BILLINGS, Mont. | If it weren’t for a crested caracara, Jim Peaco might still be hauling trash.
“There’s not a lot of stimulation when you’re a garbage truck driver,” said the Yellowstone National Park photographer. “So during breaks you have your bird book and binoculars. There were no wolves back then and few bears. So you try to work on your life list.”
That’s when he saw the caracara in Yellowstone National Park, thousands of miles north of where it would normally live. Publicizing the sighting made him a bit of a star in the birding world.
“This bird should not have been here,” he said of the tropical falcon that has been featured on the Mexican peso.
That led to a job as a slide librarian for the National Park Service in Yellowstone.
“If I hadn’t seen that bird I probably wouldn’t have heard about that opportunity,” Peaco said.
Such is the fickle nature of Jim Peaco’s fate.
BORN OF FIRE
From garbage truck driver to seasonal slide librarian in 1984, Peaco finally got a toehold on a dream job: Yellowstone National Park photographer.
“I had been here eight years,” he recalled. “My boss said, ‘Get out once a week and take some new photos.’ I was paid out of the donation box. Then in 1988 I was paid by the Yellowstone Association.”
As it turned out, 1988 was a pivotal year in Yellowstone’s history, that’s when more than 790,000 acres burned in wildland fires, one-third of the entire park.
“If those fires wouldn’t have started, I don’t know if the job would have continued or not,” Peaco said.
Because of the fires, there was a huge demand for photos from Yellowstone — not only nationally but internationally. That made the park’s management decide that maybe it would be a good idea to have a staff photographer.
Tall and thin, the 60-year-old Peaco is hard to miss in his ranger green pants and gray shirt. It’s even harder to ignore him when he sets up his tripod, topped with a fat 600mm camera lens, on a boardwalk to capture photos of harlequin ducks at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River.
For one little boy with bright red shorts, a hat and sunglasses, Peaco’s uniform was a huge attraction. The boy jumped up and down yelling, “A ranger guy!”
“When I’m in uniform everyone assumes I know everything,” Peaco said, and laughed.
It was the large camera lens that drew the attention of Amanda Chou, a budding Sunnyvale, California, photographer who was touring Yellowstone with her father, Stephen Chou. With all of the patience of a school teacher, Peaco gave Amanda a few tips on how to photograph the birds using a slow shutter speed to give the rushing water a silky appearance.
“Some people are here to check Yellowstone off their list,” Peaco said. “Others with kids and the Junior Ranger program are well read and have studied before their trip.”
Like any job, not every day for Peaco is filled with black bear encounters, scenic geyser eruptions and adoring children seeking photography lessons. Peaco also helps out by monitoring exhibits at the visitor centers and sometimes has to put on his ranger hat to keep tourists away from elk, bison or bears. Some days even he can’t find a photo worthy of shooting, despite being in one of the most unusual places in the world.
Yet over the course of his career he’s photographed presidents, flown over the park during the height of the 1988 fires, boated onto the 160-degree waters of Grand Prismatic Spring and captured shots of grizzly bears and geysers that have circulated around the world — one of which appeared in a text book and was incorrectly credited to Joe Peaco, a source of humor to the humble photog. When wolves were reintroduced into the park in 1995, Peaco got to visit the wolf enclosure with biologists as they tried to coax them out of the fenced area and into the wilds of the park.
“Here’s this wolf, No. 10, over my right shoulder howling,” he said. “It was the deepest voice. It was dumping snow and he was on a ridge. It really was a ghostly image.”
It is stories like this that have put Peaco squarely at the center of some of Yellowstone’s most historic events over the past 30 years.
“I’ve had experiences like I never would have before,” he said.
That’s pretty cool considering Peaco knew very little about Yellowstone or photography when he signed up in his Illinois hometown in 1980 for a seasonal job to wash dishes at a park restaurant. After two to three days at that job in Old Faithful Lodge, he was promoted to waiter when some of the staff didn’t show up.
“It was a blast,” he said. “Our biggest concern was: What are we going to hike this weekend?”
The fact that he was in such an unusual place began to dawn on him when Mount St. Helens volcano erupted, shedding ash on the park, and then it snowed 18 inches.
“What! This place is crazy,” Peaco recalled thinking.
That winter instead of traveling out of the park to vacation someplace warm, Peaco applied for a job at the Snow Lodge.
“That’s when the wild factor set in,” he said. “There were fewer tourists around and the whole winter thing in the geyser basin was like being on another planet. That’s when the hook was set.”
Even now, there are constant reminders for Peaco about the uniqueness of Yellowstone.
At a bear jam near Tower Junction, he set up his 600mm lens and tripod to try to photograph twin black bear cubs walking atop a downed log. A frustrated tourist father, unable to photograph the scene with his camera, appealed to Peaco to let him mount his camera body to the long lens to take a few photos. Peaco complied and then let the man’s daughter look through the lens at the cubs.
“Thanks, Ranger Jim,” the girl said before departing with her parents.