Monday, February 4, 2013

One Day in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park.  It is the holy grail of wildlife photography in North America. Our Serengeti, if you will.

And so it should come as no surprise to all of you to know that I have been avoiding Yellowstone like the plague for the past twenty years.

Uh, say WHAT?!?

That's right, for the past twenty years, John E. Marriott has been avoiding the single best place in North America to take wildlife pictures.  Sounds like a brilliant career move, right?  Why bother going somewhere that has bison grazing like cattle, wild grizzlies around every corner, and a plethora of other drool-worthy beasts ranging from badgers to beavers to black bears?

The truth is, I'm not that big on crowds, and Yellowstone has them in spades.  That's not to say you can't get off the trails and get away from it all, because you can, it's just that there are always gobs of people driving and wandering about in Yellowstone.  And a lot of them are wildlife photographers.  Couple that with the fact that I only shoot in groups on my photo tours and workshops and you begin to get an inkling for why I favour Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan over Yellowstone much of the time.

The other key factor in my Yellowstone-avoidance plan over the past two decades lies in the direction that I decided to take my career in when I started off.  I figured there were heaps of people photographing Africa and Yellowstone and Antarctica, but not that many concentrating solely on Canada.  So that was the niche I decided to exploit, photographing from Baffin Island to Banff, from coast to coast to coast across the country.

However, every once in a while, I sneak off to Yellowstone without telling anyone (my last trip there was a 7-day backpack in 2003) and grab a few pics for the family albums.

Ten days ago, my wife came into my office and told me she had to take the rest of her 2012 vacation days before the end of January.  That left us with six days to 'go somewhere', so by the next day the car was loaded and we were US-bound!  Since it was supposed to be a 'vacation' and not a John-gets-to-shoot-from-dawn-to-dusk-every-day sorta vacation, we made a compromise.  The first few days would be spent exploring a place we'd both always wanted to go, Jackson Hole in Wyoming (very high marks from both of us, we loved it!), while the last day and a bit would be spent photographing in Yellowstone.

And so, without further adieu, I present to you images from our 'One Day in Yellowstone' on January 28th, 2013.

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Bison bulls on the Blacktail Plateau, Yellowstone National Park

Bison are everywhere in Yellowstone, particularly in the winter when they're concentrated in the nothern part of the park.  It's basically impossible to drive through without scoring some great images of bison doing something or other -- even just laying there.

Two younger bison bulls get rowdy and fight in the Lamar Valley

Snow-draped bison bull in Yellowstone National Park

Not to be messed with!

Other ungulates like deer, elk, and pronghorn are not quite as plentiful as bison are, but they're still easy to find, particularly near the northwest entrance by Gardiner.

A pronghorn antelope doe

But the real winter treasure to be found in Yellowstone is their wild wolves, which have flourished since being relocated from Canada in 1994.  Unfortunately, this winter both Wyoming and Montana had open seasons on wolves and Yellowstone's wolves were decimated, particularly the packs that most tourists get to observe in the Lamar Valley and in the northern reaches of the parks.

We spent the night before our 'One Day in Yellowstone' reading all about the heart-wrenching stories of well-known wolves that had been mowed down along the park's borders this winter by hunters that seemed to specifically target park wolves.

The reports left me feeling mad above all else and really made me appreciate the fact that many of the wolves I photograph in the Canadian Rockies do not stray outside of our park boundaries and are thus not exposed to the dangers of hunting and trapping. However, the packs that I photograph in Yoho and Kootenay national parks in B.C. face the exact same dangers as these Yellowstone wolves now do. Because our national parks do not have buffer zones around them protecting the wildlife from hunters and trappers, much of our trans-boundary wildlife is in constant flux.  For instance, trappers have removed 5 wolves already (almost an entire pack) from Banff's northeast edge this winter (stay tuned for a lot more news about wolves in the coming weeks and about how you can help with putting an end to 'cross-border shopping', where wolf and bear hunters can shoot unsuspecting wildlife right on our parks' boundaries).

In the days leading up to our visit, I'd noticed online that there were still a few packs of wolves being seen in Yellowstone almost daily, so we put the bad news aside and hoped for the best.

An hour into the park, we found our first wolves.  Tiny, distant black specks on a far-off ridge.  Worse yet, there were hundreds of people lining the road hoping to catch a glimpse or a photograph of them!

We left immediately and were rewarded a few hours later with a spectacular sighting of a pack that's not as commonly seen in the park, the Blacktail wolf family, which currently has three gray wolves, including two with radio collars.





Several cars got to see one of the collared alphas as she howled to the other two that had disappeared across the road, and then, about twenty minutes later, with a bit of detective sleuth work, my wife and I were able to find the one uncollared member of the family, who proceeded to really put on a show for us as it walked along the road and dipped in and out of the sage flats.

Gray wolf from the Blacktail wolf family

A beautiful gray wolf from the Blacktail wolf pack pauses in the sage

The same gray wolf eyes me curiously

It was a remarkable experience getting to be so close to a Yellowstone wolf and feeling the same thrills I get when I'm lucky enough to view and photograph wild wolves here in the Canadian Rockies.  And it seemed that much 'cooler' knowing that these wolves are descendants of the same Jasper wolves that I'll be trying to find this week on my Jasper wildlife photography workshop.

So while it was just 'One Day in Yellowstone', it was really 'One GREAT Day in Yellowstone'.

Happy shooting everyone and stay tuned to my Facebook page for Jasper updates this week!

John

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6 Comments:

Blogger Mac McMillen said...

Great write-up and photos, John! The video was cool too! Thanks for sharing your experiences and know-how with amateurs like me.

Mac

February 4, 2013 at 10:08 PM  
Blogger Tony Bynum said...

nice blog post, and great photos . . . I too never go to yellowstone and i live here in montana. It's a complete rat race. There are many places i use to go that are today over crowded and over run by other photographers and tour operators. It may not be long now until a professional wildlife photographer will have to become a professional tour guide just to compete and stay in business.

February 5, 2013 at 7:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! Gets me excited for my first trip to Yellowstone in September.

February 5, 2013 at 6:28 PM  
Blogger Meb Bryant said...

Wow! I trust you are thankful for your talents. Thank you.

February 6, 2013 at 12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very nice, spent a week there in July, WAY too many people, but, loved it, can't wait to go back

February 17, 2013 at 6:58 AM  
Blogger ravenheart said...

Exquisite photography. Best time to visit Yellowstone, their last week for the season in September (3rd week I believe). I had the most incredible visit there at the time of year in 2006. All the employees and volunteers are happy as they are heading "home" wherever that may be for them, and the crowds are gone. I felt like I had the whole place to my self. It was a trip I'll always remember fondly, and I enjoyed a lot of wildlife viewing too!

April 14, 2013 at 9:41 PM  

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