March 9, 2011

Yellowstone, March 3rd - 7th

A member of the Lamar Canyon Pack of wolves looks out over a vast expanse of snow on a cold winters morning in Yellowstone National Park. Created with a Canon 7D and a 500/4.0L IS + 1.4TC III set in aperture priority mode with an exposure bias of +1 1/3 to f/7.1, ISO 400, and 1/400th of a second. Shot from an Induro GHB2 and Gitzo 3540XLS tripod with a custom long lens support.


What a great little five day getaway!
I always have a good time in Yellowstone; but there is something about winter camping that I love. It has been four years sense I took my first wolf photograph inside of Yellowstone National Park (8:32am on the six of March, 2007), and that trip really cemented a desire to visit the park each month of the year. It started with the goal of one year, then two, then three, and currently I am working on year number five. For me March feels like the start of the new year, add to it the fact that I have yet to make an early March trip and not come home with pleasing wolf images.

Camping: Rocky Mountain College was on spring break so it was possible for me to get away for an extended period of time. I had planned on a 4 day trip, with one or two nights of camping. In the end I got five days in the park and four nights of camping, and I loved every minute of it. During my January trip I cleared my favorite tent site of snow (about three feet at the time). Each trip I try to camp in the same place, so I keep the snow relatively clear and I am able to find my spot with ease. This years snow pack was very dry and did not tolerate "dead men" well, the ground is frozen, so stakes do not worked well either. A little ingenuity has been needed to pitch a tent and have it hold up to the high winds that often accompany a Yellowstone winter (stakes/dead men/rocks/sagebrush in unison). My tent (Marmot Swallow) withstood 30+ mph winds and plenty of falling snow during this trip, so I guess the combination worked well enough; but it did take some real work to take it all down (check out a time lapse of the process). Why do I camp? I was asked that question dozens of time this trip, and countless times over the last four years; my answer is normally simply that I enjoy it, and that it lets me photograph my tent in use. To be honest it is not that cold, it leaves me feeling more connected to the park, the photos often turn out great, I get to start my day 15-20 minutes closer to where I want to be, and it does save some money on hotels (saved $200+ this trip). I have been called "hard core;" but I do not believe I deserve that title, the folks who are "hard core" are out winter camping in the backcountry, and that is something I have never done (but I want to, just not alone).

iPhone: On its second trip to Yellowstone was my iPhone, and it was used extensively to keep the outside world informed to what was happening in Yellowstone. I shot a dozen time lapse videos, streamed live from inside the park (three times successfully, and two times unsuccessfully), posted sightings and happening to Twitter and Facebook, and was also able to keep myself informed of the weather and other happenings. If you are not following/friends with me, and you love Yellowstone you really should jump over to Twitter and Facebook and get on board.

Weather: I think it was nice all five days, if anything it got a bit too sunny a few times (my sunburned face is proof of that). We did have some nights with high winds, and cold that really did have a bite. We also had a few periods of near white out conditions; by now only every third or forth road marker is still in place, and the snow banks are very high, so... Spring is coming, and though I am sure we will have more snow and cold to come, the general trend is to start warming up and melting off the snow. We have lots of snow this year, and I think that the rivers will be running fast and high this spring/summer.

March 3: I left billings just after sunrise; but took my time on the 2h30m drive to the park, as I was in the mood to watch the birds. Arriving at the North entrance before noon it was that time of year to buy my season parks pass once again (best $80 I spend each year). In past the usual deer/elk/bison/bighorn sheep and to Mammoth campground to get my tent pitched before the calm blue sky gave way to snow and wind, just as I placed some gear inside the erect tent the snow and wind arrived (perfect timing). With half of the day still to photograph I was off to see what I could see in the park. It turned out that there was not much going on. I made it in to Pebble Creek and spent the rest of the day sitting and chatting with folks as we waited/hoped that the Lamar Pack would come back in to the winter kill bison carcass that was about 150 yards away. Telemetry promised that the wolves were just inside of the trees behind the carcass; but they never did come back in while there was light. I have no images from that first day, well some time lapse footage; but no real images. Back to camp, some freeze dried chicken and mashed potatoes, a Ustream report and it was time for bed, 5:30am comes early.

