The woods are Cliff Wheeler’s photography studio, and the animals that live there are his unassuming subjects.
Over the years, Wheeler has set out hidden cameras and recorded thousands of images of wildlife: deer, elk, bear, cougar, beaver, mink, eagles and other species. The animals in some of his photos are so well posed that it looks as if he crouched in a blind to get a perfectly framed shot. Other photos show just the head or rear legs of a critter trotting by. Most of the animals appear oblivious to the camera, though one bear stuck its nose into the camera for what looked like a selfie.
Wheeler, who just turned 71, has been getting surreptitious photos of animals in the woods since he was a teenager. He and his brothers used to rig a mousetrap to a string that would release the shutter on a Kodak Brownie camera. Of course, it would get only one shot. These days, he uses customized digital cameras with motion sensors (see tips on Page C2).
Wheeler grew up in the Toutle area and worked in the woods for Weyerhaeuser for years before moving to a job at the company’s Longview mill. He is intimately acquainted with the network of logging roads, valleys, ridges and marshes in the backwoods near his Tower Road home.
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“This is like my backyard,” he said.
One recent day, Wheeler hiked in to check four cameras he had set out several weeks earlier near the south side of the Toutle River. He doesn’t mind the walking, despite knee replacement surgery a few years ago. “I feel pretty good,” he said.
It takes about an hour of hiking past a closed gate to reach Wheelers’ cameras. With their black or camouflaged cases, it would be easy to miss them if you didn’t know their locations.
“We can’t put them on the roads because someone would steal a camera,” Wheeler said. He also had to take a break from trail camera photography last fall because Weyerhaeuser leased the land he uses to a group of hunters.
Passing a creek, he said, “I have a picture of a mink here.” He led the way off the logging road and down a mossy glen toward the Toutle River. “It’s so beautiful out here. ... In summer it’s so peaceful I could just walk this all day.”
Wheeler checked a camera he had pointed at a fallen, mossy-covered log a few feet from the riverbank. He opened the waterproof camera case and inspected the Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot. “No animals,” he said. “It’s just hit and miss.”
He previously got a nice photo at that location of a two-point buck deer looking over its shoulder, seemingly posing. “That’s what you look for,” he said.
A few hundred yards upstream, he paused by the riverbank. “This is an otter landing here,” he said. “They come up and play.” A pile of scat attested to the otter visits.
“I was hoping to get an otter or something crossing the trail,” he said, though none obliged.
Continuing his tour, Wheeler mentioned, “there’s an eagle nest in that tree over there. The eagle used to follow me.”
The third camera Wheeler checked had recorded an animal, or at least part of one. “I got the back end of a deer,” he said. “If they’re going fast, you’re going to miss them. ... I was hoping for a bird.
“The percentage of pictures you get that are usable is low,” he said.
Another riverside camera was pointed at a beaver den. “I have pictures of the pups coming out of there last year,” he said. This time it captured an adult beaver and a deer nose.
“If a deer comes through, they know it’s there,” he said. “They know if anything is different.”
“An elk will lick on it and bump it,” he added. “You can fool them for the first shot. That’s the one that looks natural.”
On the hike back out, Wheeler passed a series of ponds. “There’s a lot of blue herons in here — and ducks,” he said.
One time, a couple of hikers spotted his cameras, stopped and waved to the lens.
Years of walking the woods and recording animals with his cameras has helped him enhance his understanding of wildlife.
“When I first started, there weren’t many bears on this side of the river,” he said. Now there are, which he can tell from photos and observing scat. “Bears eat a lot of fawns,” he said. “I go through their droppings and find a lot of hooves.” He rarely sees a bear during his walks in the woods, however.
Though he didn’t get any decent photos that day, Wheeler wasn’t complaining.
“I just like being out in the woods and studying the animals,” he said.