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Mad winter dash for Yellowstone

Santa Clause was good to me on Christmas 2007 , and a Canon 400mm 5/6L telephoto lens dropped down the chimney and this little boy couldn’t wait to put that hunk of glass to work. I had a long weekend for the New Year’s holiday , and the kids were out of school so a trip to Yellowstone was nearly possible if Murphy’s Law didn’t rear his ugly head.

Winter in Yellowstone is truly a wonderful thing to experience. Its deep snows, bitter cold, abundant wildlife and stark beauty can imprint memories that can last a lifetime, and I have been anxious to share it with my boys. Access to Yellowstone in winter has become problematic since it has become illegal to take a private snowmobile into Yellowstone. So instead of accessing Yellowstone from the south entrance, outside Jackson Hole close to my home, the trip mandated a mad dash for north Yellowstone’s winter road, an eight-hour drive away. I had a hunch that this might be a good time for serendipity to dish me up some wolves for my photo portfolio.

I arranged to work a half-day so I could jump-start the trip. I hurried the fifty miles from Jackson Hole Wyoming to my home in Irwin, Idaho as a severe winter storm was wrecking havoc throughout the area.  Storms often shut down the roads between my home and highway 20 to Yellowstone so time was of the essence.

I momentarily gave pause to think of what a bad dad I was for suspending common to endeavor a nonessential photo excursion when the weatherman and the Department of Transportation, both were telling everyone to stay home. I really had no time to fret over it much, or the roads would close, and my long weekend would be spent at home.

Upon arriving home my wife, Sharon and I hastily loaded the luggage and our boys, Cody and Scott, in the car, we then set off for the dog sitter. After dropping off the dog we had to return home for the omni-not-present forgotten thing, then we expeditiously set off from home only to find a fresh road block on highway 26, the shortest route to hwy 20 to Yellowstone. Dangit, the road closed two minutes ago. Upon a quick consultation with my friend, the DOT road blocker, Rick, I was informed that they hadn't gotten around to closing hwy 33 from Tetonia to Rexburg yet. Fortuitously, I hadn’t run out of chances to risk the safety of my family for the slim chance of photographing wolves in Yellowstone.

I had already rushed over Teton Pass and Rainy Creek Pass to get home, now I had to hurry back over Rainy Creek Pass, and the windy flats south of Victor hoping to reach the frigid hell that was the long wind tunnel flats between Tetonia and Rexburg before hwy 33 closed also. Had the omni-not-present forgotten thing made us backtrack home we could have made the tough but reasonably expedient 20-mile blinding passage across Antelope Flats of hwy 26, in short order, compared to our newly modified itinerary ahead.

Entering the wind tunnel west of Tetonia we were met with fearsome winds out of the southwest that positively made us wonder, what the heck are we thinking? But, our excitement of the opportunity for a Yellowstone getaway filled our optimism glass back up to the half-full mark and it was, steady as she goes, down through the tunnel of wind.

Soon, the wind shifted 180 degrees and started coming at us from the opposite direction. As Sharon and I pondered about this weirdness, a patch of blue appeared above us, DOT closed highway 33 right behind us; Serendipity was beginning to smile upon us.

We made West Yellowstone, under clearing skies at dusk and upon short deliberation we decided West Yellowstone was far enough. In the morning we could continue into Bozeman, Livingston, and to our base in Gardiner Montana.

Arriving in Gardiner around eleven, we still had time to do a reconnaissance through north Yellowstone so I could scout and see where I needed to be at first light in the morning.

The north Yellowstone winter road, US-212, is truly a treat for those who go the trouble too experience it. The northeast gateway communities of Cooke City and Silver Gate Montana regularly need groceries to keep its citizens alive, and the only maintainable access is through Gardiner MT. Yellowstone Park maintains winter access to these communities, the road is well maintained provided a heavy winter storm doesn't get ahead of the plows. Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley seems to provide prodigious amounts of wind so drifting snow can be a problem, but the snow removal team does a stellar job of keeping the drifting snow at bay. These efforts provide Yellowstone visitors the chance to access this smidgen of Yellowstone’s treasures in winter by car.

This special 56-mile section of road provides the last vestiges for Yellowstone’s independent motorized winter travel and is a treasured microcosm of what we used to be able to experience throughout Yellowstone’s developed road system, in winter, by snowmobile.

The grandeur of Yellowstone’s landscape provides many scenic photo opportunities. The peaks of the of the Gallatin Range and the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains add majestic interest to the skyline; Yellowstone Park has provided ample scenic turnouts along the route enabling abundant opportunities to safely get off the road to capture grand scenics and special moments with Yellowstone Park's wildlife.

Wildlife is more active in the morning and evening so I start early and stay late for the best candid photos of the Park’s mega fauna. The first and last light of day provides the best light but the magnificent terrain can provide good photos any time of day. Those hoping to view or photograph wolves greatly increase their chances by being in the Lamar Valley a half hour before sunrise. By working the roadsides in the park, I have found, winter wildlife photography can be done with relative ease and comfort but when fortunate enough to encounter wolves, at close proximity. Be prepared with every warm thing you own because rangers don’t allow parking within a half-mile of where wolves have a kill, so some hiking may be in order followed by extended periods of stationary observation or photography in adverse weather conditions.

If I expected to photograph wolves it mandated a five AM wakeup time as I needed to be forty miles up the road in time for first light in the Lamar Valley, my wife and boys weren’t on board with any such a wakeup schedule so I agreed to return and pick them up at eleven.

Having awakened early I was on the road by five AM which was earlier than I needed, so I poked along the deserted north road, stopping often to look at the tracks in the new dusting of snow that had fallen overnight. There was plenty of canine tracks but none big enough to be a wolf. About six thirty I reached a promising turnout to park, wait, and watch. Another photographer soon stopped, mistakenly thinking, I had knowledge of wolves out there in the darkness. Disappointed by my ignorance, he let me know where the Druid wolf pack had been seen the previous day. I decided to mosey up the road a little farther.

