Yellowstone: Day Three

Day three began much like the others, up early and try to catch the critters while they are yawning.  By this time, we’re starting to do a bit yawning ourselves.  But we get up, pushed forward by the excitement knowing we will see wonderful things today.

We enter the park, and as usual, we are greeted first thing with wildlife.  The silhouetted mule deer on the ridgeline, (one with a bird on its back) brings us into the right frame of mind for the rest of the day; peaceful and calm.  But then of course, pretty much any day this time of year in Yellowstone will bring you that feeling.

As we increase in altitude driving into the park, the temperature drops.  I think this was the coldest temperature we noticed on this trip.  19 degrees is quite chilly for this Texas boy, but it sure does feel invigorating!  I could learn to love this weather.

We decide to make our way to the Lamar Valley again today.  On our way we spot some bison, which, as you have noticed by now, is not uncommon here.  However, the contrast between the bison and the frost covered grass was not to be missed.  The entire place had a sense of “wonderland” to it with the animals, the cold air, and the frost.

After finding nothing but bison hanging out in Lamar this morning, we headed back to Mammoth and then down to the Hayden Valley.  Normally, this would be a short drive over the Dunraven Pass, but that road closed for the winter a few days before we got here, so we have to go all the way around the park.  Someday we’ll make it here when all the roads are opened at once!

Heading south from Mammoth, about a third of the way to the Norris Junction, I spotted this scene and had to pull over.  Something about blue rivers winding through evergreen trees just cries out to me for a photograph!

As we continue south, we begin to see more thermal features.  With a chill in the air, the steam rising from the warmer streams brings an air of mystique to the area.  We’ll see even more of the thermal features tomorrow.

Once in the Hayden Valley we see… more bison.  This seems to be bison day!  They are everywhere.  This herd was just hanging out near the river, grazing on the grasses and resting in the sun.

Continuing on through the valley, we head down to the Fishing Bridge area in hopes of spotting the reported grizzly sow and her cubs.  We drive, and look.  Look and drive.  No sow.  We do however, enjoy the beauty of the scenery and the mountains across the Yellowstone Lake.  Trivia points:  Yellowstone lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7000 feet  in North America and has an average depth of 139 feet.  In the winter the ice on the lake can get up to 3′ thick and stay frozen  from December to May or early June!

After no critter sightings in the Fishing Bridge/Yellowstone Lake area, we head back to the Hayden Valley.  On the way we decide to stop at the LeHardy Rapids, another spot where bear are known to be spotted.  Once again, no bear, but we did notice these little guys sitting on the rocks in the middle of the rapids.  There was a fish and game officer there and I asked him what they were.  He said that they were harlequin ducks.  He also said that he was worried about them because most of the others had already migrated away and wasn’t sure why these were still here.  Here’s hoping that the little guys made it.

Finally tired of driving, we stop at a “wildlife exhibition” area near the Alum Creek pullout.  Nothing here but the ravens.  Karen thinks they are ugly, but I argue that their solid blackness has a certain allure to it.  We begin talking about some of the recent bear attacks and Karen mentions that at least the ravens aren’t known for violent attacks!  Just about that time, the raven sitting on the display sign, hops down to the ground on top of a field mouse, and pecks it to death!  I guess he didn’t like being taken so lightly in the danger department.  He then proceeded to feast on the little rodent right there.  Karen decided it was time to leave.

And speaking of the recent bear attacks, as you can see from this sign, the Mary Mountain trail was still closed due to the recent fatal bear attack on a hiker.  As we pulled up, a lone bison came walking down the trail, as if to say, “Those signs don’t apply to me, and even if they did, who’s going to stop me.”  I guess a 2000+lb bison isn’t worried about a bear.

Another day under our belt without a large variety of wildlife to speak of.  But as we exit the park, we see our only pronghorn this trip.  When we visited the Grand Teton National Park in 2009, these guys were all over the place.  Here in Yellowstone, it appears that the bison have taken over that spotlight.  Still though, it was nice to see and photograph.  Trivia points:  The pronghorn (it is not an antelope) is the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere, and considered second only to the cheetah for speed.

And never let it be said that Gardiner, MT is a boring place.  Once again, right in the middle of town, more mule deer, feasting on the grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.  Karen and I discussed how cool it must be to have wildlife like this just roaming all over town and in your yard.  But then we thought about the mess they would probably leave behind.  I guess the free fertilizer is just the tradeoff for living that close to nature.

