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Beyond the beaten path: Trail camera hobby opens window into the natural world for Brent Hemly

Jan. 20—PLUMMER, Minn. — When it comes to setting trail cameras, Brent Hemly thinks like the outdoorsman he is.

He's always on the lookout for signs of the natural world beyond the beaten path, whether it's tracks, trails, old logging roads or stream banks.

All are places he'll set his cameras. Then comes the challenge of capturing an image of the critters that wander in front of the lens.

"I've just been outdoorsy forever," said Hemly, 68, of Plummer, in Red Lake County. "That's my thing, I enjoy that. It's trying to get that certain shot like any photographer would.

"I look for certain things — that's how bad I've gotten into it."

Every time he pulls a digital SD card from a trail camera and pops it into his computer is like opening a present — a window into the natural world few people ever get to see.

"It's just the unknown, which kind of drives you to do a little more of it," Hemly said. "I like wildlife. I can see tracks, and I want to see what's on the other end."

Like most outdoors enthusiasts, Hemly got started with trail cameras by using them for scouting like many hunters do. And like many hobbies do, it only escalated from there.

Hemly owns, he says, "a lot" of trail cameras.

"Sitting here right now, I've got, probably — I don't know — 70," Hemly said. "I don't put 70 out at one time. I was just counting last night, and I've probably got only 25-30 out right now."

Only. ...

Hemly has about 10,000 trail camera images on his computer, he says, including the photo of two bears standing upright that appear to be dancing — one of his favorites.

"That's a great picture, just because nobody ever sees that," he said.

Bears are a favorite, Hemly admits. From 2009 until 2020, he assisted

bear researchers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with a study

to learn more about bears in the northwest part of the state, an effort that included setting trail cameras to monitor bears that were fitted with tracking collars.

"That kind of got me going on more cameras, because then I had a reason, so to speak," Hemly said. "Then I started getting these photos of other bears.

"That's how it got to be kind of an addiction. And then the next step, of course, is to get better pictures, better quality pictures. That's kind of how it got going — I got to see all this stuff that normal people don't see."

To this day, Hemly keeps an eye out for No. 4087,

a sow known locally as the "Plummer Bear."

She's still out there, he says, and is now 15 years old.

"It's kind of what drives you in the spring — is to find her," he said.

Besides bears, Hemly's extensive collection of wildlife images includes moose, wolves, eagles, otters, bobcats and coyotes, to name but a few. He shares many of his favorite wildlife images on Facebook, where he's developed quite a following. He also just opened an Instagram account for posting trail cam photos, although "I don't even know what Instagram is, really," he admits.

There's definitely a "proud factor" when he gets a good image, Hemly says.

"I enjoy the Facebook part of it," he said. "Showing other people what you're doing ... showing when you do get that good picture. And granted, I do get a whole bunch that aren't good."

Hemly's trail camera hobby takes him as far north as Beltrami Island State Forest, a haven for all kinds of wildlife. He often travels to the hardest-to-reach places by snowmobile, carrying a chainsaw and using Google Earth or hunting apps that show the locations of old logging roads. Trail cameras can't be left unattended overnight on wildlife management area lands in Minnesota, but they are allowed in state forests with certain limitations. Regulations vary by state, so people should familiarize themselves with the laws before setting trail cameras on public land.

"I'm not one to run on groomed trails," Hemly said. "I kind of make my own using forest trails.

"I like to explore."

That penchant for exploring got him into trouble one day in the winter of 2017, Hemly says, when he blew a belt on a new snowmobile far off the beaten path and didn't have a spare. (They're not standard equipment on new sleds.) He ended up walking about 18 miles before he was able to catch a ride back to his truck parked near Fourtown, Minnesota, the next day.

All's well that ends well, as the old saying goes — his wife, fortunately, was out of town for the weekend — and the only ill effect he suffered was the ribbing he took from friends back in Plummer for not carrying a spare belt. Efforts to keep the incident quiet obviously didn't work.

"The whole place found out and yeah, they've had their fun with it," he admitted.

Since then, Hemly says, he's started carrying a satellite communicator — which his daughter bought for him — and lets people know where he's going.

He also makes sure to have a spare belt when traveling by snowmobile.

"The moral of the story is now I'm a lot safer because it could have been bad," he said. "But it turned out fine."

Since he's generally not interested in photographing deer, Hemly says he sets his trail cameras close to the ground to get images of smaller animals. He also uses screw-in mounts instead of the straps that come standard with most cameras. They're less conspicuous for one thing, Hemly says, and easier to adjust.

He mostly runs Browning Strike Force cameras, setting the trigger speed to take three photos every 5 seconds, and lithium AA batteries that will last all winter. Hemly's Browning cameras retail for just over $100, but more recently, he has added a half-dozen Spartan Lumen white-flash cameras to his collection. The Spartans are slightly more expensive, but the white flash does a good job with color night images, Hemly says.

"There are a whole bunch of good things about white-flash (trail cameras) but the bad thing is they spook canines — coyotes, especially," he said. "You'll get a picture of the coyote and it's his rear end running away. The white flash scares some animals."

Bears, by comparison, are just the opposite, Hemly says. If he's setting cameras where bears are present — a popular pastime in the spring — he puts them in protective boxes.

"You get a good picture of a bear, and the next picture you have is the bear's face in the camera," Hemly said. "A bear can be tough on cameras."

His work on the DNR bear project and the local interest it generated has been a big help in gaining access to private land closer to home, Hemly says.

"This is all private land up here," he said. "I get really good people that let me go on their property once deer hunting is over to put up cameras. They've gotten into it like everybody else has — they like to see the pictures.

"Around here, you won't get by if you can't get on private land."

Hemly doesn't run cellular cameras — which transmit images over a cellular network and have gained popularity in recent years as they become more affordable — because many of the areas where he sets his cameras don't have cell service.

He'll check the more distant cameras every couple of weeks or so, and the ones closer to home more often.

Rather than look at the images onsite, Hemly says he'll swap out SD cards and look at the images on his home computer. He has probably twice as many SD cards as cameras.

"It's more of an expense to have all those cards, but that's the way I do it," Hemly said. "That works well for me."

Setting cameras in hard-to-reach places also means they're less likely to be vandalized or stolen, which hasn't been much of an issue, Hemly says.

"If I can get that trail where I don't think anybody's going to mess with my camera, (I'll) get wolves coming down the trail or moose coming down the trail.

"That's what makes the picture."