— It was the perfect backdrop for a vacation photo — a gorgeous mountain lake with a rocky shore and a big Canadian sky. It was the sort of shot that a couple put in their personal album and share with their family and friends for years.
And then the squirrel popped up.
Since you have an Internet connection, you’ve probably seen the shot of the camera-hog squirrel stealing the scene — and the hearts of people around the world.
And, contrary to reservations TODAY’s Matt Lauer expressed on the air last Friday, it’s not fake.
“It’s 100 percent undoctored,” Melissa Brandts told Lauer Monday from Minneapolis.
Faced with Melissa and her husband, Jackson Brandts, Lauer tried his best to weasel out of his skeptical comments of last week. “I can’t be the only one who questioned the authenticity of that, right?” he asked, somewhat hopefully.
“You questioned it on national TV,” Melissa said with a laugh.
The whole world is laughing
The 29-year-old pediatric nurse and her mechanical engineer husband, also 29, have a lot to smile about these days. In just two weeks, they’re expecting their first child. And, since Aug. 4, when they sent the serendipitous picture of them and their squirrelly friend to a National Geographic photo contest, they’ve found themselves in newspapers from Korea to their hometown of Minneapolis.
“We just have been laughing about it for months — and now the world is laughing, too,” Melissa said.
The story of the nutty squirrel goes back to May when Jackson and Melissa, who love camping, took a trip to Canada’s Banff National Park. While hiking at Lake Minnewanka, Melissa spotted a perfect spot on the rocks for a nice vacation picture.
Melissa sat down while Jackson set up their camera on a small tripod on the rocks. As her husband fiddled with the camera, a curious — and bold — squirrel popped out of the rocks and started scampering all around, including over Melissa’s feet. She laughed about it and told her husband she hoped he was friendly.
Was he ever!
The camera had a self-timer as well as a remote shutter release, which Jackson held in his right hand. He settled himself on the rocks, snuggling next to his wife with his right arm around her shoulder and fired off a few pictures of just the two of them, smiling and posing.
“As we started taking the pictures, he ducked down into the rocks,” Melissa told Lauer and Curry. “And then he heard the shutter release and became interested; thought perhaps it was going to give him some food.”
The squirrel adopted a pose reminiscent of the groundhog in “Caddyshack,” paws held at chest level, eyes staring dead at the camera.
“We were laughing so hard saying, ‘Quick, get it, get it, get it, get it!’ We took a whole series of photos not knowing what we were going to get. And you saw what we got,” Melissa said as the now-iconic shot played on the monitor.
The couple looked at the pictures on the camera’s small monitor, but had no idea if they were in focus. It was only when they got back to their room and downloaded them onto a computer that they saw that the camera’s autofocus mechanism had locked onto the squirrel, leaving the laughing pair blurred in the background.
“It was just really a real fun moment for us. We brought it back and our friends and family just all could not believe it,” Melissa said.
A star is born
Months later, she saw that National Geographic was soliciting photos on its “Your Shot” Web site. Feeling that others would enjoy the shot, she sent it in.
That was on Aug, 4. The next thing Melissa and Jackson knew, the picture was on the front page of a newspaper in Korea and they (well, the squirrel, actually) were an international Internet sensation.
And Lauer was questioning them on national television.
The TODAY host said he was sorry for ever doubting the Brandtses and their furry friend.
“I apologize. Now that I see the pictures that led up to this picture, I have no doubt that this picture is authentic and I will never question the two of you again on national TV,” he promised.
But Curry had one more question. Given the celebrity they’ve gained from their picture and the fact that Melissa is due to deliver shortly, “Any thought about naming your baby Rocky?”
“No,” the laughing father-to-be replied. “Maybe a middle name.”