Elk Rut: Action in Jasper

The Elk

I arrived to Jasper at 9:30 the next morning, found a campsite in Whistlers, and met up with Joey and Sarah in the afternoon…and began to find some elk….

Out of all the days in Jasper, Sunday 9/21 was the most productive on all accounts. I saw and photographed my first “real” rutting action at the Lagoon at sunrise.  Then at sunset, we were on a different bull along in the Athabasca River, near the Jasper Fairmont. Out in the flood zone, we were in the middle of it all, 3 or 4 competing satellite bulls bugled in various directions, near and far, agitating the alpha with the harem. He didn’t get lucky down by the river, but the light and action there was phenomenal. However, after calling it quits, as we walked back to our cars, we came upon this bull getting lucky with a cow on the lawn of the Jasper Fairmont Lodge. Two matings in one day, I was beginning to feel spoiled!

I can honestly say that photographing these hormonal elk may be equally as dangerous as bear photography. The fact that they are deer may lull you into a false sense of security. Its true that elk doesn’t have the teeth and claws to maul, but they are well equipped to rake and stomp. Joey’s advice on the matter was to always have an exit strategy when going in close, never leave yourself exposed.

This was sage advice. These hormonal beasts were fickle and prone to irrational spurts of sudden aggression. At one point while viewing a bull and his harem, the bull casually got closer to a group of us. We reacted immediately by increasing the space.  On both sides of the bull’s path were stone piles, about 4m high with stones the size of basketballs. On my side, two of us scurried up one of the piles, while the man across the path scrambled up the other one. As the bull slowly passed us by, he suddenly charged at the other man, who fortunately still had room to scramble even higher.

In terms of photography, the conditions in the morning were better for moody shots with backlit smokey bugle vapor puffs.  The evenings were better for dramatic and rich light, but no smoke breath. It was also much colder in the morning, around the freezing point, while the afternoons were still hot from the day’s heat.


Each wildlife trip has its own unique way bringing a variety of people together, and Jasper was no different. Wildlife is unpredictable, and it is the people involved that distinguish a good trip from a great one. As is often the case, wildlife photo trips are made special by the beautiful locale, wildlife and people that are there. When you have good people to chat and connect with during the lulls in action, I find the overall productivity will increase. And the people who participate in the Jasper Elk Rut may have the strongest sense of community that I have yet experienced.  The crowd was a nice blend of full-time and retired professionals and semi-pros, skills ranging from beginner to expert, and and non-photographers alike.  The collective knowledge of this group was impressive. Many were veterans of the Jasper elk rut, people who understood elk.  Many of my most inquisitive questions were not only entertained, but graciously answered….which is not something that normally happens!

Elk Rut: Arrival in the Rockies

Elk Rut 2014: Jasper National Park

Setting the scene…

The blue of the Canadian Rockies...
The blue of the Canadian Rockies…

The Canadian Rockies, a magnificent place to visit any time of the year, rarely disappoints those who visit. For my most recent trip, I was fortunate to experience the jewel of the North American Rocky Mountains during the autumn elk rut. For most of the year, elk keep to themselves and live relatively benign, and quiet lives. Not so during the elk rut. Bull elk dash back and forth, vocalizing and clashing violently with other bulls and careless photographers; defending harem and territory….

Snow Striped Peaks, a signature of the Canadian Rockies
Snow Striped Peaks, a signature of the Canadian Rockies

Their bugles bounce off the nearby peaks and aretes in an attempt to intimidate and impress. In turn, impressed cows will present themselves to the crazed bull for mating. Yellow larch and aspen trees and turquoise glacial silt add a splash of vibrancy to the landscape with snow striped mountains.