Once again, our day is over too soon.  And once again we are thankful for the things we have seen.  And once again, we are plum tuckered out!  I think we’ll sleep in a little tomorrow…

Yellowstone: Day Two

Day two started out in a magnificent manner!  I stepped out of our residence to this view!  Snow capped mountains right out the front door!  What’s not to love about that!  Gardiner is a very small town right at the north entrance of Yellowstone.  I’m told that the actual population of the town is somewhere around 800 people, but obviously, the number of visitors, especially in the summer months, is much higher.  The size of the town is perfect for its location, nestled in a small valley surrounded by the wonderful mountains!

We get a somewhat early start to the day, still recovering from our normal work-life and travel.  One of the places I wanted to visit is a trail over the Blacktail Plateau.  It is known to have copious amounts of wildlife, so we’re really hoping to see and photograph them.  However, this trip, it seems that about the only wildlife to be seen there is this herd of bison grazing in the fields.  Still, any chance to interact (even from the car) with a beast powerful enough to leap it’s 2,000+ pound body over a fence, is a chance not to be missed.  While these animals appear to be very docile, their looks can be deceiving.  In fact. more people are injured each year by bison than pretty much any other creature in the park.

Also, the safety of being in the car, give a great chance for those up-close shots that really accentuates the power of this beautiful animal.

One of the things Karen and I were really hoping to see this trip was snow, and we were not disappointed this day!  It wasn’t much, but coming from Texas where we just suffered through a record-breaking summer of heat, any change was appreciated.  Most mornings started out in the teens and twenties, which really didn’t bother us in the least.

After leaving the Blacktail Plateau, we headed to the Lamar Valley, known for wolf and bear sightings.  These are two animals we seem to always miss out on when we travel.  We are really hoping to get to see them this time.

On our way to the valley, we spot this lone elk in a field at the Roosevelt Junction.  This is another of the creatures which is numerous in Yellowstone.  The males, with their proud antlers always look so majestic.  This one was alone and we just couldn’t pass by the opportunity to capture a few memories of his image.

Once in the Lamar Valley, we traveled up and down the road with no luck.  Normally you can tell if there is wildlife (wolves in particular) in the area because there will be many people pulled off the road with spotting scopes and cameras.  Nothing was to be seen today though.  But even with this bit if disappointment, we were still privy to the wonderful mountain views from the valley!  It just doesn’t get much better than this.

After driving through the Lamar Valley a few times, we come across a guy and his dog Jake, (yes, I rememberd the dogs name and not the guy) and have an opportunity to chat with him for a while.  While talking, he casually asks, “Do you want to see some wolves?”  Well DUH!  He tells us that the Blacktail pack have been spotted over near Elk Creek.  That’s near the exit of the Blacktail Plateau Trail we were on earlier.  That’s all we need to hear and we are off, after we thank him for the information of course.

We arrive, and sure enough, there are all the wolf-watchers with the scopes and cameras set up.  We finally get a spot to park, and I grab the big lens and hike up to where they are.  Then I ask, “Where are they?”  I’m pointed to these little black and gray dots way out in a field!  Well, that’s even too far for my 600mm lens.  Disappointment sets in for a second, then someone says, “Listen!  The wolves are howling!”  How cool is that!  If you have never heard that sound in real life, you really should get to some day.  It is amazing!

But the adventure here isn’t over yet.  A couple of the wolves decide to come closer and cross over the road.  Still a ways off from where I am, but at least I can get a “I saw them” shot and crop it enough to tell they are wolves and not just dots.

Giddy with excitement, we leave the Blacktail pack and begin heading back toward the area of our home-base.  On the way, we spot a herd of Elk on the side of a hill, all grazing together.  We hike the trail at the bottom of the hill and are able to get a few shots.  The male elk was higher on the hill watching over his herd, taking a very masculine pose with his big rack and one of his ladies.  This situation just begged for a photo, so I obliged.

After leaving the elk, we stop off at Udine Falls, which is right off the roadway.  When out photographing areas, it is hard to grow tired of waterfalls, especially when they are surrounded by wilderness.  Waterfalls have that combination of power and beauty that just makes one feel right about the day.

