"We sat for two days and looked at rocks in the rain."
That's Moose Peterson describing the scene as he and his son, Jake, pursued images of the Alaska marmot, a creature so camera-shy that to Moose's knowledge no photos exist.
Moose and Jake had undertaken the quest as part of their volunteer work with researchers at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "The Alaska marmot is endangered, a critter that's kind of on the edge," Moose says. "It's been going higher, moving north because of climate warming—at least that's what scientists suspect. We were after any useful photo, anything that would tell the scientists more than they knew about the critter...which was precious little." No wonder: there's evidence that the Alaska marmot is the longest hibernator of any animal on the planet. "It's only out for about four months of the year," Moose says.
After a ten-hour drive up the Haul Road (also known as the Dalton Highway and made infamous by the Ice Road Truckers TV show) and a 700-foot climb up a steep, wet trail—"take two steps, slide back one," is Moose's description of the ascent—to a location some 60 miles from the Arctic Ocean and so remote that even satellite phones often can't make a connection, the photographers were met by rain. "Marmots don't come out in the rain," Moose says. "They need sun." And so followed two days of wet-rock watching.
"The reason the Alaska marmot is up there is that it's the last mountain they can go to," Moose says. "They can't go any further north—there are no more mountains—and they can't go back because...well, that's the question the scientists are trying to answer. Is it because of warming down below?"
On the third day there was sun, followed by marmots, and Moose took photographs with a D3X, an AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR and an AF-S Teleconverter TC-20E III. Then he made a decision that proved crucial. "Next to me was my D3S, and when I got what I thought I needed in stills, I picked it up and shot some video."
He and Jake came back down the mountain with stills and, Moose says, "about 34 gigabytes of video clips. And one of them, which to anyone else would be kind of meaningless, showed one of the marmots grazing—eating some grass. That's the one that got the researchers most excited because they actually didn't know what the Alaska marmot ate. The researchers were ecstatic; they're writing a paper based on that one video clip."
Which makes the Haul Road, the rain and the rocks well worth the effort—but in fact it would be worth it no matter the result. Sometimes making the effort is what it's all about. "What I bring to these projects," Moose says of his volunteer missions, "is the fact that I put in the time. Most of the biologists and researchers are busy collecting data; they don't have the time to sit and watch the biology unfold, let alone the ability to record it."
Moose brings to his work not only ability, but also the realization that there's a relationship between passion and practicality. "You have to have the gear that'll keep up with the passion. Look at the scenario: we made a commitment of time and money, we went up this mountain, waited out the rain and then the D3S captures a piece of video which is a first and could turn out to be pivotal. If climate change is a problem, then what they're foraging for will disappear, and this is going to be the evidence of it."
The rest of the mission involves getting the word out. He turns over his images to the scientists for their research and the promotion of their work, and he uses the photos for his own presentations, workshops and publications. "Telling the story is so important," he says. "You have to get people to see these animals and learn about what's happening to them." All of the photos you see here depict threatened and endangered animals, save one: the bald eagle, once very much endangered, now a success story of support and survival.
Moose's latest book, Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer, just published by New Riders Press, tells the story of his journey to this mission and passes along the lore he's picked up along the way. He calls the books "a romantic how-to," with the romance being his love of nature and wildlife and the how-to being the key to the visual storytelling he's dedicated to protecting and preserving them.
Moose's website, at www.moosepeterson.com, features a variety of images, his blog and information about workshops and publications.