Getting there

I landed in Calgary at around midnight Friday night/Saturday morning, hopped into my rental car and headed west for what would be a long weekend in the Canadian Rockies. Following the Trans-Canada Highway, I reached the Banff entrance gate in just over an hour.  Another hour beyond the park boundary was Lake Louise. With no time to waste, I didn’t stop. I had night photography on my mind, and needed to find a spot to do some shooting. At Lake Louise the Trans-Canada Highway intersects Alberta Highway-93, also known as The Icefields Parkway.

Looking north, Vega and traces of a distant aurora, or airglow, difficult to know for sure
Looking north, Vega and traces of a distant aurora, or airglow, difficult to know for sure

Following this road north I made my way to Peyto Lake, and took a stab at doing night photography on the moonless, but clear night. After a full day at work, plane ride to Calgary, and 3 hour drive into the rockies, I wasn’t feeling particularly ambitious for a night photo session. Plus I was here for the elk, so I took it relatively easy this first night, only shooting for 90 minutes.  At Peyto Lake, there was a hint of the Northern Lights to the north and some clouds moving through the sky. At 04:00 I broke down my gear and sought out a quiet parking lot to take a nap in, which I came upon a few miles down the road. I would cover the final two hours of the Icefields Parkway drive to Jasper the next morning…

April Snow Storm in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park, April 26, 2014

After a dreadfully warm and dry winter in Yosemite, that offered almost zero possibility of a winter snowscape image.  A mid-Spring visit proved to be the perfect opportunity for such a shot.  On Friday April 25, 2014, Yosemite’s weekend weather forecast was foreboding.  100% chance of rain mixed with snow, mostly cloudy, and temperatures in the low 30s.  But as is always been the case with the jewel of the Sierra Nevada, the terrible weather forecast didn’t ruin the weekend.  In fact, these weather conditions enhanced it.  I would rather visit Yosemite on a bad day, than a bluebird one.

Yosemite is frequently beautiful and sunny. And over the past year the beautiful and sunny days have greatly outweighed the cloudy ones.  And no, this is not a proclamation about the California drought and how we desperately need rain here. This post is purely about the aesthetics associated with changing weather.  The fact is (and yes, it is fact) Yosemite, like almost everywhere, is more interesting in a transition.  

Drive to Yosemite. Transitioning weather on CA-140 as the sunset. Note the rain drops on this image. Behind me was a dramatic full rainbow. 
Drive to Yosemite. Transitioning weather on CA-140 as the sunset. Note the rain drops on this image. Behind me was a dramatic full rainbow. 

And in case you were wondering, more “interesting” typically translates to more “beautiful”. 

Colors of Three Seasons in One
Colors of Three Seasons in One

A transition can be anything that is in flux, . Off the top of my head a few examples are changing meteorological conditions, such as weather (a clearing storm), changing seasonal/climate conditions (summer to fall), or changing astronomical conditions (sunrise/sunset, night/day).  The astronomical transitions occur daily and will continue to do so until we cease to revolve around the sun. This can be precisely tracked and mapped.  Sunrise and sunset is the baseline for all nature loving people.  A seasonal transition is something that can also be tracked, albeit with less precision.  But the seasons generally adhere to the defining characteristics of that location, governed by the position of the Earth. From the spring blossoms to autumn foliage, seasonal transitions are celebrated worldwide. 

The real wild card here are the short-term meteorological variations, or the weather.  Special weather conditions can create interesting (beautiful) conditions at anytime of day.  It can also washout the day (with rain or too much direct sunlight), leading to images that may be tepid and uninspired.   The weather is  The seasonal variations do have their 

Like a hand in poker, the weather remains unknown until the last moment. 

Each variety of transition mentioned above, is, in someway, related to one another, generally stemming back to the power of the sun. The astronomical aspects influences the length of day, which in turn influences the seasons, which in turn influences the weather, but it is simpler to break it down into three distinct transition categories. Astro. Seasonal. Weather.

If it is possible for all three transitions to simultaneously come together, you will be rewarded with something special. And this was the situation at sunrise Saturday morning, April 26, 2014, at Yosemite National Park. Here are some photos from that day in the park.

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”.