Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton

About 8 months ago, Julie and I made plans to go to Yellowstone in the spring.  I had always wanted to be there when the animals were having their little babies.  Little did we know, we would be moving from the house to the condo right before the trip.  Julie decided that rather than putting a pet sitter in a condo that looked a bit too much like a war zone, she would stay and let me go shoot photos.  It may have worked out for the best. The park was just reopening and most of the hikes we like doing were still closed. There wasn't a lot to do other than shoot pictures.

I started by spending one day in Jackson, driving up into Grand Teton.  The weather was mostly cloudy, with just a few quick swaths of sun.  The bison and elk were making their slow march north from  near Jackson up into Yellowstone.  From where I took this picture, I could see about 100 bison and 50 elk.
I normally think of the bright yellow colors as part of fall, but the willows were very pretty.  The water was dead calm because of a series of beaver dams in the shallows.  A few minutes later, I saw one of the culprits.  When he saw me, he slapped his tail loudly and dove under water.  I never saw him again.
This time of year, being out for sunrise and sunset is a pain.  The sun rises around 5:30, which means getting up at 4:45 to be in place.  Sunset occurs at 8:30 or so, which means getting back to the hotel after 9:00.  Long days. This morning I was trying to take some sunrise photos of the famous Mormon barns.  With the cloud cover, all I got was some wandering bison next to a pink house.
At the north end of Grand Teton Park, Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake still had a lot of ice on them.  They are supposed to have a big fishing tournament there next weekend, and the ice may play a big role in determining how well people do.
I was hoping to find a mother moose with a very young calf.  No such luck.  I did see a half dozen adults in Grand Teton, which isn't bad for one day.  Most of them are molting right now and they look pretty shaggy. You can see this young male's annual rack is just starting to form.
The second morning, I got up and headed to Yellowstone.  I was surprised to see how much snow was still on the ground.  It turns out they had about 150% of their normal snowfall.  As a skier, I was jealous.  As a photographer, I was pissed that I hadn't thought to bring my snowshoes. Marching around in a few feet of wet snow just doesn't work.
An hour into Yellowstone, I stopped in the West Thumb Geyser basin.  It certainly isn't near the top of Yellowstone's list of spectacular sites, but it was an easy stop on the way to the Lake Hotel where I was staying.  I got out of the car with my 24-70mm lens to take some nice landscape shots.
When I got over to the boardwalk that goes through the basin, I noticed something out of place, a 400+ pound male grizzly bear.  I ran back to the car, grabbed my bag of gear, my tripod, and my camera with the 500mm lens on it.

I started shooting from the boardwalk.  This was a BIG grizzly bear.  He can run 35 mph and his claws could shred you with ease but he was busy eating the flowers off the dandelions. He would eat a batch and then look around for his next victims. Interestingly enough, each time those victims were closer to the people watching, including me.
I knew that you should be a lot further from a grizzly than we were standing.  I had a teeny, tiny bit of confidence from the big can of bear mace I had out.  I had a lot more confidence because there were families even closer.  Some had small kids and a lot were wearing shoes more appropriate for the opera than for outrunning a bear. The old saying applies:  "I don't need to outrun the bear.  I just need to outrun you."

Just the same, even with a very long lens, this was the last shot I took before abandoning my camera and getting the hell back.  You might be thinking "Steve just cropped this down so it looks close."
No, this would be cropped. Any time you can get a good shot of his nose texture, ....
So, thankfully I stopped selling my old camera every time I buy a new one.  For the past few years, I almost always have two in my bag when I go to shoot.  Here's why.  That would be my Nikon D800e and 500 mm lens with the grizzly bear underneath, still eating dandelions.  Fortunately, he was considerate and didn't even touch the tripod.  He finished those flowers and moved across the boardwalk to the next batch.
By now, the park rangers had come rolling up.  They panicked and started yelling at everyone. Not only did they get everyone back, they shut down the entire geyser basin for a few hours.  I was able to grab my camera and head back to the car, knowing that this adventure had already paid for the trip.

