Mammal Magic in Minnesota

Mammal Magic in Minnesota Photographing North American Mammal Newbies First trip after start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Escorted photography expedition to wildlife reserve in northern Minnesota with Cathy and Gordon Illg of Adventure Photography.

MAMMAL MAGIC IN MINNESOTA June 15 to June 19, 2021 Kay, Betsy & Lois

Can this be real? Are we actually going to travel again? Are we going to be safe from COVID-19 during our flights and motel stays? Are we being foolish and premature by busting out of our safe bubble? Since March of 2019, we have been holed up in our house hoping to avoid COVID- 19. We have rarely gone out except for walks in our neighborhood and occasional grocery shopping which stopped when we discovered Instacart. We have not mingled with our best friends, gone anywhere people gather like movie theaters, concerts, restaurants. A whole year lost in so many ways. But so many others have endured the same imprisonments. But in February 2021, the vaccine arrived, and we jumped at the first opportunity to get that shot in the arm! We returned for the 2 nd shot in the required 3 weeks and tried to believe that maybe life would get back to normal. In April, we decided to drive down to Hollywood, Florida, where our family lives for the Easter weekend. After all, we had not seen our great niece Josie since she was a newborn! In April she was 18 months old. So, we drove down being ultra-careful on any necessary stops and entered the bubble our family had been living in. Except for Josie, they were all fully vaccinated. We stayed (with great trepidations) in a local Holiday Inn and practically scrubbed it ourselves with anti-viral wipes! That trip went swimmingly, and we brought no problems to our family and they gave us none in return! After that successful venture, we were reminded that before lockdown we had paid to join a small company called Adventure Photography on a 5-day trip to upper Minnesota to photograph baby animals. Though we had no idea how this would work, we decided to go. It all sounded so freeing and exciting. We arranged to fly on American Airlines from Jacksonville to Minneapolis where the travel company owners, Gordon & Cathy Illg, would pick us up at the airport. With

great relief we learned that we were the only customers who had been brave enough to go on the trip. We already knew that both Gordon and Cathy had been fully vaccinated; hence we felt safe in joining them. Still not sure about the itinerary of the trip, we boarded the van and watched the scenery go by as we were taken about 50 miles north of Minneapolis to the small town of Hinkley. Gordon and Cathy told us they have been visiting this area for over 20 years and had always found it to be delightful and entertaining. But the current appearance of the city was not reassuring. This little dot on the map had traditionally been dependent on tourism. It was clear that the COVID-19 lockdowns had wreaked havoc on all the small businesses. Only one motel was open, just a couple of fast food restaurants were operating and the usually successful Ojibwe Indian Casino Resort was closed. All businesses were suffering from the fall-off in tourist traffic. To complicate things even further for poor little Hinkley, the area had been suffering from a prolonged drought. Lawns and plants bore witness to that deprivation Everything was limp, thirsty and dried-up! When we checked into the little motel, we were greeted with big welcoming smiles of relief that there were finally customers. Gordon drove us 10 miles north to find an open restaurant and we had a tasty meal there. After this, our first indoor restaurant meal in 14 months, we drove to the Minnesota Wildlife Connection property to meet our host and his staff. Lee Greenly and his daughter McKenzie are the owners and operators of this enormous wildlife refuge on the banks of the Kettle River. Over several years, Lee has been constantly buying surrounding land to increase the size of his original property until he now has many acres of unspoiled Minnesota habitats. His animals live in enclosures that are appropriate to their sizes and needs. Lee breeds animals and has a training method that encourages all the different creatures to imprint on him and his daughter. His animals clearly respect him and are obedient and easily controlled, whether the critter is a baby badger or a full-grown mountain lion.

As we arrived at the office of this business, we were greeted by two “blue-heeler” herding dogs, Junior and Hero, a wonderful ginger cat named Taz, Dante, the biggest dog we’d ever seen, and his sidekick, Mouse.

