It was an awe-inspiring and often grueling week that will take a bit to retell. I suppose most people think that 16-hour days in often subzero temperatures isn’t their idea of fun – but it was fantastic. Yellowstone is a lot like Alaska – only closer…
Because our trip happened to be scheduled on a school holiday week it was probably the busiest week in the park’s winter season (which is ending in a bit over a week from now). Public access in the park during the winter is now a combination of snow coaches and guided snowmobiles. The Park Service walks a fine line between protecting the resources in the park and providing access to the public. Tales of “bumper to bumper” 2-cycle snow machines along the trails are now a thing of the past, but seeing how many people were there this week and knowing this is still around half the limit — I hope that the park service continues to find the right balance.
The first few days were cold. Really cold. As the week progressed the temperatures rose a bit until it was positively warm during our layover day in Bozeman — a 70 degree variation! How cold was it? Well, the high temperature in Bozeman was -6 on Friday — and it is generally much colder in various regions of the park. The extreme variation in weather conditions in the park produced areas with bare ground through deep snowpack – you will see this in the photos. But it is winter and there’s no getting around the fact that snow is a major part of the landscape and it very difficult
We spent the 4 days in a “snow coach” and the final 2 days in a van — essentially the same vehicles on the inside, but very different on the outside. Our most excellent guide for the trip was Wim, who has been at the park for well over a decade. We had a chance to meet Wim’s wife, Darla, who is also a guide at Yellowstone. Wim’s deep knowledge of the park, coupled with a good photographic sense brought us to opportunities that you could never expect to find yourself (even if you could) in such a short amount of time. Remember, this is a park where some of the campsites are 80 miles from the gate.
Betsy and I were part of a 5-day photographic workshop along with 4 other amateur photographers (Tony, Ivan, Dimitri, and Richard). They were a great group to be with (in rather cramped quarters for many hours a day). Photography is generally a solitary activity, so it is fun and instructive to be with others for a while and see how they approach the subjects, what interests they have, and share some results. This is the first workshop that Betsy did any extensive photography on as well and you’ll see a bunch of photos from her as well. Betsy also has an uncanny ability to spot birds and animals as we zoom by in our vehicles and found a lot of great opportunities for us to shoot.
Besides a treasure-trove of snowscapes, steaming pools, vents and geysers, we also saw lots of wildlife. The full list (as near as I can recall): bison, elk, coyote, fox, bald eagle, raven, magpie, gray jay, trumpeter swan, bison, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, dippers, and did I mention bison? We also saw a white mink (ermine/weasel) which is pretty rare and possibly 2 raccoons. Raccoons might sound unimpressive, but they are essentially unknown in the park and we believe we made the first sightings in years.
Our elusive “prize” was, of course, the wolf. Despite miles and miles of scanning the landscape, and the location of several kills, we only saw one. They are quite shy and it was a privilege to get 3 fuzzy photos of one before it magically disappeared into the woods. The Yellowstone wolf population has plummeted in the past couple of years. The “parvo virus” killed the majority of the pups this past year and the packs have become much less visible. The NPS can’t really do anything about this but wait to see if they develop a resistance. (There is a vaccine but it takes two injections. Capturing and inoculating all of the wolves, twice, is simply impractical.)
Until you see it with your own eyes, it is really impossible to comprehend the scale of the fires that occurred here in the late 80’s. Entire forests of burned trees cover mountainsides and extend as far as the eye can see. New forests are springing from the ashes and the side effects ripple throughout the entire ecosystem there.
It’s impossible to summarize this so I’ll probably write up some additional stories around the photos as I find the time, but for now …. click here for our Yellowstone Preview photo page.