During the next few days, I had encounter after encounter with the bison.  They are quite certain that the park is theirs and for the most part, they're correct.  I followed these guys for about 10 minutes before they decided to head off the road.
When you see one up close (from the car), they are impressive.  As big as they are, they can hop a four foot fence with ease. They can also run you down as easily as the grizzly bears.
In the Lamar Valley, I ran across my first batch of baby bison.  This little guy was bouncing around the field looking for others to play with.  There were quite a few of them, so they were all consistently entertained.
I looked long and hard for wolves in the park.  I never saw any and I ran across very few people who did.  Even those were quick glimpses.  Coyotes are more common though.  I was a bit ticked off one morning because of the crappy weather.  I had gotten up very early for the sunrise, which was deeply hidden in a bank of clouds and fog.  I mumbled something about the photography gods owing me something if the weather was going to be miserable.  Within 30 seconds, this coyote walked down the road, passed me, sat down behind the truck and barked and howled.  Then he wandered off into the woods. Nice.  Hope I didn't waste a wish on that.
The elk are everywhere and some are easy to approach.  This time of year you can see them develop their annual racks.  This guy was probably a teenager.
This one was working quickly towards a very impressive rack.
Black bears are a lot smaller than the grizzlies and if you judge by this one, a lot lazier.  He was sound asleep about 20 feet up in a tree. I thought I was talented when I could fall asleep on the DC metro every morning.
This was another grizzly I saw on several occasions.  Where my first encounter was with the dandelion hunter, this one had a mining background.  He would dig constantly, ripping through the mud and roots, looking for something.  Our best guess was voles.
In addition to the mammals, there were lots of birds, both land and water varieties.  It never fails to amaze me to see white pelicans in snowy, mountainous terrain. Don't they belong at the beach with Jimmy Buffett?
I was asking one park ranger if she had heard of any sightings of Great Grey Owls.  I know they are in the park and I have never seen one.  She said "Sure! There is a nest over by the Mammoth visitors center."  Off I went.

Sure enough, I found the nest with the three owlets.  They were so tucked in that it was very difficult to see more than one at a time, but I did confirm that there were three.  I waited for about an hour, hoping one of the parents would show up.  No luck.  I got back in the car to go explore other areas.
On my way back through, I stopped quickly to see if anything had changed.  Sure enough, a parent was there.  Unfortunately, the Great Grey Owl I was looking for was disguised as a Great Horned Owl.  Interesting, but I have seen a number of them before.  Don't you have to pass some test to become a park ranger?
In addition to all the animals, there are beautiful landscapes everywhere.  Even on a misty, cloudy day, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is pretty.
Lake Yellowstone was still a block of ice.
The thermals, geysers and paint pots all look like they are from another planet.
I thought this one looked the most interesting.  I looks like I over saturated the colors in Lightroom, but this is how it really looks.
A polarizing lens filter is very handy to have when you are shooting in Yellowstone.  Like polarized sunglasses, the filter cuts down on the glare.  Sometimes this is good and other times, not so much. Here is a great example.

I grabbed this shot because I liked the reflection in the pool of water.  Then I was curious to see how it would look with the polarizer on.
Here we have roughly the same shot, but the polarizer is getting rid of almost all the surface reflections. Now you can see through the water to the reddish bottom of the puddle.
You can guess where Grand Prismatic Spring got its name.  If you hike up the hill behind it (still layered in snow), you can really see the colors.
As much as I like the colors, the textures appeal even more.  Shapes, patterns, shadows, ...  They are everywhere.
The waterfalls around the park are running fast and furious as the snow melts.  Some of my favorite falls either weren't accessible so far this season or I only saw them on rainy days.
I love both the lower and upper falls in the Grand Canyon.
As a contrast, here is the same waterfall back in January.
It was a decent trip.  The weather could have been better and I wish that more things were open and available in the park.  Just the same, Yellowstone on a bad trip is more impressive and photogenic than most places on their best days.

Post a Comment