Photographer aims to keep the 'wild' in wildlife

Point and shoot

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2001

Wildlife is the subject. Understanding wildlife is the message.

And peninsula wildlife photographer John Toppenberg offered both in his May 10 slide presentation fund-raiser for the Kenai Watershed Forum.

"Some people might find that in viewing these images, I have helped them extend their sphere of compassion to species beyond our own," said Toppenberg, who owns and operates Reflections Alaska Photography.

Reflections of nature set against a backdrop of soft music proved a powerful magnet, drawing a crowd inside the darkened Kenai River Center on a sunny spring evening.

The audience responded warmly to the scenes before them. The sight of a satisfied bear sleeping atop a beached whale drew laughter. Sleepy-eyed harbor seals eyeing the camera provoked oohs and ahs. A bull moose stealing a sideways glance toward the photographer caused uncomfortable chuckles. The orange and pink light of sunrise delicately filtered through a morning mist brought smiles.

But it was the loons that spend summers on the lake near the home of Toppenberg and his wife, Margaret, that were the stars of the slide show. The birds' comfort with the photographer seemed evident by his photographs of nest-building activities, newly laid eggs glistening in the light, and the interaction between the adults and their young. Undisturbed by his presence, sleeping birds floated on the lake's surface, within range of Toppenberg's camera.

"They come up to me," he said. "It is absolutely incredible. I started photographing them from 80 to 100 yards away, but now they are quite tolerant. I never block the route they are taking, and I never shut off their escape route."

"I take my cue from the animals. They tell me if it's OK to be in their territory."

Most of the loon photos were taken from his boat. For some, he said he held the camera over the side of the boat, near the water. For others, he waded in water up to his armpits. One grouping of slides told the tragic story of a young bird that didn't survive to leave the nest. A pair of adult birds sat within a few feet of the nest where the lifeless remains of their dead offspring lay. One adult had its head tipped back; its open beak pointed to the sky.

"People that think animals don't have feelings, tell them what fools they are," Toppenberg said.

With a 22-year background in law enforcement, these have not always been the images before Toppenberg's eyes, but photographing nature offered him a balance.

"It was kind of my therapy," said the former detective.

The high-stress life of his career, combined with his wife's profession as a nurse midwife began to take its toll on the couple.

"We used to joke that whenever the pager went off or the phone rang, either someone had died or someone was coming into the world," he said.

While looking through a professional journal, Margaret Toppen-berg found a listing for a nurse midwife position in the Soldotna area. In the fall of 1995, the couple traveled from their Colorado home to explore the Kenai Peninsula. They moved here in 1996, living in a fifth-wheel trailer for a couple of months before finally settling into their current home on the shores of a lake near Sterling.

Since arriving in Alaska, Toppenberg has devoted more of his time to becoming a skilled wildlife photographer. He said between mid-May and late September, he spends a minimum of two hours on the lake every morning, another two in the evening, and takes approximately 2,000 photographs a year.

Along the way, he has discovered interesting comparisons between this life and his previous profession.

"The most significant similarity involves the need for patience and the ability to view a situation from other perspectives," Toppen-berg said. "As a detective, this was a human perspective transition. Now I attempt to see a situation through the eyes of another species. Trying to experience our world from an animal's point of view is, to me, a more interesting challenge. Paradoxically, it's also easier, since our animal neighbors are, for the patient observer, more predictable."

There are also some startling differences that guide his work.

"My life has done a pirouette from death to life," he said. "I have spent so much time involved with death. Now I spend a great deal of time with life and the creation of life. I love tender moments between parents and their young in the wild. If I can bring that to people and touch their hearts, I have succeeded."

Toppenberg said a key to obtaining good wildlife photographs is "watching the wildlife and being sensitive to what the natural behavior is. If the animals are allowed to maintain their natural behavior, you'll get much closer and you won't disturb them."

He remembered being taught that lesson by a mother black bear he photographed with her two cubs when he was traveling from Colorado to Alaska.

"I got a little too close and heard her make a 'woof' sound," he said. "At the same time I was hearing her, I also was seeing the steam come out of her nose. She started running at me. It was a bluff charge. She came within 10 feet and stopped, but it caused me to pay closer attention."

David Coray, owner of Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, located across Cook Inlet in Lake Clark National Park, has witnessed Toppenberg's sensitivity in dealing with the bears around the lodge.

"He has shown a real astute level of professionalism in terms of approaching wildlife," Coray said. "He has a keen sense of balancing observations of wildlife with his interest in photography and blending the two."

The two met three years ago when Toppenberg was a guest at the lodge. Coray said he and Toppenberg are now discussing the possibility of Toppen-berg working for him as a naturalist.

"He's a good solid guy," Coray said. "What I like is the command he seems to have of a relationship with wildlife. He adapts easily and well to moving in close proximity with wildlife. I always look for that. Some people are a little too brazen and brash and move too quickly into the habitat of bears and scare them or pose a threat. But John has a good balance. It's important to me to make sure people coming here can adapt to the same standards that we use. He's never got himself into any trouble. That's why he's welcome back."

Toppenberg also helped facilitate a photographic safari in the South Katmai area with Coastal Outfitters from Anchor Point. Next month, he will serve as the tour guide for photographers on a live-aboard boat in Southeast Alaska.

Erica Williamson, membership manager at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, has noticed that it isn't only Alaskans interested in Toppenberg's reflections of wildlife.

"We get a lot of interest from people overseas," she said. "A lot of people traveling from Europe have been very interested in his work. He's a great guy to work with and we really enjoy him."

Ricky Gease, at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, said photographs by Toppenberg and other area photographers can be seen on the center's World Wide Web site at

"He has some really stunning photographs of adult loons raising their young," Gease said. "I find him a really interesting person. He's one of those photographers that's willing to share tips and ideas."

A student of first-hand experience, Toppenberg compared the wilderness of his former home, Colorado, with what he has found in Alaska.

"Having moved here from Colorado, I know what it is to walk in a pretend wilderness, robbed of its wolves and grizzlies," he said. "It is like walking through a great mansion that has had its finest works of art stolen, leaving the visitor with a haunting feeling of emptiness and desperation."

Of all the animals on which Toppenberg has focused his lens, wolves are his favorite.

"I'm fascinated by wolves, the lives they lead, the persecution and the mystery I associate with them," he said. "In Alaska, especially, they are a misunderstood creature."

He is encouraged by recent actions of the Board of Game.

"A recent positive turnabout is the Board of Game's 6-to-1 vote to extend a 100-mile buffer zone beyond the northeast portion of Denali National Park," Toppenberg said. "This is to protect the only remaining wolf pack in the world that the public has a reasonable chance of consistently seeing. The other visible pack, the Sanctuary Wolves were recently wiped out by being improperly tranquilized and trapped. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new trend to give nonconsumptive value to Alaska wildlife."

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