March 4: Up at 5:30 just below freezing in my tent, around 15 outside, and 4-5 inches of new snow cover the world (my tent included). Don't feel too bad for me, my thermometer read 90 degrees inside of my sleeping bag near my skin. I was up and moving fast, I wanted to make it to the Lamar Valley before sunrise (6:57). The roads were covered with snow, and I was only the third set of tracks heading in, I must have been doing something right. A few distant coyotes were on the move early; but I had wolves on my mind. I got into the valley and near the old picnic area a film crew was stopped and scoping around, I found them... the Lamar Canyon Pack was skyline and heading back to the West. The film crew was shortly joined by a few of the wolf watchers and I made my way to the next pull out West, alone. Shortly after parking and getting a time lapse set up, the wolves came into view, just as I predicted. With a 1.4 TC on my 500mm lens I was able to capture some nice video footage as all seven of the wolves made their way through the snow. Three coyotes near me did not like the approaching wolves; but seemed intent on staying in the area. Alpha female '06' made here way down the hill/mountain side towards me, as the rest of the pack followed. I was getting nice video and starting to think that I might get some photos too. A filmmaker and a photographer joined me, and things kept looking better and better, next a couple of tourist pulled in. The pack was almost an acceptable distance for photography, and the coyotes were still holding their ground. Video recording and all of the sudden five of the wolves started to race downhill, straight towards us, and the coyotes fled, also straight towards us. The chase was on, and I transitioned to shooting stills. Coyotes have a much easier time in the deep snow than the wolves do, so the chase was never really about catching the coyotes, as much as it was about getting them to move on; but the chase brought the wolves in close enough for me to create the image at the top of this post. All in all not a bad way to start the day. The wolves moved back up the hill, '06' disappears and the pack went back to just playing, out of range for photographs. The solunar predictions, predicted good activity at sunrise (check) and between 11-2. Not visible from my location '06' and others killed a cow elk around 1pm. The location of the carcass was too far, and really not even visible from the road. I started to hunt for coyotes/otters/fox with little luck. The day passes and the weather kept transitioning from sun to snow, and back again. I shoot a few more time lapse videos and even practiced capturing iPhone panoramas at sunset. Back to camp where it was time for freeze dried chicken and noodle soup. Another Ustream from my tent while the clouds and snow keep me from shooting star trails over my tent.

March 5: With to solunar predictions calling for another good sunrise phase and a strong mid day phase I was up early again and heading in to find the Lamar Canyon Pack before sunrise, if I could. I assumed they would still be near yesterdays kill and they were. Getting there early I was able to set up and shoot some video of them howling before too many other folks got into the park. A snow storm quickly moved into the valley and made the wolves disappear. I decided to drive on to see what I could see, and on my return I noticed a lone wolf on the other side of the road. The few folks who were still with the Lamar Canyon Pack had not seen this wolf, nor had they seen any wolves from the pack leave their place of rest. My hope was that I could catch the pack joining or chasing this lone wolf, as the road was between them I figured I would be able to get a decent position to capture some nice images. After a few hours and some howling the Lamar Canyon Pack convinced the lone wolf that she should leave the area. The Agate Pack was to the West and they let here know not to head their way either. She was off to the East and then South. Speculation is that she is a three year old surviver of the Silver Pack. A break between snow storms made some magical light at sunset, that I had to take advantage of. Back to camp for some freeze dried beef stroganoff. The break from the storm also gave me a window to shoot star trails over my tent, I attempted a Ustream from outside as I was setting my camera; but somehow it failed, and left me talking to myself as I got everything set. I am happy with the first shot; but the clouds killed the star trails on the second shot, it had a nice mood nonetheless.

