BENICIA -- Facing a line of buffalo on a snowbound road in Yellowstone National Park, Pat Toth-Smith weighed her options.
She remembered the stories she'd been told about bison charging cars and people who'd gotten too close, resulting in terrible injuries and even death. She sat silently on her snowmobile, and waited.
About 15 minutes into the standoff, the Benicia resident did what comes naturally to her -- she pulled out her camera and started photographing. Some of those photos, along with a vivid description of how they were obtained, are shared in her new book, "Wild Among Us: True adventures of a female wildlife photographer."
"There's something incredible about seeing a wild animal," Toth-Smith, 57, said in a recent interview.
"It's like you're tapping into a primitive side."
For more than 20 years, Toth-Smith has gone to where the wild things are to capture amazing images of animals on their home turf -- from polar bears to wolves to mountain lions. A former registered nurse, she's also carved out a niche selling those pictures in galleries, art shows and on her website.
"It's kind of a process that evolved for me," Toth-Smith said. "I had a lot of fears about traveling alone, hiking alone, but I've always had a philosophy that I'd rather fail than to not do something because I was afraid to do it. So I had to push myself to do it."
Her most memorable experiences, which are detailed in her book, include encountering a moose by a riverside during an early morning drive through Yellowstone. Using only a 200-millimeter lens, she snapped a silhouette shot that became one of her first successful wildlife photos.
She's also photographed mountain lions in the Cascade Mountain Range, black bears in the Sierra Nevada foothills and polar bears in a remote part of Canada -- to name just a few of her projects. Grizzly bears, bald eagles and wild horses have also been her subjects.
"I can't explain it," Toth-Smith said. "Whenever I see an animal ... especially a large animal like a polar bear ... to see this huge bear so close ... it's really powerful."
Toth-Smith, who's married and has an 11-year-old daughter, has learned to take precautions on her trips. While photographing polar bears near Churchill, Canada in 2009, she traveled with a group aboard elevated "tundra buggies."
Other times, she said she relies on her intuition to stay at a safe distance from the creatures she's stalking.
"I actually feel like I'm a very intuitive person," she said. "For years as a nurse I had to be very observant when I saw a patient ... and I use those skills with animals ... because you can kind of tell if an animal is agitated. It's about distance with wildlife. You just have to be far enough away that you are not intruding on their space."
In the case of the buffalo-snowmobile standoff, she eventually escaped harm by edging closer to the mountainside next to the road. Slowly, the buffalo lumbered by, some only at arms' length. They got by each other without incident.
"The big reason I wrote the book is I just felt like these animals are incredible," Toth-Smith said. "We tend to be so afraid of them ... but they're more fearful of us."
A New Jersey native, Toth-Smith developed an early interest in wildlife and photography. Her outdoorsy father loved taking her and her siblings on hunting trips, she said, and her mom was an avid amateur photographer.
After starting a nursing career, she moved to California in her late 20s, and started exploring wilderness again. She joined hiking and camping groups, including the Sierra Club, where she met like-minded people.
At the same time, she became more interested in photography. She enrolled in night-school classes centered on black-and-white images, and the world of the single-lens reflex camera. Soon she was spending hours taking pictures of animals in natural settings and developing her own work.
Gradually, she began making the shift from nursing to professional photography. She further trained at Laney College in Oakland, where she won awards as a student photojournalist, and was hired to work in the school's community relations department.
Nature photography took hold of her when she began to make pilgrimages to national parks. After about seven years of adventures, she developed a portfolio and started marketing her work to galleries. Little by little, her career began to take off.
"It's always my hope when people come into my booth at art shows ... that they'll want to go out in nature themselves," she said. "That's why it's spiritual for me, in a sense. If I get one more person to be out in nature, that's a good thing."
Contact staff writer Tony Burchyns at email@example.com or 707-553-6831. Follow him on Twitter @tonyburchyns.
Pat Toth-Smith's book, "Wild Among Us: True adventures of a female wildlife photographer," is available at Bookshop Benicia, and on her website, www.tothsmithphotography.com.
Occupation: Wildlife photographer
Quote: " ... I've always had a philosophy that I'd rather fail than to not do something because I was afraid to do it."