WINTER IN YELLOWSTONE

If snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park is NOT on your bucket list, maybe the images in this gallery will encourage you to add it. A winter Yellowstone trip has been on my list for years and I finally got around to it in January of this year (2012). What makes a winter trip special is the fact that no cars, vans, trucks, motorcycles, etc. are allowed in the most popular areas of the park. The only vehicles permitted are snowmobiles or tracked snow coaches and they are limited to the groomed roads. You can ride for hours and see few other people. Your travel is through vast expanses of snow covered landscape unscarred except by occasional animal tracks. This trip was organized by my friend Ken Weaver (www.kenzlenz.com). Ken and I are both interested in wildlife photography. We travelled to Yellowstone with visions of finding packs of wolves roaming the hills, giant bull elk bugling in the canyons and maybe even a grizzly bear that couldn't sleep. Even old men still have fantasies!

 

What you will see if you visit the "Winter In Yellowstone" Gallery

The first morning of our adventure brought us back to reality. Dark, heavy clouds hung over the park robbing us of much needed light for photos. Our first wildlife encounter was with a small group of bison feeding close to the road. We learned that bison must use their faces to clear snow away from the grasses before they can eat. If the snow is too heavy to clear they go hungry. The images of bison with snow only on their faces are mainly from this encounter.
By late morning we were riding through a heavy snowfall that obscured almost everything. I was stupid enough to try to photograph an Old Faithful eruption in near white-out conditions. Imagine the white steam plumes of the geyser shrouded by a foreground, background and side ground of a snow storm. The images looked like the inside of a Q-tip.

Shortly after the snowstorm got really rolling we came across another small group of bison feeding close to the road. This experience taught me a major lesson in winter photography. If it is snowing you should abandon autofocus and flash. All those moving snowflakes confuse the hell out of autofocus and become brightly glowing, out of focus blobs if exposed to flash. The blizzard like conditions left us desperately low on light. I had only one or two salvageable images identified by animals more fully coated with clinging snow and partially obscured by blowing flakes.

As we headed back out of the park at the end of the day the storm passed and the clouds started breaking up. We encountered more bison walking on or close to the road just as the sun was setting behind the canyon walls which added some color to the scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we left our West Yellowstone, Montana base the second morning the temperature was 16 degrees below zero. Our guide, Matt Henry, wisely stopped only 5 miles into the park for a safety check. That stop may have saved the day because Ken's right eyebrow was already caked with frost and nearly frozen. The riding gear supplied by the snowmobile outfitter is very effective, even in extremely cold conditions (Like sitting in a snowdrift as Matt is doing below). But, if you leave even the smallest gap in coverage, body parts will freeze up quickly while riding an open snowmobile at 45 miles per hour. We had to zip our cameras inside our snowsuits to keep them from freezing up when we weren't shooting.

 

Far be it from me to suggest that Matt, or any other guide, might tell stories to make their customers feel as if their trip was totally unique. But, very early the second day we were scooting down the road along the Madison River when we encountered what Matt said was a totally unusual bison experience. The prior night had been desperately cold, possibly as low as 30 degrees below zero. A large herd of bison had gathered around some of the Yellowstone thermal features for warmth from the venting steam (not unusual). The steam condensed on their fur (though strangely not on their horns) and then turned to ice (also not unusual). These animals must have gained about 20 pounds each just from all the icicles hanging on them. What was unusual is that this herd of two to three hundred bison popsicles had taken over the road and was moving to a new feeding area. The road was completely blocked by a lumbering furry glacier. We pulled our snowmobiles to the side and kept them between us and the bison. You could see the anxious looks in the eyes of the creatures as they passed close by, often breaking into a mild gallop to get past us quickly. There seemed little chance of one attacking us, but if they got spooked their sheer size would render the snowmobiles useless as a line of defense. Because we encountered this herd very early the sun had not yet cleared the walls of the canyon. It was still a bit dark to try and capture images of the moving animals. The herd was so large that we did finally get some very low sunlight before the last of the herd got by us. As a result you will see some of the images are a bit flat and others are in brighter, more contrasty morning light.

There are a lot of bison in Yellowstone. We realized that we had to ignore most of the rest to spend more time looking for other critters. The"Winter In Yellowstone" gallery has images slected from the encounters described, but if you have a strong attraction to buffalo you can find even more images in the "Bison" sub-gallery.

We searched for wolves but were happy to see a couple of coyotes. The first had obvious injuries to both right side legs and did not look very healthy. The second was a beautiful animal with a full thick coat of fur. Both coyotes seemed to consider our intrusion on their daily activities as a minor inconvenience and were clearly not threatened by our presence. The "high key" image of the one running coyote found in the "Winter In Yellowstone" gallery may be my favorite photo from the trip.

We spotted a number of cow and calf elk but most stayed far from the roads and were very difficult to photograph. The one unique elk sighting we enjoyed was a cow and calf feeding on vegetation in the Madison River. Our guide, Matt, explained that elk very rarely eat vegetation in any river, let alone the Madison. Because of all the thermal features in the park the water in the Madison has very high levels of arsenic and other chemicals. The plants in the river have adapted to this chemical cocktail. Only a percentage of the elk in the Madison herd are able to eat these plants. But, the elk that can stomach the chemical laced grass seemed to enjoy standing in the warm (relative term) river on a cold day to enjoy the buffet.

Before we left for home on our third day in West Yellowstone Ken and I visited the Grizzly and Wof Discovery Center. The center is a sanctuary of last resort for bears and wolves that would otherwise be euthanized. The exhibits are very interesting and the non-profit center has plans for expansion. All the bear and wolf photos in this gallery were shot at the center. There are additional "Wolf" shots at these links.

 

 

If you have spent much time on this site you know that I like birds. I found the Ravens of Yellowstone to be fascinating and I would be willing to go back just to do a photo study on them. They are very intelligent and love to take advantage of the innocence of the many visitors to the park each year. The Ravens have learned how to unzip unattended backpacks or purses and steal the contents. Some even close the zippers to hide the thefts. I wish I had more Raven images to share.

And finally, the scenery and thermal features Yellowstone is famous for. We were focused on wildlife and tried to not be distracted by the scenery but it is simply impossible to ignore. The very cold weather accentuates the amount of steam escaping from the thermal pits so there are great clouds of vapor. As it did on the bison, the moist steam condenses on nearby trees and plants and turns them into white flocked sculptures.



In our short visit we went to all the places where wolves were spotted "yesterday" and followed wolf tracks for over 10 miles. We learned grizzly bears have no trouble sleeping, and once mating season is over bull elk head for high country and leave all the girls behind (just like a man!!).
The silver lining on the cloud of super cold air covering Yellowstone was crystal clear vistas for miles in every direction. My only regret is that I only signed up for two days in the park. Even if I had not gotten one single useable image I would have considered the trip a success. If I am able I will go back again next year, and I haven't totally eliminated the idea of one more outing this year before the spring crowds begin arriving.

Visit the "Winter In Yellowstone" Slideshow

 

AND NOW

"Winter In Yellowstone II"

Hell Yeah I went back in 2013!!

Still no wolves, bears or bull elk but we had some very close encounters with coyotes. This year there was a lot more snow than last year so there are a few more scenic images in this group. I hope you will have time to visit both galleries.