March 6: My plan was to leave at the end of the day, so I needed to empty my tent and pack up the car a bit before heading in; but as the sunrise phase was still relatively promising, so I decided to just wake up a bit earlier to get into the Lamar Valley at first light (6:30ish) again. During the night the Lamar Canyon Pack made there way to the road, crossed and headed to the South. I could tell all of that from the tracks and not from seeing them, as the entire valley was socked in. I had seen a red fox on my way past the Buffalo Ranch and decided I should go back and see if it had come near enough for photographs, it had not. I made a full loop to Cooke City and back with nothing to cause me to stop, so I kept driving back to Mammoth to take down my tent. On my drive back to Mammoth I did a live Ustream and let folks tag along for the ride, they all claim to have enjoyed the ride. I headed out to check the very northern part of the park for pronghorn antelope and hares, only to find the road a mess. I did get a few shots of a cottontail rabbit though. Back in and the Blacktail Pack had been spotted in the distance, the Agate Pack was also spotted way off, and the Lamar Canyon Pack had been spotted too, all of them were 'dots' to me, so I kept driving. Five otters made an appearance at confluence in the morning, so I decided that it would be worth a look at the old picnic area to see if they had been through. There was no sign; but as I turned to leave all five came out of the den to play/fish. I spent the next 2h30m with them all to myself (a coyote too; but I'll share with him). Another photographer came to join and we spent the next two hours with the otters as they put on a show. I captured lots of video and even more photographs. The decided it was time to go, and they were gone. Assumably they went off to another den; but after 4h30m I had no desire to follow after them. I'll admit my feet were starting to get a little chilly. Back to the car and off to shoot sunset. I found a great little place with very interesting wind swept snow formations that I photographed with the colors of the setting sun behind, and that kept me busy until well after sunset. I was supposed to head home; but the forecast called for high winds and snow on my route home. I have a great boss who ordered me to stay in the park, so that I would be safe. You don't have to twist my arm to stay an extra day in paradise. With my tent down and packed up I decided to car camp, as my Subaru is long enough for me to sleep comfortably inside. I was in the mood for something sweat, so I had oatmeal with strawberries for dinner.

March 7: I was camped a ways from the park, so I was driving in about ten minuets later than the previous day; but it turned out okay. As I drove out of Mammoth a wolf ran across the road, and there were 4 others already across. I quickly turned around and did my best to predict their path. I really wanted some images for ID purposes. I had suggested a few days before that someone would see the Canyon Pack back in Mammoth sometime in the next three weeks, and I hoped that these wolves would be them. As I reached the Terraces the wolves did too, they crossed the road and slowly made their way up the face of the thermal features. Two grays, two blacks, and a white... it was the Canyon Pack and they looked great. They were missing one gray, so I was snapping away images, at high ISOs and slow shutter speeds; but snapping nonetheless with the hope that I could later determine if it was the Beta male who was missing or if they had lost one of the gray pups. They all made their way up to the top of the terraces then disappeared to the West following the upper terrace drive. Around 45 minutes had gone by, and I was now about one hour behind my desired schedule; but who cares I already had my wolves for the day. I drove through Lamar Valley the Lamar Canyon Pack was disappearing behind a hill, and there was nothing else going on. All of the other wolf packs were far enough out that even with binoculars they were simply black dots. The sun was out and left little hope of decent light for shooting anytime soon. I shot a few more time lapses and headed home. I stopped near the boiling river for an American Bald Eagle, and a stop in the Gardiner Canyon for an immature Golden Eagle, and I was on my way home.

Make the jump to go through the online gallery, I ask that you leave comments/criticism or at least give your favorites a thumbs up... THANKS!

If you have questions, ask... I published the camera information with each image and have added full keywords to share just about anything you would want to know about the images.

I hope you enjoy the photos, happy shooting.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like another great trip Dave. The time lapse videos are great. I also enjoyed all the wolf and otter pics. I am not sure if this Californian is hearty enough for a winter YNP trip, but I would like to do it someday.