Yellowstone Winter 2014

Part 1: The Park 

This winter’s trip to Yellowstone was a rewarding experience in terms of the abundance of wildlife, steamy landscapes and record breaking cold (lowest temperature was -56F)…

As the world’s first national park, a visit to Yellowstone in any season does not disappoint, but it is in the winter, when the temperatures typically drop to the lowest levels anywhere in the lower 48, that the park’s ecology and geology shine the brightest.  And this trip, from an overall, top to bottom perspective, has been my most productive expedition in the last year.

In terms of my all-time favorite subjects, bears are still tops.  But when I go on a bear-centric trip, it is such a demanding subject (physically and mentally), there is little room for much else…this was not the case in Yellowstone. This park does have its specialties, and I could have gone with a single focus, but, in my opinion, and at this point in my career/catalog, it is best enjoyed by thoroughly absorbing as much of the Yellowstone experience as possible. 

The park, renowned for its abundant wildlife and extensive geothermal features (most extensive in the world), has at times been faulted for lacking the iconic vistas that define some of the other US national parks, such as Yosemite or Glacier.  However, the ecological variety and ever-changing geothermal landscapes creates iconic scenes that may only last a moment.  The trick is to be at the right spot, at the right moment to witness it. 

Yellowstone is different, while it is true the famous views such as “Snake River Overlook“, “Gates of the Valley” or “Wild Goose Island” are not there, fleeting but profound images can be wrought from the Yellowstone landscape.  And it is because of the fleeting nature of these scenes that make the resulting image more profound; it serves as a reminder of the Earth’s transient nature. In the words of Paul C, our snowmobile guide, the only constant in Yellowstone is change.  On a geological scale, this is universally true everywhere, the earth’s surface is in constant flux.  But on a human scale we rarely have the opportunity to witness this geological ballet.  Yosemite Valley in California looks much the same now as it did when Ansel Adams first visited in 1916. Yellowstone on the other hand, with its massive magma chamber bubbling a scant 3 or 4 miles beneath the surface, changes noticeably on a daily basis. These types of geological changes to the earth are most apparent here than anywhere else in the world. 

More so than most of the other parks, Yellowstone exercises all of the human senses. A photographer, who attempts to use imagery to communicate the Yellowstone experience is limited to the visual cues presenting.  Many of the scenes contain stimuli that require a first hand encounter to understand and appreciate.  Therefore, I tried my best to capture visual scenes that offer connections to your other senses…this is easier said than achieved…  

What these photographs fail to capture and present to the viewer is the frigid air, the smells, the sounds, the rumbling, the vibrations, the mists, the howls, the grunts, and the silence that are uniquely available in Yellowstone, the most accessible of the snowbound American National Parks. While other of the snowy Parks have generally limited access during the winter, Yellowstone’s hundreds of miles of roads are almost fully accessible via snowmobile and snow coach while the northern section  (Mammoth Terraces and Lamar Valley) is plowed and open to cars.

Next up….

YNP P2: The Wildlife

YNP P3: The People

Glacier Grizzlies

In preparation for my trip to Katmai National Park this week.  Here is a small gallery of photos taken on a single day from last years trip to Glacier National Park (Sept 2012).  These were taken in the Many Glacier section of the park. It was crawling with bears, both grizzlies and black bears.  I was shooting with Jeff Callihan.  We made sure to stay upwind from where we assumed the bears were located, thereby alerting them of our presence by scent. We saw several grizzlies, including a mother and her cub.

One of the grizzlies got a bit too close for comfort, as seen in this gallery. We handled this bear calmly, carefully and respectfully. The bear had been popping in and out of the thicket for several hours, never coming within 200m of our position. We remained stationary the entire time.  After sometime, the bear began to appear closer to our position. When she emerged from the thicket about 40m away, we stood up and slowly moved, side by side, away from the thicket and into the meadow to give her right of way should she desire it.  Looking at us, she kept coming towards us.  When she charged in our direction, we spoke firmly to her, reassuring her of our implicit human-ness.  The charge was likely a curious, exploratory one. But one can never be complacent with a charging grizzly, and the simple act of showing our backs could have triggered the predator/prey instincts of this apex predator. 

At the nearest, she was within 20-30 feet of us.  Once the situation was defused (without needing to spray the bear), Jeff and I quickly left the area and returned to his truck with a freshly invigorated respect for these powerful animals. 

The Grizzly bear is a subspecies of the Brown Bear. To be clear, a grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis) is an interior North American Brown Bear and was so named by the “grizzled” (read: silver tipped) appearance of its coat, which can be observed in these photos.  This subspecies is different from its larger and less “grizzled” cousins found in the coastal regions of Alaska, including Kodiak Island and Katmai NP, and other brown bear subspecies (Russia, Europe).  Despite this, and this is where the confusion stems, the eponymous term Grizzly Bear has been applied to both the inland and coastal varieties of the brown bear. This is because the name “Grizzly Bear” is so awesome that the people near other brown bears got jealous and wanted a name more inventive than “brown bear”.  While it is true that a proper inland grizzly bear is pretty awesome, other brown bears are awesome too, so they shouldn’t feel jealous of their smaller, meaner kin.  The interior grizzly bears can be found in places like: Yellowstone NP in Wyoming, Glacier NP in Montana, Idaho, Washington, the parks of the Canadian Rockies, and inland Alaska (such as Denali NP).  There is also an indie band named “Grizzly Bear”, but don’t let their lame and wanna-be obscure musical styling confuse you with the ferocious nature of this animal. Unless they took inspiration from a grizzly bear’s hibernation period, it would have been more appropriate for them to call themselves “Prairie Dog”.