Willem Lange: Mastering the Art of Filming Wildlife
As the old calendar in front of me reaches the end of its life and is lifted off the desk to reveal the new one waiting beneath, the focus of my imagination shifts from the recent past to the future. The rifles in the gun cabinet seem to take on the glow of an Old Masters painting in deep tones of American walnut and blued steel. When my wife, years ago, gave me the shell of the cabinet, I customized the interior to contain two enthusiasms. So, while the rifles and shotgun settle down for another 10 months’ wait, the fishing rods, in their own assigned slots to the right of them, begin to assume a new importance. We’re ready, they suggest impatiently, whenever you are. It won’t be long, I answer; we’ll be fishing again with Alfred in about five months. That, in turn, reminds me of my fairly recent introduction to Alfred.
It arrived in an unprepossessing little package — clearly a CD or DVD — and I confess it took me a couple of weeks to get to it. Finally, in an idle moment, I opened the mailer, stuck the enclosed disk — a DVD — into the computer, and settled back with a cup of coffee.
A man in New England wool hunting togs stands at the edge of a thicket a rod or so from the camera. Speaking in the purest New Hampshire accent I’ve heard in decades, he introduces himself — Alfred is his name — and hopes the viewer will enjoy the following video footage of wildlife he’s taken around his home and property.
I expected to see chickadees or cardinals at a feeder, probably a minute or two of deer on the far side of a field, and maybe some distant shots of nervous loons diving out of sight. But within a minute, I was hooked. There were loons, all right, up close, three of them in full cry — the microphone on Alfred’s tiny video camera is surprisingly good — apparently engaging in a courtship display. The male thrashed his feet and wings till practically his whole body, with its pure white breast distended, rose vertically out of the water time after time. The other two cruised in circles around the display, calling in that unmistakable yodel I remember so well from early-season fishing trips in northern Maine and New Hampshire.
As the loons faded away, a beautiful bobcat, on the qui vive and taking nothing for granted, zigzagged slowly through the woods toward Alfred’s camera and a smear of blood in late-winter snow. Then followed a porcupine, close up, chomping busily on low-growing leaves. Right away, I sent the DVD to New Hampshire Public Television, with a note: This is a guy we’ve got to meet!
If you think Downton Abbey’s driveway is long, you haven’t seen Alfred’s. He lives in the woods at the end of a dirt road east of Lyme Center. But he has electricity and Internet; we got in touch and set up a date to meet and do some fishing. Scheduling a shoot with two busy videographers, a boat, a canoe, four life jackets, paddles and oars, fishing gear, and camera equipment is about as complicated as D-Day. Early the appointed morning, we all met at the Dartmouth Skiway and set off for a nearby pond to look for loons, moose and fish.
We drove for about half an hour, the last half-mile over probably one of the worst roads in New Hampshire — left that way, probably, to protect the pond. Alfred’s truck was old, and his skiff even older. I liked him at first sight. Compact, muscular, neatly bearded and contained, he handled the boats with the assurance of decades of experience. Modestly, he demurred at being filmed for the program. “Are you kidding?” I said. “This is New Hampshire Public Television, and you’ve got the most nearly perfect New Hampshire accent I’ve ever heard! You gotta be in it.”
It rapidly becomes obvious, when you set out to film wildlife, how much patience and skill it takes to be successful. We saw no moose and two or three loons, who let us get within 50 yards, and caught one small bass. Later, at Alfred’s house, we did get shots of a black bear. Alfred lives on the north edge of relatively unbroken forest and has an advantage in the bear department: One of his neighbors, Ben Kilham, raises and releases orphaned or injured bears, who tend to hang around. Alfred knows their habits, and sometimes sits for hours in a blind near his house to film them.
When I got home that evening, I played Alfred’s DVD again, and was even more amazed than I was at first. He moves so silently, or not at all, through the woods that he sees more than most of us even suspect: a merganser with three chicks paddling madly behind, imitating her every move; two bear cubs playing on a downed dead tree like daredevil kids on a jungle gym; a bull moose nearing the rut, unsure whether to run or contest the passage; a close-up of a white-faced hornets’ nest, what Robert Frost calls “the pupil of a loaded gun”; a family of otters sliding happily through pond weed. A red fox, bothered by the noise of the wind, hunts through tall grass and finally pounces successfully for some fat rodent, which it bears away to its kids. A coyote, its fur fluffy against the winter, walks toward the camera, which is perched behind a deer carcass in the snow. Suddenly the coyote spots what’s going on, and leaps away in the most comical fashion, like a pronghorn, stopping twice to look quizzically over its shoulder before it disappears.
I went back a second time, and we had pretty much the same poor luck fishing as on the first. But I took the guideboat, which makes fishing as comfortable as sitting in an armchair — and you sit at each end, 12 feet apart, not in each other’s way, chatting as easily as in a drawing room. Today, just as I was gazing at the rods in the cabinet and dreaming of the perfect moment of this year’s first fish striking, I got this e-mail: “When we fish (the pond) next spring we will catch some nice bass!” I hate to tell him, but as lovely as it is to catch some nice bass, it almost doesn’t matter.
Willem Lange’s column appears here Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.