“I saw a porcupine! Envy me, world!”
- Mark Hendricks to Jim “Muck” McClelland
The 2015 Pennsylvania Elk Rut has come to pass. The excitement and brutality of this year’s annual ungulate festivities has now been immortalized in the minds of those fortunate enough to eyewitness the regal prowess of the majestic bull elk, to hear the symphony of their hauntingly beautiful bugle, and to feel the crisp, chilly air encompass your body as an unequivocal reminder that the season of autumn has arrived.
North Central Pennsylvania sits high on the Allegheny Plateau. It is commonly referred to as the “Pennsylvania Wilds” region because of its abundant wildlife and wide open spaces. A large portion of this region lies near the upper terminus of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. A relatively popular creek such as Bennett Branch is a tributary to the Susquehanna River, and thus its water eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay. This type of habitat diversity is what makes me so thankful to celebrate the Chesapeake with its flora, fauna, and human characters alike.
Some of those human characters have become some of my closest friends since I began photographing these regions. Brothers like Tom Dorsey and Jim “Muck” McClelland. More than the rut itself, I enjoy the camaraderie and sharing the wild experience with great friends. Numerous photographers come together to experience the rut as members of the Benezette Elk Camera Club. The club holds annual autumn and spring picnics where members share stories of the elk, talk gear, feast on good food, and share their passion for wildlife photography. There are times during these conversations I will get a bit envious when I see images of a particular animal I have never seen. Not just any animal, one that is very dear to me. I then twitch a little and begin to sweat. Something is so very wrong with me, but very few understand my plight. As I respond to them how lucky they are to have seen such a beautiful creature I hear strange phrases such as:
“Oh, jeez, they’re everywhere.”
“I have to keep them away from the porch with a broom stick.”
“My dogs go crazy over the damn things.”
All these sentences are strange to me. How can you not be excited about this creature? Why do you flaunt to me that you see them regularly? I think I am going cold. I am beginning to feel dizzy. Somebody get me some water; I must process this.
I have tracked and photographed a number of elusive animals, but this species that has always seemed to elude me. When I visit the Pennsylvania North Woods the one creature that I hope to photograph is the North American Porcupine.
You read that correct. That slow, prickly, salt loving, brake hose eating porcupine has forever eluded me. Well, a living one has always eluded me. I see road kill porcupines more than I see many of my friends.
Do you think I have an undiagnosed complex yet?
The porcupine reaches the southern end of its range in Western Maryland and is uncommonly seen, though the population is growing. North Central Pennsylvania, however, has a significantly large population and, apparently, are seen rather frequently when I am not visiting. I have hiked in a number of areas that contain high numbers of porcupines: the Rocky Mountain West, Canadian boreal forest, the bristlecone pine forest of the desert southwest, Northern Appalachians, etc.
You know what all these areas have in common? I never found a porcupine in any of them.
I visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon while on my honeymoon, an area also known to have a high density of porcupines. When asked about any recent sightings of porcupines, a park ranger replied to me with laughter. “You are the first person to ever ask me about porcupines.” It was like I was stabbed a thousand times.
Are you still on the fence about my mental health?
It has become quite the joke between Tom, Muck, and myself about my 0% success rate with finding porcupines. Year after year, during the Elk rut we observe amazing behavior of testosterone filled bulls in midst of battle. Yet, what is yours truly doing during these battles? Constantly remaining vigilant for porcupines. I share with them my ideas for all the images I hope to capture; a porcupine in an aspen tree making eye contact with the photographer, a porcupine eating, a porcupine climbing, a porcupine baby. Laughter abounds and I am told to take a cold shower; this is a lot coming from a man who only finds dead porcupines……
Tom and his lovely wife Jeanie even sent me the Christmas ornament of all Christmas ornaments: two porcupines opening gifts under their own Christmas tree. It is awesome.
