SCALE MODELS: Sharing gnarly nature

Snake charmer Jordan Manley convinced this Valley Gartersnake to stay in position for 10 minutes. Photo: Anthony

by Leslie Anthony

Anyone who’s seen his work knows North Vancouver photographer Jordan Manley has a keen and discerning eye. That would be one of the reasons we featured his photos in an extensive gallery in the first issue of Mountain Life Annual—he makes you notice things that you might never otherwise see even when you’re looking at the same thing. It was also the reason I was excited to take Jordan out, at his longstanding request, to shoot some mini-wildlife—the reptiles of Pemberton, B.C.. He’d taken to shooting more wildlife in the past few years and seen the pictures I’d been posting of preternatural creatures like the Rubber Boa, Sharp-tailed Snake and Valley Gartersnake encountered during spring fieldwork in Pemberton and was eager to train his considerably more sophisticated lens on these fascinating, photogenic, seldom-seen creatures.

Great! And I was happy to share my biological expertise and knowledge of these creatures to make that happen. But it also meant the pressure was on. Not that I’d made a promise or anything, but what if I couldn’t wrangle up any reptiles?

That problem was quickly put to rest two minutes after turning off the highway in Pemberton, when we saw a brown-and-black checked Wandering Gartersnake crossing the gravel road in front of us. I caught it, gave Jordan a close-up look at its various colours and dorsal and ventral patterns, then let it go on the side of the road it had been heading towards. Given that it was perfect weather for reptiles—warm but hazy, the sun still able to heat the ground—there would certainly be more. Game on.

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Yes, that’s a wide-eyed Wandering Gartersnake. Oh, and a mosquito. Photo: Manley.

And it was. We saw a dozen more of the same and, invoking “reptile radar,” I was able to turn up a half-dozen Rubber Boas, a spectacular Valley Gartersnake (saved from certain death under a redneck’s truck tires and eager to hold a pose for us), an Alligator Lizard and, for good measure, a tiny, thread-like ruby hatchling of Canada’s rarest and most difficult to find reptile, the Sharp-tailed Snake. Jordan’s trigger finger was busy, and I basked in the warm glow of having not registered a massive personal #fail on the finder front, one that would surely have been more so for having one of the world’s most creative photographers trailing you around hoping for a shot of a creature he might otherwise never see without a guide.

As you can also tell from his action sport photography—and certainly if you talk to him even briefly about anything—Jordan is a curious type. A thinker, an investigator, a questioner. And he had plenty of questions for me. What snake is it again that’s here? Why is it here and not there? Did you know you’d find a boa under that rock? How do you know how to find any of these things?

A Jordan-eye view of man’s best friend. Photo: Manley.

I told him what I could (mostly to always look down) but a lot of it was hard to explain because it’s intuitive: I’d been amusing myself looking for critters since childhood and could unconsciously develop a new search image for something I didn’t have experience with once I’d spent enough time in its ’hood. That was the deal here where it had taken me three years of concerted fieldwork to figure even the most basic things out. Sure there are a few universals with reptiles that can help you zero in on the right general area, but then specifics of a particular species’ ecology and the knowledge of experience have to guide you.

In the end I eschewed delivering too much biology in favour of treasure-hunting fundamentals: I told him that you might find something if you’re looking in the wrong place, but you’re far more likely to find something in the right place, and systematically upping the odds with an argus-eye for detail is what it’s all about. But then, I’ve seen more of Jordan’s photos than most, and it’s pretty clear he already knows that.

Jordan Manley, herpetologist in training, with a couple of Rubber Boas. They were cooperative because it’s mating season and his fingers seemed,… well, delightful. Photo: Anthony.