When we went inside the office building, we saw Arctic fox kits and red fox kits along with a badger cub in a big playpen-like enclosure. Alongside that play area was a smaller cage with three raccoon kits who were vocalizing their interest in us. They squealed and “sang" in apparent delight at having company. A small carrier was the temporary housing for a tiny skunk kit who was newly weaned from his mother. Because he was “intact” (meaning he could spray musk if he were displeased with attention), we were not invited to pick him up. Another beautiful baby, a dynamo of energy had the run of the place. He darted, ran, climbed, and practically flew around his home base. He was a pine marten kit named Diablo. His markings were the most attractive we saw among all these creatures. His fur was night-black, but his ears were fringed with white fur outlining the shape of his tall and alert ears. As would later learn, he was the biggest clown of them all.

Frankie the badger baby was a wonderful cuddly creature. He loved being picked up and snuggled and he enjoyed crawling his way around the body of anyone who handled him. The three little raccoons were also a merry handful and loved exploring various places they could snuggle as well. These baby animals were obviously well-cared for and were in good condition. They were unafraid of human beings and responded to human attention. What a wonderful introduction to these subjects for our photography sessions which would begin early the next day. After the plans were explained and we had cuddled all the little creatures, we left Lee and McKenzie and drove back to Hinkley for the night. We were filled with excitement for the day to come when we would be able to photograph and observe all these creatures in their natural habitats. Though the Greenly Family obviously advertises to guests like us, their primary income is derived from professional photographers who come to Minnesota to get pictures and videos of animals for movies, TV shows, holiday calendars, and advertisements in magazines and TV. One current TV dog food advertisement features wolves and the close biologic connection between the wild canid and our dogs. The ad starts with a video of a beautiful gray wolf bounding through the snow straight at the TV audience. Then the narrator emphasizes that your dog needs the same kind of food as the wolf requires for strength and health. That wonderful video was obviously filmed in a facility like the Minnesota Wildlife Connection. The next day we were up and at the preserve around 6:30 AM for our first staged photography session. We were sent to a large open meadow to await the arrival of Lee and the blue heeler dogs who along for the ride. Lee commanded them to stay in the truck and they never strayed even an inch from the bed of the pickup. Another example of Lee’s excellent animal training skills. In the meadow, surrounded by a maze of colorful daisies, Indian paint brush, red clover, northern dewberry, and Joe-pye weed, was a “stage” consisting of a long log nestled in the grasses. Lee positioned the star of this photoshoot on the log and Frankie the badger began to show his stuff. He mostly slipped off the log and tried to run towards us for further cuddling. Lee patiently put him back on the log so he could pose for his “close-up”, and he finally sat there in fetching poses for a few consecutive moments. But then he slipped off and, once again, began snuffling in the grass and sniffing at the flowers.

When the photographers were satisfied they had captured Frankie in all his cuteness, Lee called his daughter and she replaced Frankie with three baby raccoons. The three of them tumbled about, falling over each other and the log too. They also spent a great deal of energy on running and bumbling to be with us. Lee patiently kept carrying them back to the log and finally they settled in and gave us their best close-ups.

We left that lovely meadow and began to drive back to the office area. Along the way, Lee stopped to stage the raccoon babies atop an bird nest box. They explored and peered down curiously tentatively testing their footing. At last, the braver of the two skittered down the pole and his timid sister followed when she saw that her brother was playing in the grasses! Before reaching home base, Lee stopped at a dead tree and put the three kits on the branches where they quickly assumed the iconic raccoon baby picture: the three of them sitting close together on the same limb staring at the cameras. After those endearing sessions, we left the property and came back to the motel.

Our last morning shoot was of a mother opossum and her 13 babies. Each of us was encouraged to get down on our bellies to get that best view of wildlife – right at eye level. And so we did.




Since the three of us were left to own devices until an evening photo shoot, we went across the street from our motel to the Dairy Queen and had lunch: sundaes all around. Since there was no seating inside the shop, and we had no car, we had fun walking the drive thru to order and pick up our ice creams.

The evening session began with the adorable baby Pine Marten, Diablo. He strutted his stuff in a large tent with McKenzie and the eager photographers inside with him. He was amazingly agile, running up and down McKenzie’s legs and up and the over her shoulders. He ran to the cameras and through the legs of the kneeling photographers. He was tireless in his racing around the tent walls. Since he darted here and there and everywhere, well-focused shots were hard. But, with ever faster shutter speeds, some great pictures were achieved.

