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Story Behind the Picture: The Cat’s Whiskers

Nikon D3s, Nikon 600mm, f8, 1/640 second

There may be a proportion of the world who enjoy taking cheap shots at the USA (especially with the current resident in the White House) and who constantly ask, “what did the Americans ever do for us?” Well just stop for a moment. If nothing else they came us with the concept of the national park (they of course have come up with a whole lot more besides). Yellowstone was the first and it was signed into law as a park by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Where would the world be now without the concept?

Today, Yellowstone remains one of the great national parks of the world, but it is of course seen as ‘America’s playground’ and is consequently extremely busy, at least in the spring, summer and autumn seasons. Winter, however, is a different deal. It is relatively quiet and in my opinion showcases the park and its extraordinary wildlife to best effect. In the depths of winter the landscape takes on an ethereal harsh beauty, with the juxtaposition of fairytale frosts, ice and snow set against swirling mists and rising steam from countless geothermal features. The park is laden with atmosphere and provides endless inspiration and opportunities for photographers.

After watching and photographing this bobcat along the Madison River, the cat climbed the valley side and before disappearing turn back for a final glance. Pure magic.

I try to return each year in January to run one or two photo tours and over the course of the past decade have enjoyed any number of fabulous wildlife encounters and photographic experiences. Arguably the most memorable was a morning spent with this bobcat along the Madison River. The cat had been seen a number of times over the previous days, so when we reached 7 Mile Bridge in our snow coach, we were already keeping our eyes peeled and looking intently at every woodpile or stand of rushes by the river. We searched for over two hours. Nothing.

At Madison Junction we did a U-turn to head back downstream for another go. Somewhere near the Mt Hayes overlook, something caught my eye on the edge of water. A trace of movement that didn’t quite seem ‘right’. We stopped the snow coach and I got out to look properly through binoculars. The cats’ camouflage in amongst the broken rocks was sublime, but its outline was unmistakable. When I spotted it, the cat was crouched, but by now it was standing and set off walking, picking its way carefully from rock to rock along the edge of the river. Because of the bend in the river, it was some way off, but the river soon curved back towards the road and if the cat continued walking it would shortly be much closer. We decided to move further downstream to get ahead and hopefully we might then have a chance of the cat walking towards us.

It’s not often plans like this work, let alone work perfectly. But this one did. I took up a position close to the water’s edge, with one of my clients next to me and others in prime spots for the angle they had chosen. And we didn’t have to wait long. Soon the bobcat rounded the bend in the river and continued to walk nonchalantly towards us. Some of the time it moved just off the rocks and through the snow before then returning to the water’s edge. It didn’t pause until it was perhaps 15m away, then it stopped and looked at us and surveyed what lay ahead, then continued on its way. Within an instant it was was too close for me to focus and I moved back away from the river to watch it pass. It barely turned a hair.

We followed it further downstream, walking along the road wit the cat 30m to 40m away still by the river. I was so absorbed I lost track of time, but at some point the cat stopped and then turned away from the river to climb the hill. We of course continued to take photos as it ascended the slope, gradually moving further away. Then it wandered through a wood pile and climbed along a fallen branch before turning casually to glance backwards and look at me. It was an unforgettable and beautiful moment.