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"The Rocky Mountain Arsenal
Nation Wildlife Refuge"

by Tommy Dykes

     September 4th, 2017, was my first visit to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and I was pleasantly surprised, given its geographic location between Denver and Denver International Airport. Even with the lands history as a onetime military arsenal followed by a chemical plant, I found the refuge to be clean and wild.


     The refuge is approximately 15,000 acres and is bordered with a high fence. Inside the fence, other areas are fenced into smaller units particularly for the bison.


     Once inside the fence there is a visitor’s center and a game drive. The game drive is easily found and is a paved road. I believe that the road may even get snow plowed during the winter months since at one of the cattle crossings a sign read “raise plow blade”. I am looking forward to making the drive in snowy conditions. The drive is said to take approximately one hour. However, I found that for the photographer or the above average wildlife observer, three hours is a closer estimate.


     The landscape is typical of the Great Plains of North America with low grasses and thickets of cottonwood trees. In places the ground is a golf course of Prairie Dog holes and mounds. Game trails weave through the low hills and are marked with the scat from several species of native animals which is clear.


     Entering the refuge, it becomes obvious that the most abundant animal is the deer. On my drive I observed both Mule and Whitetail deer, with a good ratio of male to female. Like all deer they were constantly on the lookout for trouble and stayed a good distance from the roadway. On this visit, I saw at least 200 deer of both species. Out on the backside of the drive, which I believe to be the north side, I spotted a very large mule deer rack sticking up out of the thigh high dry grass. With my 400mm lens I was able to make a good image of the scene. Not being satisfied with my first attempt, I pressed my luck and left my truck with the camera on the tripod. While I think the deer spotted me the entire time, he never spooked from his bed as the wind was in my favor. When I got down to about 20 yards the buck slowly stood up rump first and gave me the dirtiest of looks. After a short standoff he slowly moved toward a fence with an irrigation ditch running parallel, and me following.


     Once at the ditch he stopped to eat the sunflowers growing along the edge which allowed me to have a good look. He was a very healthy animal, in my guess approaching 200 pounds; with velvet covered antlers that spread a yard wide.


     After taking all the stress from me that he could stand, the deer moved off down the fence line. To him I said thank you for the encounter, then I started picking the stickers out of my shoes and socks.


     A commanding herd of bison has been introduced to the refuge. Once you enter the bison area, the game drive becomes a little safari like, with the animals approaching very close to your vehicle. The bison show no fear, and I am sure if you were to leave your vehicle, that they would show you no favor.


     Photography is easy from the truck since the ground is flat and the road pretty much level with the land. What worked nice was being alone so that I could stop the truck and then slide over to the right side of the front seat which allowed me to shoot from both sides. The bison are great fun to watch as they hoof up the grass so that they can roll around on their back to give themselves a good dusting.


     On this early autumn visit, the sky was very thick with smoke that provided the largest of all soft boxes, diffusing and softening the light and removing most of the color. Shooting back against the light I was able to photograph a bull and a cow bison on the horizon of a small hill. The smoke provided a unique light and silhouetted the image against the smoky sky. In post-production, using photo editing software, I created a sepia-tone palette and added a black vignette. This added step took an average modern image and gave it a timeless feel of a bygone era in the high plains of the American West. I gave it a sepia tone and some black vignette, which are made the average image come out.


     But the best was yet to come! While photographing the bison, a hawk had perched upon a fence post. As I moved the truck forward, I was sure that he would fly, but luck had it that he stayed in place allowing to get my shot of the day. I have the bird on the fence with tack sharp focus and two bison in the background outside of the focal plane. I think this is one of my best five images ever and I was very pleased. The hawk stayed on the post for some time allowing me a good look at a remarkable predator.


     I highly recommend the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge to everyone. Only minutes from downtown Denver and you’re suddenly lost in the Great American Plains. It is a look at this part of North America before the nineteenth century migration of people from the east. Wildlife is abundant and the climate, harsh.

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