Next, we walked down to the banks of the Kettle River for a session with a mother mink and her four offspring. The babies, called cubs or kits, were about 3 months old. This was not their first time in the water. Veterans though they might be, Mama kept a sharp eye on all of them. If any one of them swam a little too far from her, she vocally called them back. If the cub failed to respond immediately by swimming back to her, she sped out and, grabbing him by the scuff of the neck, hauled him back to shore.

After a day that had lasted from 6 a.m. to about 6 p.m., we were ready for a little rest. Forgot to mention that it was very hot in the afternoon so we envied the minks swimming in the cool river water. The following morning, we arrived at the camp at 6 AM for the perfect morning light and a delightful group of red foxes. A young adult male and three kits were a joy to watch as they ran and chased around a small island on the property’s nearby lake. The low morning light and still water delighted the photographers with perfect reflections.

You will note that not all the red foxes shown here are red. There are several different colors available to the species. But the one constant is the distinctive white tip on the tail.

Two of the kits tumbled together into the water. Though they were able to swim, they obviously did not enjoy the dip. They flailed about and practically walked on the water to get back on land.

Our next encounter was with five coyotes in an acre of natural setting surrounded by a fence hidden among the trees and shrubs. The pack consisted of an uncle adult and four nieces and nephews about 4 months of age. They all paced about getting their bearing and then ran around a central clearing before disappearing in the deeper woods. We could follow them, or they could approach us, but we were clearly told, “no touching!”

Lois standing her ground. Don't put the lens down - they steal them! They would dart back into sight when Lee or McKenzie called them. The uncle was responsive to the command “Mark” and he would pose atop a rock in the enclosure—the puppies not so much. This is where we learned what a incredible voice McKenzie possesses. She could howl so loudly from the high notes of the “Queen of the Night” aria down to the lowest bass notes in Boris Godunov. When she began howling, they all joined her in a mighty cacophony of sound. It was thrilling to hear and fun to see all the coyote noses pointed straight towards the sky.

Baby Coyote Hits a High C Our afternoon adventure was the wolf encounter. We had heard the wolves howling while on campus at other times, but this session would allow us to join the wolf pack in another very large enclosure like the one used for the coyotes. This time we had two adult wolf males (Elvis and Taboo) along with one young pup named Peaches. They were gray wolves and in beautiful condition.

Elvis and Peaches Again, we were cautioned not to touch the wolves even if they approached us. But no worries there, they totally ignored us. Instead, like the coyotes, they ran and loped about sometimes disappearing in the heavier woods and shrubs. And like the adult coyote, they immediately assumed postures and positions whenever Lee called out “Mark.”

Once again, McKenzie proved her prowess at howling like a wolf. When she did, they joined the choir—even Peaches! A breath-taking experience to be so close to these magnificent animals.

On our last day, we went back to the “office” to exchange farewells and give young Sawyer, the volunteer, his tip for his part in making our visit so enjoyable. But there was one more experience that we had not expected. A young deer fawn had arrived that morning and we were able to take some pictures with him.

Betsy's Delight

After taking our leave of Lee, McKenzie and Sawyer, we were driven to the Minneapolis Airport Comfort Inn for a night’s stay before flying home at 11 a.m. on June 18. The experiences at the Minnesota Wildlife Connection were interesting, fun and even somewhat thrilling. Baby animals are always endearing and it was truly amazing to be able to cuddle some of them and get good photo ops with all of them.

Highlights of the Trip • Getting safely close to so many iconic North American wild animals. • Enjoying the natural beauty of wildlife grounds.

• Cuddling with small animals which were imprinted on human beings and thus not afraid • Meeting Dante the gentle giant Great Dane and his tiny Chihuahua friend, “Mouse.” • Getting photo tips and critiques on our photos from our hosts, Gordon and Kathy Illg.

• Feeling safe in travelling again • Sit-down meals in a restaurant • Dairy Queen sundaes everyday

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