“Beavers hate the sound of running water; they are always looking for ways to stop it.”
We couldn’t tell if Kurt Johnson, our naturalist guide, was joking but we suspected there was a twinkle in his eye as we passed Lake Creek and the series of abandoned dams and lodges that had created the small pond in the stream’s flow. After all, if anyone should know the peculiarities of Grand Teton wildlife, it was Johnson. Although it was less than an hour after dawn, he had already appraised us of the full variety of flora and fauna we were likely to encounter this morning.
The beavers may have been absent, but as we made our way along Moose Wilson Road in the lee of the Cathedral Group – the central massif of the Teton Range – Johnson quickly pointed out several enormous bull elk, a half dozen skittish pronghorns, a scattering of mule deer, ever present ground squirrels and a lone bull bison, busily trying to shed his thick winter coat in a dirt hole. Johnson then pulled his van up to the sight of several photographers with long lenses at the ready.
The object of their attention was a rare great grey owl, basking in the early sun. “It often hangs out here first thing in the morning,” Kurt revealed. “These guys come from miles around to catch a glimpse. It’s a majestic bird.” Indeed it was. The “Phantom of the North” is the largest owl in the world and it exhibits all the supposed sagacity of its species. This particular example was probably taking a rest after being on the hunt in the pre-dawn hour, Johnson suggested.
And so it went, with the splendours of Grand Teton National Park unrolling in front of our eyes, and Johnson effortlessly detailing what we were seeing. The geology, the plants, the wildlife, the climate; it was a master-class in exposition. His vast knowledge made sense: Kurt was a biology teacher before trading in the classroom for the great outdoors.
He has been studying and photographing the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem for more than a decade, and he authored one of the most definitive works on this vast and precious region. His Field Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks is currently being re-published as part of the National Park Service Centenary.
“For me, the book is a big part of my relationship with the parks,” he explained. “It took about 10 years to finalize and is something I am very passionate about.”
Kurt was smitten with Mother Nature as a kid, growing up in Virginia and making regular trips into the Adirondacks in New York State to get up close and personal with his youthful infatuation. “I grew up knowing I loved animals and wanted to work with wildlife in some capacity,” he said. “And that’s how I found myself here. Greater Yellowstone is an intact ecosystem of some 18 million acres. It’s really rare in the world and, in many ways, Grand Teton is at the heart of it.”
“People come here for the skiing and hiking, and discover the amazing wildlife, which, in many ways, is more diverse than Yellowstone [National Park] – and it is all backed by the majesty of the mountains themselves,” he added, pointing to the sheer, vast bulk of the Cathedral Group crowding the western skyline.
To me, there is nothing more distinctive and beautiful than the Tetons in the first light of morning.
“To me, there is nothing more distinctive and beautiful than the Tetons in the first light of morning. Seeing them light up as the sun strikes the peaks is a truly amazing experience. It is a rare sight everyone should see – and I am blessed to see it every day.”
Kurt’s main recommendation for any visitor to Grand Teton National Park is to be up and out at dawn, waiting for that transcendent moment of illumination, preferably at Schwabacher’s Landing where the extensive beaver-created ponds catch the jagged heights in their reflected glory. It certainly worked for movie director George Stevens in 1953, when he captured some of that magnificence as the backdrop to his epic western, Shane.
“[The mountains] have been here for millions of years, the youngest part of the Rockies,” Kurt mused. “There are few places in the world that have this kind of sharp backdrop from the way they were formed. And there are even fewer with the range of flora and fauna we have.”
Kurt’s passion for the great outdoors has led to other wildlife guide gigs further afield, traveling north beyond the Arctic Circle, where he conducts master-classes in photography and astronomy.
“I’m lucky enough to be a guide in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic at other times of the year, and it helps give me the big picture of understanding the ecosystem of a whole continent,” he said. “But I keep coming back [to Grand Teton National Park]. Among other things, it is a Disneyland for photographers, the perfect place to try to capture the imagery of nature. And that’s what I hope most people take away with them – a great photo.”
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