Portraits of wilderness


Accomplished photographer, scientist, and wilderness advocate, Brendan Wiltse, shares a tale from adventures in conservation in a wild (and as yet unprotected) corner of New York’s Adirondack Park.

The cliffs of Eagle Mountain and the setting for the author’s story. Brendan Wiltse

Hunkered down below a bush I peer over the cliff’s edge, scanning an adjacent rock face, looking for signs of a Peregrine Falcon nest. My heart is racing, not only because I may have the opportunity to capture an enigmatic shot of a bird family that just may help save them, but because I absolutely cannot let myself get caught. I’m trespassing. Not from the perspective of the landowners of this cliff face, but from the perspective of the falcons themselves. They are extremely sensitive to disturbance and will not tolerate a potential predator so close to their nest. I spot signs of droppings on the cliff, a tell-tale sign that a nest is just above, but there is no way to get clear sight of the nest without giving away my position.

Twenty-five feet behind me my dog Khyber is laying down. Normally, I wouldn’t take him on an outing to photograph wildlife, but today was more about scouting than getting a specific photograph. He’s a ten-year-old black Labrador retriever, and with many years of training, is the most well-behaved dog I have ever had the pleasure of calling my partner. I retreat to his side, momentarily assessing where we are headed off to next. I notice him sniffing over his shoulder, away from the cliff face. I stand to continue on, away from the nesting falcons. As I do, a face appears over a downed log twenty feet away. A black bear is peering back at us. It seems as though we’ve been caught trespassing after all.

Black Bear. ©Susan C. Morse

Khyber rises, spots the bear, but stays still. He knows he hasn’t been given the go ahead to roam freely and as tempting as it is to greet the bear he stays put. At the same time, I hear a noise further in the distance, three cubs scamper up a tree. My heart begins racing again as I realize I am between a cliff face and a mother bear with cubs. Khyber and I slowly circle the mother and her cubs, she keeps herself between us and them, as they watch from above. Once we no longer have the cliff to our back, we move away. The cubs scamper back down the tree and head down the opposite side of the mountain with their mom.

Peregrine Falcon. Brendan Wiltse

This was my experience two hours into my first visit to the Eagle Mountain Preserve. Just a few months prior, Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Deputy Director, Cathleen Maine, had reached out to me about a photograph for a report. What started as a fairly standard business email, turned into an opportunity to help tell the story of an incredible opportunity to create a Wilderness preserve.

Photography has always been a passion of mine and for the past five-years has been a full-time side gig. Conservation photography is what I am particularly passionate about. I’ve spent years sharing photographs of the natural world online, building connections between people and wild places. Along the way, I’ve worked with non-profit conservation organizations, helping to advance their missions to protect the Adirondacks. The opportunity to help with the Eagle Mountain Preserve is by far the most exciting. If Northeast Wilderness Trust is successful, and I have no doubt they will be, the homes of those falcons and bears will be forever protected.

As I sit on the summit of Eagle Mountain, reflecting on my recent encounters with the wildlife that call it home, a Peregrine Falcon lands on a dead tree in the distance. I pull out my telephoto lens and lay down in a prone position. I smile as I capture images of the falcon looking over its home. I hope these images will help tell the story of this incredible place, inspiring people to help protect it.

Khyber and I regroup and retreat down the opposite side of the mountain, taking care to not go in the direction of the mother bear and her cubs. As we reach the low valley below the light is fading. I check my map and realize we may be able to make it to nearby Copper Pond for sunset. We take off running, arriving as the last rays of light streak across the sky. I quickly setup for a landscape photograph. I have a hard time focusing on my camera setup as I take in the majestic beauty of this small pond. It is surrounded by steep hills, cliffs, and I can hear a waterfall flowing into it from the far shore. I barely get the photograph, but I’m nearly certain it will be a good one.

Sunset over Copper Pond. Brendan Wiltse.

For more than a year I have continued to explore and photograph the Eagle Mountain Preserve. I am very lucky to receive support for my conservation photography work from a small group of loyal supporters on Patreon. Patreon supporters help cover my expenses for capturing images of this magnificent landscape so that Northeast Wilderness Trust can focus on raising the money needed to protect it. I look forward to this incredible landscape opening to the public, so others can appreciate its beauty on a personal level that isn’t possible through a photograph. Until then, I hope my images inspire support for this worthy and important project.

— Brendan Wiltse

Brendan Wiltse is the Science & Stewardship Director for the Ausable River Association and a professional conservation photographer. He holds a Ph.D. in Biology from Queen’s University in Canada. While not out on the water studying Adirondack lakes and streams, he is often roaming the Wilderness with his camera and dog. You can view is photography at www.brendanwiltse.com

Your gift is critical to ensuring a forever-wild home for the black bears, Peregrine Falcons, and native brook trout of the Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Time is running out to reach our $1.8 million fundraising goal. Every dollar counts. Can you give $50 for Eagle Mountain? $500 protects one acre. $5,000 protects 10 acres. Please join our community of wilderness supporters by donating today.


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