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A never-ending chase is picture perfect for Minnesota couple

Phone calls and tips from friends and strangers lead Granite Falls couple on journeys around the state and other states for the sake of that perfect picture.

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Gene and Helen Stukel traveled to northern Washington State to capture images of eagles feeding on salmon in a river near the Candadian border. He captured this image of two eagles in flight.
Gene Stukel Photography
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GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — “You better get here,” the caller on the phone told him.

“We got an owl in our backyard.”

And like a police officer called for help, Gene Stukel was on his way.

The photo he captured of the long-eared owl is just one of many stunning images of wildlife he has captured, all thanks to phone calls like this.

Stukel, of Granite Falls, relies on a network of people he’s met through his years of wildlife photography for tips on where he can capture his next best shot. It’s what it takes, he explained.

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Helen and Gene Stukel posed for a photo snapped for them by a fellow wildlife enthusiast on one of their trips in search of wildlife photos.
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“If you are out there just trying to find things for yourself, it’s way too hard. You miss too much,” he said.

The owl happened to be perched on a tree in the yard of a farmer living only a couple of miles from Stukel’s home. He gets lucky like this ever so often. Thanks to a similar call, he needed only make a half hour drive to rural Dawson to capture an image of two fox kits that are the very definition of cute.

He also happily answers calls from rangers in national parks, conservation officers in neighboring states, and a whole list of other, avid birders and just old friends and acquaintances with whom he has made known his standing request for information on wildlife photography opportunities, no matter where they work and live.
The long-distance calls are where his partner in this quest, his spouse, Helen, comes into the picture. The duo have made this passion for wildlife photography their excuse to travel and see much of the country. Their quest has literally led them from the West Coast to the East Coast and everywhere in between, with lots of time spent in the wilds of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, New Mexico and all over Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota.

Helen keeps detailed records of the information they receive from tipsters on where opportunities may be found, putting down mile markers and other details they need for return visits. They make known their interest in finding the right photo to the fellow wildlife enthusiasts they meet in the wilds, and are rewarded for it. “People are so accommodating,” said Stukel.

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A call from a farmer living outside of Granite Falls was the tip needed for Gene Stukel to capture this image.
Gene Stukel Photography

And many of them, particularly the avid birders, are very much like he is when it comes to photography. He’s become increasingly conscious of the importance of good ethics in the wild, and will pass up on photo opportunities if he feels his presence may in some way disturb or stress the creature he is looking to photograph.
Of course, the creatures have no such qualms. One big bull moose he captured on film put the photographer’s heart in his throat with a few feigned moves in his direction from just a few yards away.

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That happened in Colorado, in a state park where the Stukels had no trouble spotting over 50 moose for their efforts.

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Enjoying wildlife in famous landscapes, such as the Teton Mountains, is part of what makes this so enjoyable to the couple. But make no mistake: There are plenty of wildlife photography opportunities very close to home, and they are every bit as rewarding, said Stukel.

And here’s another tip. He said they find some of their very best wildlife and birding photography opportunities at parks and wildlife areas that don’t attract big crowds.

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A pine marten appears surprised by the photographer in the State Forest State Park in Colorado.
Gene Stukel Photography

Stukel grew up in Ely, and his love for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness played a role in developing his love for wildlife photography. He devoted his career to education in Granite Falls. During a number of summers, he and two colleagues guided trips in the BWCA. Among their clients one time was National Geographic photographer David Boyer.

It was the well-known conservationist Sigurd Olson of Ely who saw some of the photos Stukel took on Boundary Water trips, and told him he ought to be a photographer.

But Stukel had to make a living, and that came first. Stukel said that when he and Helen began their lives together in Granite Falls, they put away quarters for the day that they could buy a nice camera. After he purchased it, he was asked to take photos of a wedding. Taking wedding photographs and senior portraits became a side business that helped finance the young family’s needs through many years.

But full time careers and a busy side business meant limited time for wildlife excursions. The couple made a promise to each other. When they retired and had the time, they would devote the time and do the traveling needed for wildlife photography.

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A phone call from a conservation officer led Gene Stukel to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, where he watched these sage grouse on their courtship grounds.
Gene Stukel Photography

That’s been the case now for several years. They have discovered that their passion for wildlife photography has only grown. It can be kind of addicting, Gene said, especially when it comes to the birding. “The chase never ends,” he explained.

The quest to capture the perfect image, whether it’s that of a bull elk bugling or a stealthy pine marten surprised by the click of the shutter, never ends either. It can be demanding, but there are so many times when the early morning hikes into the wild are rewarded by the image he wanted. “When something like that happens you say, ‘boy, it was worth getting up this morning,’” he said.

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Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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