Sometimes, the hunter becomes the hunted.
Wolf kills elk, only to be driven off by grizzly bear. All three are pursued by Bob Landis, who bags the lot with a telephoto lens mounted on a high-definition digital camera.
And now Landis himself has fallen subject to Missoula author Kevin Rhoades, who turned a University of Montana master’s thesis project into a penetrating look at the art of wildlife filmmaking.
“He was someone I kind of looked up to,” said Rhoades, who first noticed Landis while working in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1980s. “I wasn’t sure how to approach him. And it took him a month to respond to my invitation.”
The project got going in 1997, just as Landis’ career was making a major advance. He’d spent years visiting or living in Alaska and filming hunting and wildlife footage before moving to Montana, where the filming opportunities were more year-round.
In 1993, Landis had developed such a strong body of work that National Geographic commissioned him to produce a feature film on coyotes. “Realm of the Coyote” was finished in 1995 and won an Emmy nomination, among other awards. And then the wolves showed up.
During the winters of 1994 and 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service successfully transplanted Canadian wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park. After years of struggling to keep up with the park’s grizzly bears, Landis suddenly had a popular predator that was prolific and easy to find.
“Without wolves, I would not have my career — I wouldn’t have quit teaching,” Landis said. “There just wasn’t any other charismatic animal in Yellowstone. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that bears were photographable, and then here we had a charismatic predator that people had been starved to see any footage of.”
The timing also coincided with the arrival of good-quality digital video cameras. Before then, cinematographers had to lug bulky 16 mm and 35 mm film cameras, or invest $50,000 in an early digital system. Suddenly, broadcast-quality camcorders were available for $4,000 to $5,000, and there were wolves all over the landscape.
Rhoades was working on his master’s degree at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and followed the principle of writing about what he knew. He pitched a book idea about Landis to professor Dennis Swibold, who advised a different direction.
“Swibold told me, if you do the book, you’ll never finish school,” Rhoades said. “So I made it my professional paper and worked on the book after 9 p.m. while raising two babies. I had no energy, so that’s why it took 13 years to finish.”
Rhoades covered Landis’ youth shooting ducks with both a shotgun and a Brownie Hawkeye camera, and his maturation into a schoolteacher with a lust for outdoor photography. The book alternates between biographical sketches of Landis’ life and chronicles of days in the field.
“He’ll wait 30 days in the dark, sitting on a rock, waiting for an otter to show up with a fish in its mouth and a
coyote to steal it,” Rhoades said.
The field chapters delve into the kinds of clothing needed to survive Yellowstone winters and the month of July, which are the only two seasons at that peak of the world. Most paragraphs start with time stamps, usually an awfully early hour of the morning when photographers begin their prowl.
Now 71, Landis has endured two hip replacements, a crushed vertebrae and ankle surgery. He’s trimmed back his 70-pound backpack ventures and relies more on his knowledge of Yellowstone’s road system to get him in prime position. Rhoades said his work ethic remains rock solid.
“He let me stay in his cabin in Gardiner,” Rhoades said. “I’d write three hours and then go to the Boiling River and think about what I wrote. I’d do that about three times a day.”
Meanwhile Landis was leaving before dawn and often returning after 9 p.m. too tired for any kind of social life. He’s nevertheless remained married to wife Connie, a Billings school teacher. They manage separate households and stay happy together.
Rhoades is publishing the book through his own imprint, Five Valleys Press. After a stint as publications editor and then executive director of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, he decided to carve a notch into the book world of his own. The company has two other titles on the way, “Hunting with Teddy,” a novel about Teddy Roosevelt by Mike Levy; and “Billy Barnstorm and the Birch Lake Bomber,” a humor novel by Joel Vance.
Despite his love of filmmaking, Landis said he was relieved Rhoades only wanted to do a book.
“With a book, you have more time to go over things. It’s still kind of embarrassing. I don’t like to go promote myself, never had, so this is kind of the first time that’s happened.”
Despite the aversion to self-marketing, Landis’ Subaru remains a well-known feature to watch for among the Yellowstone wildlife watching community. Spotting it is nearly as good as spotting some charismatic megafauna, because the one usually indicates the other.
Landis said a growing number of those roadside comrades have read Rhoades’ book.
“They like how well it’s written,” he said, “even though they’ve learned things about me they’ve never been subjected to.”