fact a mother with kittens). I had spent much of the morning snowshoeing along their tracks for a couple of miles after discovering those tracks. Before I even realized it, I ended up on top of Blacktail Butte and was thus a bit exhausted from the day. I had intended to spend the afternoon and evening relaxing, but a little voice popped in my head late in the afternoon and as I looked out the window, I had an urge to head out to do a bit more photographing. It was a subtle calling that it made it seem like my evening would be better spent poking around outside rather than sitting on the computer. Almost reluctantly, I grabbed my gear and headed out the door.
Having spent much of the morning in one particular area following cougar tracks and coming up with not very much at all, I opted to explore another area nearby home. I saw a few coyotes out in the distance and that’s when the urge popped back up again to go back to where I was this morning. I turned around and headed back out that way not really knowing what to expect or if it would even pay off. After all, I go out looking for wildlife all the time and come up unsuccessful many times. Yet in this instance, I almost felt compelled to be at this location. There was an almost subtle thrill about the potential discovery of something that remained unknown.
I parked my car and began to hike back out to where I initially saw the mountain lion tracks earlier that day, and after cresting just one small hill, I looked up from the trail and right there in the same trail were three animals huddled together that I had never seen before. I’m always fascinated by what a unique experience it is to see a predator in the wild for the first time. I have had the same reaction every time whether it’s a cougar, grizzly bear, or wolf: I have absolutely no idea what that animal is. As I raised the camera to eye out of instinct, I was already in the process of trying to apply a label on it for an animal I was familiar with, but before I could finish that thought, peering through 400mm of zoom, I noticed exactly what they were: a mountain lion mother with her two kittens looking curiously and cautiously back at me. After snapping a few shots and subsequently realizing what I was looking at, I lowered the camera and took in exactly what it was I was experiencing. Right in front of me was one of the most elusive predators in North America with kittens, sitting right there out in the open! Not only was it a highly unusual place to find them, but the sun was just about to set over the Teton Mountains to the west, casting a stunning golden light over all of them as they carefully examined my every move.
The excitement and giddiness swelled within me as I tried to look as non-aggressive as possible, while still attempting to get some shots of them. After capturing the above photo, they began to flee in the opposite direction, much to my dismay. I managed to capture one or two more decent shots before switching to video as they began their ascent up Blacktail Butte for the evening, gracefully outpacing me with the greatest of ease.
I knew exactly why I had gotten that shot. It was not from careful planning, or listening to reports of where something might have been, or even just going out for another sunset shot. I was content with being home for the evening, but there was an urge that compelled me not to just get out, but to also be at that location. Without any doubt, I followed it, and it led me to one of the most treasured shots I have always wanted to get. It is this very gut feeling that can also be referred to as instincts in animals and wildlife. For humans, it is a feeling to follow not because you think it could be rewarding, but for the anticipation of what you’re being led to. Over four years earlier, it was this very instinct that compelled me to break off a rewarding relationship I was in and move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming without a job or a place to live, both of which fell into place in perfect timing once I committed to following the call to pursue wildlife photography full-time. Every artist knows of it and I hear photographers locally speak of it all the time. It is exactly how wildlife photographers find the ideal shots, just like how painters will tell you it is not the end result they’re trying to achieve, but rather it’s the process that brings them the most fun, watching as the painting takes form as each instinctive stroke creates a new surprise on the canvas, resulting in new options that lead to a finished piece.
It is never an end result we’re craving, it’s the discovery leading to that end result. It’s the process of finding what it is we’re wanting that creates the fun of life. When people look back on their lives, it’s not uncommon to hear people fondly refer to tumultuous times as a roller coaster of unexpected events that have led up to where they are now. This was something I learned while living back in Arizona. I would venture out into the mountains having no idea where I was going, but loving every turn that was triggered by an impulse to see what was down a random road. I wound up in extraordinarily scenic and remote high desert locations that continually surprised and delighted me, all from following a random impulse that took me off my anticipated route. Listen to that voice, and listen to that impulse. You never know what’s just over a small hill, hiding from public view.