I continued to see coyote tracks in the snow, and I stopped to glass the meadows often despite the paucity of light of this predawn hour. Steady binoculars mandated shutting down the power source to my heater and once, by happenstance after shutting down my car’s engine; I heard the howl of a wolf.

On went the winter clothes, out came the tripod and camera, there was barely enough light for me to make out some movement in the sagebrush on the far side of Soda Butte Creek about six hundred yards away. I made my way to the closest vantage point, cranked up the ISO setting on the camera to compensate for the pseudo pre dawn light. I knew the photos would have no cash value but even photographers’ want record shots of rare wildlife, if that is all they can get.

My camera and tripod aimed to the east was a magnet for other photographers and wildlife observers and my solo time with ‘Canis lupus arctos’ was soon over, however, I was happy to share my vantage point so everyone could get a glimpse of the wolf specks off in the distance.

The sun popped over the hill so I could lower my ISO to a more advantageous setting for quality, now my wolf specks that were playing and snoozing on a distant ridge could at least be properly captured to disk. All too soon, it was eight thirty and time to start working my way back to the hotel to pick up my well rested family.

Upon reaching my turnout I found that photographers and tourists had boxed in my car. It was no longer the quiet place I had parked a short time before. I moved a tour operator, his tourists, a couple of vehicles, then I started my way back. I hadn’t gone a half-mile when I saw a large bull elk standing in the creek; it appeared as though he couldn’t get out. The wolves, playing and snoozing, across the canyon were waiting for him to get hypothermia and die. This unfortunate elk was so close to the road I figured the camera shy wolves wouldn’t come to feed until after dark.

After taking a few photos of the doomed elk I got back on the road. A mile up the road I spotted a herd of Bighorn Sheep at the top of a cliff, there were some nice rams so I stopped to take some photos. Soon, it was time to hurry off to the hotel.

Five miles down the road I saw a flash of something cross the road, upon reaching the spot, looking to the rock outcrop above me, I spotted a coyote in great light so out came the equipment and after the coyote posed for a couple of photos it was really, really time for me to head for the hotel. I surely was glad that I had the wisdom to leave my wolf specks on the hill so I had the two and a half hours I needed to drive through the forty miles of road through north Yellowstone’s bounty.

The family was disappointed about missing the wolves, coyote and bighorn sheep but they were hopeful about seeing more. We worked our way back to the turnout just short of where I had left the elk, the turnout was full of exuberant onlookers who had been watching the wolves feed on the dead elk in the creek, dangit, did I miss the show?

I had Sharon drop me off below the photographer’s knob above the wolf kill; the rangers had closed a mile of road to parking. I joined the photographers who informed me several wolves had eaten their fill and could be seen napping a couple of hundred yards away, I joined the vigil, taking some record shots while waiting for the wolves to become hungry again.

Soon, one of the wolves began to howl and stood up and stretched, he howled some more. He rousted his buddy from his slumber and soon they were assessing their audience on the hill. Their deliberation complete, the wolves must have dismissed us as a minor annoyance because they playfully started working their way toward the lunch counter at the creek and then the show began.

They frolicked in the snow and appeared to attack a vole or two as they worked their way toward the creek, the black wolf held back as the grey wolf reached the bank by the kill, he then must have decided he was not yet hungry enough to wade the icy creek for a meal. He retreated, and then the black wolf advanced, hungrier than the grey, he waded to the kill for a meal.

Meanwhile, my wife had dropped off my eleven-year old, Scott, so he could join me on photographer’s knob for a, in the field, photo lesson. Scott, despite his age, has a keen eye for composition and is quickly building a nice portfolio of his own.

The whole time the wind had been holding steady at 15 miles per hour and the ambient air temperature was about 10 degrees, in my hasty exit from the car to get up to the knob, I had forgotten my gloves. The photographer downwind of me was glad I showed up as long as I stood in the proper place to break the incessant wind. Photographers cooperate in many ways in the field!

My numbed fingers made many trips from my pockets to the shutter button, and being slightly underdressed I was freezing my butt off but there was nowhere I would rather be. Scott decided that his portfolio had fattened enough for this frosty day and rejoined my wife and eight-year old son Cody in the warmth of the car, I instructed Scott to tell my wife I would be finished when the sun dropped over the hill. The subordinating of my physical comfort too close encounters with rare animals was a no brainer. That evening it took a half-hour in the hot tub to get the deep chill off. But all was well; ‘Canis lupus arctos’ was now a part of my portfolio.

The following morning I returned to the knob before sunrise, this time dressed for the minus four-degree occasion sporting my REI, goose down parka, and bibs which were designed for penguin researchers in Antarctica. I was delighted to find the whole Druid Pack of about fifteen wolves a couple hundred yards from the kill. During the night, they had eaten their fill. As luck would have it, a superfluous number of wolf watchers, of which I was a part, returning to a well-known kill, drove the Druid Pack into the woods on the far side of the canyon.

As we held our vigil for returning hungry wolves, several of us compared notes and stories but all to soon it was time to head back to Gardiner to pick up the family for the long drive home.

Serendipity had dished up the wolves for us and Yellowstone provided a plethora of additional mega fauna as a reward for our efforts. Our mad dash for the North Yellowstone road was fraught with hazards, but we reaped the rewards of our reckless optimism because, if you don’t show up, you deny yourself an adventurous experience. But, I suppose a pragmatist or pessimist could argue if you are killed or maimed in a storm you deny yourself the pleasure of a narcissistic experience as well.

I like my way better!


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