Ken Krehbiel is a photographer who does most of his work in bed – asleep. His cameras are often miles away, unnoticed, except by a curious bear or a passing mountain lion. His subjects are usually unaware that their pictures are being taken. None of them complains about an invasion of privacy.
Krehbiel is a wildlife photographer who uses hidden, battery-powered cameras triggered by motion detectors. The images he comes home with are surprises and discoveries. “Every time I download the images, it feels like Christmas,” says the Carbondale resident who owns and operates a Basalt framing store with his wife, Sue, a guitarist, singer and songwriter.
Ken’s images are often stunning.
A mountain lion with a kitten feeds on a deer carcass artfully concealed beneath a thatch of sticks and grasses.
“This image,” explains Krehbiel, “was taken at a place that’s only a stone’s throw from where I live in a residential neighborhood along the Crystal River.”
A huge, blondish sow bear and two cinnamon-colored cubs devour an elk carcass Krehbiel left in the Flattops after a successful hunting trip last fall.
“I like to go back to see what’s left after a week or two, and often find only the teeth. Apparently, that’s the only part of the elk that doesn’t get eaten. Everything else – hide, skull, bones – is gone.”
A red fox and a silver fox appear in a number of images, their distinct colors contrasting brightly against the snow.
Krehbiel explains that the red fox and the silver fox are the same species and variety, but have a slight genetic difference due to fox breeding dating back to the Great Depression.
“When the Depression hit, the fur market crashed,” he explains, “so some fox farmers turned their animals loose. The silver fox was bred for furs, and that gene got into the wild population.”
Raccoons, skunks, coyotes, turkeys, ducks and, of course, deer proliferate among Krehbiel’s photos, many shot in his backyard where an apple tree serves as a natural lure.
One night the camera produced a mysterious image of a creature wandering his backyard that took some study before recognizing it as a neighbor’s dog wearing a sweater. “I said, ‘What’s that?!’”
Another image shows Krehbiel’s wife making a face at the camera. “You never know,” he laughs.
One picture he chooses not to share features his own backside. “I was home in the hot tub when I heard a sound beneath our retaining wall by the river. I jumped out to have a look and forgot I had a camera set up. It caught me very clearly as I leaned over the wall.”
Rifles, bows, arrows and rods
Krehbiel is a formidable hunter and fisherman. In the back room of his Signature Picture Framing shop at the Basalt Trade Center is what his wife Sue calls, with a wry smile, his “Wall of Shame.”
Photos show Krehbiel with trophy elk and deer taken with muzzle-loading rifle and bow and arrow. “I don’t know what I’d do without a freezer full of elk,” he says.
His fishing exploits are Hemingwayesque, with enormous salmon and trout. One picture shows him holding a huge carp. Clenched in his teeth is the smallest fly rod imaginable, about the size of a car antenna, with a reel the size of a sewing machine bobbin.
“There’s something in the DNA that makes one a hunter,” he allows.
Krehbiel taught five years for Outward Bound, but his love of the wilds stems from long before that. He recalls a fascination with wildlife gleaned as a boy growing up in Morrison, Colo.
“As a kid, I set live traps. I loved to catch animals and let them go,” he recalls. “I have always been absolutely fascinated by nature.”
The remote cameras he uses are available commercially for up to a couple hundred dollars. They are often used by hunters to discreetly survey prospective turf before hunting season.
“I got mine, not for hunting, but just for curiosity, even just to see what was walking around in my backyard,” Krehbiel said. “I started putting the cameras out at different places and the images have been amazing.”
Krehbiel usually fastens his cameras to trees in specially designed, metal bear boxes. He learned that bears will otherwise tear them off trees.
“They’re so curious,” he says, referring to incredible close-ups of bear noses where one can look right into their nostrils.
“There was a bear expert in Durango trying to figure out how to protect his cameras,” Krehbiel said. “He kept putting them up higher and higher in trees, but they still got to them. He said he finally put them down low where the bears could look at them. After serious study, they left them alone.”
On the elk carcass site in the Flattops, Krehbiel’s camera lenses got smeared up a little, but he came away with 340 pictures of bears, including big sows with cubs and big boars.
“At least seven different bears came by to clean up that elk,” he said.
When mountain lions began appearing, Krehbiel got really excited by images of a most elusive keystone predator.
“You just don’t see them – maybe tracks sometimes – but you don’t see them,” he said. “One day I went out near Carbondale and discovered some random tracks. I found them near a pond where it looked like a beaver had slid across the snow.
“I noticed there was blood in the snow, so I followed it to where the trail ended at a ravine. Then it just disappeared. Well, that’s where it happened. A lion had killed a deer and buried it under sticks and grass.
“There was only one ear sticking out of the snow. I set up three cameras and got a huge range of pictures. Three separate females, and some kittens, visited that site,” he said.
Krehbiel knew that the smarter animals move around a lot, and most of them are nocturnal. The camera at the mountain lion site recorded the date and times of the images. Most shots were triggered in the early morning hours.
Some cameras use a flash that can frighten the subjects. Others rely on infrared, but produce only black and white images. The flash cameras give full color.
“I was concerned the flash would scare them off, but it didn’t,” reports Krehbiel. “One lion bedded down right next to a camera. Another just sat there licking its paws.”
Krehbiel usually places the cameras by himself, something he’s prone to do because nobody seems willing to tag along with him on his wilderness forays. He goes out winter camping alone, sheltering in a three-season tent Krehbiel customized to accommodate a backpackable wood burning stove that heats the tent like a sauna.
Even on vacation, Krehbiel pursues his wildlife passion. On an upcoming trip to Costa Rica, where he and his wife will visit friends, he’s bringing cameras to set up in the jungle.
“My friends have cameras and they caught the image of an ocelot, a small leopard. He’s having us bring two more cameras down to find proof of jaguars. They’ve seen the tracks.”
Using cameras to hunt animals, says Krehbiel, is a hunter’s version of catch-and-release. “You get to hunt them and they have no idea what catches them. These cameras are the ultimate live trap.”
Since these cameras were invented decades ago for scouting and monitoring populations of whitetail deer back East, public interest has grown. Today there are online galleries showing unique images.
Krehbiel scrolls through his iPad to show a picture of a white-tailed deer that had locked antlers with another whitetail. In the ensuing struggle of life and death, one deer evidently kicked the head off the other deer and carried the severed head around on its antlers.
“That’s something you just wouldn’t see,” muses Krehbiel.
Even after recording thousands of images, Krehbiel’s curiosity remains peaked. His brother, who lives in Twin Lakes, has been bitten by the same bug.
“This is an ongoing theme for us – to see how many species we can get,” says Krehbiel. “Not everyone wants you to hunt on their property, but most people are very accommodating to allow us to set up cameras because the pictures are so fascinating. Everybody should have one of these,” he says, hefting one of his cameras.
Editor’s note: The Aspen Journalism Land Desk will occasionally publish profiles of those who have a close relationship to the land. Please contact Land Desk Editor Paul Andersen for story ideas and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.