Wild vacations: Judy and Jeff Syring travel the USA, especially Alaska, on the trail of great photos


by Bruce Strand, Arts editor

Judy and Jeff Syring have a unique way to spend their vacations. The Elk River couple tromps through the USA’s most exotic wildernesses in search of big game to shoot — with their zoom lens cameras.

“We are very busy in our professional lives,” said Judy, “and we want to make the most of the time we get to spend together. This is what we do every vacation.”

Judy and Jeff, both 60, spend that precious time together at remote outposts in Alaska (their favorite, nine times so far) or Colorado or Maine or Isle Royale, waiting patiently with their Canon cameras for their favorite subjects to show up. Striking portraits of moose, bears, deer, eagles, blue herons, owls and loons, to name a few, are the rewards for their patience and persistence.


“The main thing is to take the unique picture that’s really hard to get,” said Judy.

Like the grizzly bear sticking his soaked, shaggy head out of the water, the 1,500-pound moose bugling in search of romance, the great blue heron mom nesting with two frisky juveniles, and the rare albino deer foraging with two does.

Judy and Jeff Syring, in their favorite place, Alaska.

The Syrings, who shoot year-round, not just on vacations, operate Woodland Wonders Photography, selling photos on their website and at shows such as the current Elk River Area Arts Alliance Holiday Show and Sale.

Judy is a psychiatric nurse at Mercy Hospital. Jeff, an Elk River native, is an engineer with Moorhead Machinery and Boiler, which supplies power plants.

They took up photography together about 20 years ago, and raised the bar seven years ago, going to digital and setting up a studio at home to make their own prints and occasionally do framing and matting.


Judy started with an 8 megapixel Canon camera 20 years ago. “It was a pretty big deal then, but now most people have the same thing in their cell phone.” Two weeks ago, Judy bought a 22.6 megapixel Canon. They like to print 20-by-30-inch canvases and you’d better have a high-powered lens for that, especially when you’re shooting with a telephoto lens in the dim light of dusk.


“The best time with moose is early in the morning or late evening,” said Judy. “They come out of the woods just before dark and go out in a grassy pond so they can eat off the bottom.”

In Alaska, the best time to go is rutting season in late August and September. They read up on the best mating areas and ask the locals for the best spots. Judy said they drove past the Russian River on many trips before discovering it was a great spot. That’s where they had one tense moment as a bear approached and backed them to the car; they snapped his photo following them on a bridge.

Denali Park in Alaska is great for moose; they are protected there. Katmai National Park offers views of grizzlies in natural settings.

You don’t get close to the moose. “They are full of testosterone, and they charge when they get a scent,” she laughs. But they’re able to watch grizzlies fishing for salmon from the shore, in groups. “You don’t even need a zoom lens,” she marvels. “You just sit quietly and respectfully. It’s thrilling.”

In Minnesota, they enjoy the Vince Schute Sanctuary near Orr, where black bears emerge from the woods to get a snack provided for them at an old logging camp, with photographers allowed access for $200.

“You can’t make eye contact, but you have to talk to them, because they’re used to that,” said Judy, explaining the camp’s safety guidelines. “They come and feed and then go right back to the wild.”

In wildlife photography, the subject can occasionally get too close for comfort. This grizzly in Alaska followed Judy and Jeff as they hastily retreated  to their car. But, they got the photo.


Other favored Minnesota sites are Father Hennepin State Park, near Isle, where the attraction is white-tailed deer, and a heron rookery near Annandale with 180 nests, where herons, horned owls and cormorant are nesting and raising their young.

Sometimes, all they have to do is wander out the back door of their home near County Road 15. They can photograph deer near home, and Judy recently had a pleasant surprise when she encountered an unflinching, wise old owl staring at her. She back-pedaled to the house, keeping her gaze on the owl,  retrieved her camera, then low-crawled back to the nest, clicking away. The owl, either vain or bored, sat still long enough for Judy to fill up her card with photos.


“The woods,” said Judy, on their website, “have always been a calm and rejuvenating place for us to find some peace of mind. We enjoy all the God-given gifts nature provides — from the beautiful scenery to the woodland creatures that inhabit the land.”

(Photos are copyrighted. These and more can be viewed and purchased on woodlandwondersphotography.com)