Okay, for those that live in the area, the magpie is a nasty bird.  They are compared to our grackles here in Texas.  But for those of us who don’t live there, this is very pretty bird!  Very basic black and white color scheme just draws my attention.  I thikn I’d trade our grackles for the prettier magpie any day!

One of the craziest areas of the park is the town of Mammoth.  This is the area where the army set  up Fort Yellowstone when they were in charge of the park before the creation of the National Park Service.  This town almost always has wildlife roaming around the buildings.  Usually it is the resident heard of elk, but this day, we spotted this coyote roaming around like he was looking for something.  He didn’t seem to worried about us, as he gave us a single glance and then went about his business of sniffing out whatever he was looking for.

And the aforementioned elk.  This one caught our attention as it appeared he was about to bugle to his harem.  We paused, took pictures, but nothing ever came out of his mouth.  A silent bugle.  That was a big strange, but as you are about to see, strange is relative in this place.

As we get back into Gardiner, the strangeness steps up a notch.  There are elk everywhere.  We see them in people’s front yards and as I look across the river to the hotel there, I see elk, not just in the surrounding yard, but actually right outside the first floor rooms!  It made me wonder if when you check in they ask questions such as, “Smoking or non-smoking?  Elk or no elk?”

Bottom line: This is a very cool place, especially if you like close interactions with wildlife.  Today will not be our last interactions for sure, and the best is yet to come.

Day two comes to a close and we are thankful for all we have seen!

Yellowstone: Day One

Welcome to Michael and Karen’s 2011 Yellowstone Adventure!  We flew into Bozeman MT on Saturday to rainy weather, and today (10/16) looks to continue that trend.

We got up early, not because we really wanted to, but I guess we’re just getting old and can’t sleep in as much as we used to when we were younger.  Today was to be an easy day, our first real “vacation” day where we really had nothing planned or anyplace that we just had to be.

I took the opportunity to test the camera equipment off the deck of our vacation rental.  It sits on the Yellowstone River in Gardiner, MT, just outside the park entrance.  Pretty view, but I’m hankerin’ for wild critters for my lens.

After breakfast and meeting with the property manger, we buy some bear spray (just in case) and head into the park to scout the route to the Hayden Valley.  Obviously, this is the park entrance.  As you can see, it is still rainy, and will rain on us most of the day.  But that’s okay.  Compared to the miserably hot and dry weather in Texas this summer, the rain and cold (lower 40s all day) isn’t all that bad to me.

Well, this looks promising.  Just after entering the gate to the park we see a group of mule deer trotting along the top of a ridge.  While this isn’t the last of the wildlife we will see today, let’s just say that most of the wildlife didn’t seem to care much for the cold rain.

The obligatory “entering-the-park” sign.

Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, just inside the north entrance.  Very interesting place, and very photogenic. It also had a very “slight” odor of sulfur.

This was taken after leaving Mammoth and give you an idea of the weather here today.  Again, I am by no means complaining.  This is a welcome change to the record-breaking “Summer of 2011”.

After leaving Mammoth, we aren’t finished with the thermal features.  In fact, the entire western side of this park is spotted with them.  Technically, Yellowstone is sitting on top of a “super volcano” that is so large, it it were to go off, the effects would be felt around the world, and I wouldn’t really have to worry about being right here at the epicenter.

This is “Roaring Mountain”

I thought this was pretty cool.  From this overlook, you can see the steam rising from numerous geological features in the area.

We made our way down to the Canyon area, a place we visited two years ago when we were here, but this time we observed the falls from the north rim instead of the south.  Still a very impressive sight.

But even the beautiful falls cannot compete with the beauty of my wonderful wife, Karen!

Or to the power of her magnificent husband!  (Okay, maybe not).    (And yes, it was a bit chilly, but being a “real man”, my coat was in the car)

As be begin to get close the Hayden Valley, we begin to see at least a little more wildlife.  This hawk was sitting patiently in a tree right next to the road.  I shot it from the drivers seat.

After making it all the way to the Fishing Bridge with no bears or wolves, we turn around and head back north.  Then, while passing through Hayden again, we see a few cars stopped on the road.  That usually means some sort of wild action, and sure enough, there was this coyote.  Looks like it was planning an attack on some Canadian Geese that were in the nearby water.  Karen was able to grab this shot from her seat.  We turned around and I set up the big lens where we were expecting it to come out of the weeds, but it disappeared in a stealth-like manner and was nowhere to be found.