Muck shared with me the location of a tree on the side of a dark, country road where he has seen a porcupine rather frequently. Porcupines are arboreal, spending a majority of their time in trees, and there was plenty of evidence of its behavior through fallen branches with teeth markings. I received strange looks from passerby’s concerned with the sight of a strange man with a tripod and video-head looking upward towards a tree. Eventually I had to leave the area as I did not want to get accidentally hit by a fast moving truck as the light faded, or by someone who purposely wanted to remove the photographer who transformed their country road into his makeshift studio for porcupines.
My stress levels reached new heights when I almost accepted this would be another season without porcupines. Yet on my last morning in Pennsylvania Elk Country of the 2015 rut, my life changed forever. It was a slow morning and Muck and I were not seeing much behavior from the elk herd. The previous day we, along with Tom, watched an epic collision between two large bulls that was just incredible; hence, we were not discouraged by the lack of action on this particular morning. We watched an American kestrel hovering over the meadow in search for prey which kept us occupied and offered some photographic opportunities. Though as the fog began to burn off, and we were prepared to meet Tom for breakfast, I began to feel a bit queasy. I asked Muck if we could hike into a nearby grove of Eastern Hemlock to look for porcupines. Muck, being a very good and extremely patient friend, obliged.
As we hiked through the forest, sloshing through mud, we looked up into every hemlock tree with methodical precision hoping to catch a glimpse of a porcupine. Nothing. Ten minutes pass. Again nothing. Another ten minutes. Nada. This was the basic formula for the hike: I would see perfect porcupine habitat, search for them with ardor and precision, fail, express my frustration, laughter from Muck, and move to the next area. Just another day at the office.
We came across the mostly in tact skeleton of a cow elk that died during the winter, to which I said “Muck, check that out.”
He replied in an intense whisper, “Take some photos.”
“Nah, I’m good, I want to keep looking for PORCUPINE!”
There it was: the porcupine. An adorable, quill filled, and most importantly, alive porcupine directly in front of me. I saw the skeleton, Muck saw the porcupine, and we both thought we saw what the other saw (I cannot make this stuff up). It was so close to my feet I had to look directly downwards at it. Now I would like to say I immediately went into position and began taking photographs, but instead I froze in a state of Nirvana. Joyous, I remember turning around and hi-fiving Muck and then hearing “Now take some photos before it leaves!”
And that is exactly what I did. The pictures are not perfect by any means- it was a low light situation, the porcupine would move in front of fallen twigs, and I was just way too excited to focus on photographic technique. Yet they are of my first porcupine, which ranks them among my favorites.
The porcupine eventually fled toward some fallen trees past an adjacent creek and, that fast, the monumental moment was over. Muck mentioned he wished he had photographed my face because my smile was so large (I felt the weight of my chin dropping to the ground, so Muck is correct). In my ecstasy, as we hiked back to meet Tom, I explained to Muck how I am hoping to photograph my next porcupine featuring a wide array of shrubbery, trees, and gorgeous blurred backgrounds. Those of us who suffer from Porcupine Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (POCD) are rarely 100% satisfied with their porcupine experience and are always planning for the next encounter. Look it up.
We met Tom on the trail before departing for breakfast where we celebrated my conquest. I kissed babies, shook hands, and posed for pictures for the local newspaper.
Actually none of that is true but that is how it felt, and it felt awesome. On my way home I called my wife to let her know what happened and she replied “Yeah! You finally saw one! Now how was the rut?”
Wildlife/Porcupine photography is both the most wonderful and most frustrating passion. A large part of what makes it wonderful is the people; the great friends you meet along the way. Tom and Muck have hiked with me numerous times as I have obsessed over porcupines and it is always an experience I would not trade for anything- even for a forest filled with porcupines.
Well, actually now that I think about it…..I could convince them..... Bad Mark- no, no I wouldn’t.
Note: This Blog is dedicated to Tom Dorsey and Jim “Muck” McClelland who hopefully, upon reading it, will still act like they know me.........