Myself and fellow nature photographer Connor Stefanison have just returned from a week long trip spanning 1 province and 4 states. We finished up our family Christmas celebrations and set out from our hometown of Burnaby, British Columbia. Our destination was Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding areas. Yellowstone NP is comprised of 3 states, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The vast majority being the latter. Famous for it’s wildlife and geothermal features, it’s no wonder why this, the world’s first national park, is so photogenic.
After a long drive starting just outside Vancouver, south to Seattle, east over the Cascade Mountains, across the desert and farmland of central Washington, passed the Continental Divide and through the maze of rivers, mountains and plains that make up Montana, we arrived at our destination of Gardiner. Located in Park County, this quaint settlement is home to less than 1000 people. However, being the only year round gateway to Yellowstone, it has become a popular base camp for visiting photographers. Cross country skiers, snowshoers, wolf watchers and anyone who is keen on enjoying the outdoors at this harsh time of year, flock to the area as well.
Upon our arrival, Connor and I met up with our friends who would be joining us in our attempts to capture the beauty the park has to offer during the winter months. Kathryn Boyd-Batstone an 18 year old from Long Beach California, currently studying at the University of Oregon in Eugene was the first to greet us. Always excited to get out and shoot, she was be a valuable edition to the team. Next to join the pack was 17 year old, robot engineer, beat box extraordinaire, and more importantly on this trip… photo expert , Timothy Brooks. After chatting and photo sharing, we all tried our best to catch some z’s before day 1 of photography commenced.
We arose at 6am the following morning. I’ll speak for myself, but I’m sure the others didn’t do much more than entertain themselves by staring at the Super 8 Motel’s coveted popcorn ceiling or double, triple and quadruple checking that they packed the right gear to shoot with as well! I probably sound like a 6 year old on the night before Christmas or a trip to Chuck E Cheese’s.
But who wouldn’t be excited before entering Yellowstone National Park!? If you’re anything like myself, you have probably buried your head in the books of Tom Murphy and watched BBC’s Planet Earth more than once. I was fully aware of the potential for amazing, unexpected happenings to unfold and the overall beauty that enshrouds the park.
As we set off each day, we observed many small herds of Rocky Mountain Elk and Mule Deer grazing on the grassy slopes above the Gardiner River. Black-billed Magpies flashed their bold plumage as they flew across the sage covered landscape. After a few more miles we crossed the state line into Wyoming. As we climbed the hill up to the Historic District of Mammoth, a strong sulphur smell would became evident. This is a hint that you are getting close to a geothermal feature. Connor and I had the chance to photograph this area. This strange, lunar-esque landscape is sparsely covered in dead trees that once flourished here. The hillside has now been invaded by depositions of travertine, a form of limestone. Rich colour made up of of millions of cyanobacteria, sweeps across the face of the hot springs. Design and vibrancy changing with the temperature and flow of water.
Continuing past this prehistoric area, the road undulates through subalpine forests and large meadows. Chatty Mountain Chickadee flocks foraged in douglas-fir, white bark pine groves.
This habitat slowly progresses into sparsely vegetated plains, cradled by foothills and steep peaks. During most winters this region acts as a haven for wildlife looking to escape the wrath of winter. These lower elevation areas receive much less snow than the summering grounds, higher up the mountains. The park hadn’t seen near the amount of snow as usual, so many of the herds had yet to descend. Even though the regularity of sightings and numbers in the herds were very low, we were kept entertained by the more abundant, reliable species in the park.
Brushing the snow away with icy beards and frozen hooves, are hundreds of powerful, stoic Plains Bison. A species hunted nearly to extinction around the turn of the 20th century. It was an absolute treat getting to photograph this species. Their powerful stare emits a pretty intimidating energy, enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A very temperamental creature, one that requires some careful watching of body language while photographing.
Another large grazer in the park is the Rocky Mountain Elk. Mainly large herds of females, or cows, were present. However we managed to track down a few nice bulls. Feeding in a patch of vibrant red willows no less! They were very obliging as usual, posing in the warm winter sun. While photographing this beautiful Elk, Connor and I stumbled upon an set of antlers. They were shed during a previous winter. Luckily for us, the lack of snow this year left them exposed. Gusting wind and dry, blowing snow finished off the scene.
The true star of this trip was the Coyote. Some days a half dozen could be seen prowling the valley bottoms in search of voles to prey upon. As usual they were very wary of humans so photographing them was quite a challenge. However on one occasion, we viewed a Coyote roaming through a field of Sage Brush. Anticipating it’s route, Timothy and I positioned ourselves a top a ridge over looking a small valley. Needless to say some great photo opportunities presented themselves as this beautiful animal stretched, yawned and even slept right in front of us. Just as the colour broke through the clouds, painting the stormy sky orange, the Coyote tucked himself up into a tight ball and peered at us one last time before snoozing during the final rays of sun. A truly amazing experience that I will never forget!
While travelling throughout the park, we caught glimpses of several Wolves. None of them photographable, but a great sight none the less! On a few occasions, we were able to venture outside the park and explore some mountainous areas of southern Montana. We achieved the shots we had hoped for. A large herd of Pronghorn, North America’s fastest land mammal, treated us to a few hours of photography on one particular morning. On the very same day we ran into a sizeable group of Bighorn Sheep. Descending from their haven amongst sheer cliffs and boulders, they grazed and socialized contently all the way to the valley bottom.
On one of our last days, the most amazing experience of the trip happened outside the park during a hike me and Connor took into the mountains just north of the Gardiner park entrance, near a town called Jardine. A Great Horned Owl sitting high a Lodgepole Pine tempted us off the trail. Perfect timing! While venturing into the forest we came upon a clearing with a kill! A cow Elk had been taken by a pack of Wolves or another large predator only a day or two prior. As we neared closer, we noticed a group of 4 Coyotes scurrying about in the trees just behind the carcass. One with a large tibia bone in it’s mouth. This proved to be quite enticing for the others. Back and fourth they ran, until finally, the initial Coyote escaped with his spoils. Knowing they may return to the food source, Connor and I dug into the snow behind some small fir trees. After patiently waiting, one returned! A little wary at first. Coyotes are often attacked by Wolves when attempting to scavenge from kills. Extremely low light and fast movement rendered a majority of my images blurry. This one however, was just what I wanted.
Despite unseasonable conditions, all in all it was a fantastic trip! A truly gorgeous place with plentiful wildlife, breathtaking landscapes and unique geology. A photographer’s paradise. I look forward to more visits to this amazing area in the future.
~I hope you enjoyed reading and viewing!~
Special thanks to Ed Stefanison, who put in long hours behind the wheel and binoculars!