I am humbled to have photographed the largest herd of Ezo Sika Deer on our planet in the Nemuro region while leading my annual Hokkaido Photo Tour, Japan. Hokkaido reminds me of Yukon territory in northwest Canada or Alaska, as it is wild mountain wilderness and sparsely populated. Similar to the large herds of Porcupine Caribou who migrate in the Canadian Yukon and Alaska, the Ezo Sika Deer of Japan are also migratory. Anyone who has ever photographed a herd of wild animals can understand the amazingly dramatic, heart-moving sight of hundreds to thousands of animals stampeding. There is nothing like it, the raw power of the animals as they thunder across the landscape - the sounds of their intense breathing and hooves ripping up the mud. When I led my group to photograph the largest ever recorded herd of Ezo Sika Deer, I embarked on a journey to intercept them on a snowy parcel of land, and my sights had us less than a 100 yards away, on a thin strip of land only 30 yards wide. The drive in was rough, technical, and anything but easy, but this is not my first time in this region; it’s about my 100th, and our rough ride in, paid off. I lead us to the exact position I had shown everyone on a topographical map that morning. And the great part about this unique spot only known by us locals is that for the Ezo Deer to get back into the open fields, they would have to come straight at us. Behind the Ezo Sika deer is the frozen pacific ocean, then open water; if they tried to go the way of the ocean, they know it would lead to certain death in the depth of the ocean, and 100% I knew they would choose to pass by us. Once I stopped our lead SUV about 100 yards from the deer, we had plenty of time to set up our gear to get ready for the coming stampeding herd, that would pass by us at a distance of about 10 - 15 yards. For safety’s sake, I positioned our SUV’s in a circle, and I had everyone ready with open doors just in case they decided to charge us, but wild deer will only charge in a herd toward people like bulls during fires or tsunami's. 99% of the time, they will move around a group of vehicles and people.
As soon as we got out of our vehicles and started setting up our gear, it was clear the Ezo Deer had picked up our scent because they became antsy. But we were fortunate this day; they casually paused, and we had about 20 minutes before they charged. As they started moving at us, picking up speed, I clearly calculated their path would be as I predicted about 10-15 yards to our left with the sun to our backs, perfect photography conditions. If I had parked the vehicles to the left of the thin parcel of land, the sun would have been obtrusive for photography. My years of experience on Hokkaido Photo Tours allowed everyone to take once in a lifetime photos.
As they passed us, we could hear them breathing and making grunting noises, and there is nothing like the sound of a thousand thundering hooves banging a few meters away. As they passed us, we got some beautiful video and shots of them running at full speed by us, with mud being flung up into the air, and we got the perfect farewell from them as they head into a beautiful mountain range.
When I show colleagues, clients, and friends these photos from the Hokkaido Photo Tour, the first question I always get is: “Blain, where did you photograph this herd?” First, I am a local in Hokkaido, and where I snapped, this herd is not accessible by car or tourist bus; you need either a hardcore SUV or cross country skis. You could snowshoe in, but you will have to watch closely for high tide and stormy weather, that can come in fast in Eastern Hokkaido. Also, while I drove the lead SUV, I had to drive over ice for about 1 km. I have been driving vehicles on ice before I had a driver's license to drive on public roads. My family grew up in Northern Canada, and winter roads are nothing new to me, but safety is always paramount. If there is even one lousy omen, one client who does not like the feeling of the experience, I will not take a chance and u-turn us out as I did last winter. Later that fateful day, we got caught by a freak thunder snowstorm and could not make it back to our lodgings, and we had to take emergency lodgings at a business person's hotel. At least we had hot springs and a warm breakfast and did not have to sleep in our vehicles. If you would like to read about this adventure, click herefor the full story on the Luminous Landscape.