But finally, as we were approaching Mammoth, we saw activity and pulled over.  There were some elk out in the field.  We could hear the males bugling, but they were staying hidden.  I did manage to get this shot of one of the females before the light was totally gone.  Finally, a real-world test of my 600mm lens!  Not the greatest of shots, but a good start!

Tomorrow, we will scout the northern and north-east parts of the park near the Lamar Valley and see if any wolves or bear show themselves there!  The forecast is calling for sun, so maybe we’ll see some action.

(Pictures taken with Canon 5DmII, 7D, and T1I)

The Wyoming Adventure Day 3

After watching the weather forcast for the coming week, we decided that today would be the best day to try and get the sunrise shots of the Tetons because the rain wasn’t supposed to move in until after noon.  Someone forgot to brief the rain because when we stepped out of the motel at 6:30 it was already raining.  Well, we are several miles south of the actual Tetons here in Jackson, so maybe it’s not raining there.  As we left and started driving toward the Snake River Overlook, we actually drove out of the rain.  But it quickly caught back up with us.  Not only that, the mountains were pretty much completely covered.

Morning Rain

I took a couple of shots and we moved on.  Maybe we would have better luck at Ox Bow Bend.  We were there at sunset the last night and if nothing else maybe we would get some early morning wildlife shots.  We got there and by the time I got unloaded, the rain began to spit at me.  It was still before sunrise so it was still pretty dark, however when I looked up, there was a bird flying overhead that had a very distinctive white head!  A Bald Headed Eagle!  I had been hoping that I would get to see one.  I cranked up the ISO to 1600 and fired away.  They may be grainy shots, but I wasn’t going to let this one get away.

Flying Eagle

So, Jackson and the Tetons are rained out for the day.  Plan B.  Let’s just drive up to Yellowstone and see what the weather is like there.  We had origionally planned on spending two days up there, but there was really only two things that I really wanted to see; Old Faithful and the falls in the Grand Caynon of Yellowstone, so why not.

We headed farther north to Yellowstone and it seemed that maybe this was a good idea.  We started to see sunshine peaking through the clouds here and there, and while we were still getting spit on occasionally, the sky looked nothing like it did back in the Jackson area.

We finally make it to Old Faithful and it seems that our timing was pretty close to perfect.  People were starting to make their way out to the viewing area.  I found a spot, threw on a gradient neutral density filter set up the tripod and waited.  After what seemed like a few false starts, away she blew.  It was a pretty cool sight.  Like most people, I have heard about Yellowstone and Old Faithful since I was a kid in grade school, but I’ve never been here to see it before.  This is an amazing place for sure.

Old Faithful

Once Old Faithful was finished, we packed up and headed even deeper into Yellowstone to the Grand Caynon.  I really wanted to see the waterfalls there.  There were a couple of smaller (much I would later see) fall on the way there that we stopped at, but this was what I wanted to see.  Our first stop was at Artist Point.  I knew that if nothing else I had to take the “postcard shot”, you know, the shot that you see everywhere you look.  So, I took that and got it out of the way.  This place is really impressive!

Lower Falls Postcard

From there, we moved to Uncle Toms path which leads about 3/4 of the way down to the floor of the caynon for a more closeup and personal shot of the falls.  By the time we got there and walked down (over 300 stairs and about a half mile of slope) there it was.  And again, our timing couldn’t have been better.  The sun was just starting to hit the spray causing the rainbow to appear!  Wow!  This was breathtaking.

Lower Falls Rainbow

Speaking of breathtaking, now we had to go back UP all those stairs!  Needless to say, it took much longer to go UP than it did to come down!  Both Karen and I were ready to sit for a while after that “little” hike!

Stairway of Pain

No trip to Yellowstone would be complete without at least one view of a pool of boiling mud!  This place has so many geothermal features it is just mind blowing.  With my main objective of the falls behind me, we took time to stop at a few of them on the way back to Jackson.  I’ve got to say that the smell of sulpher is very strong around some of these so be prepared.  I recommend your own oxygen if you can.  🙂

Boiling Mud

And as we made our way back to Jackson, we see that the weather just hasn’t changed much from this morning.  No problem.  After all the climbing we did, we are both ready to get something to eat and just relax for the next two days.  Looks like we’ll be sleeping in tomorrow because the forecast calls for yet even more rain.  Maybe I’ll take pictures of the hotel room.  🙂