Trip Report: Yellowstone Wildlife Safari

Last month, I had the privilege of guiding the first ever Backcountry Journeys trip that Russ did not attend. I had some pretty big shoes to fill, and after 4 days in Yellowstone, I think I can say we did pretty well. The theme for our week in Yellowstone could be summed up in two words: roadside bears. Which are two pretty good words when the trip in question is the Yellowstone Wildlife Safari. The bears were close, and didn’t mind hanging around for plenty of time this week, and as a result, we all got some really great frame filling bear portraits!

Day one started out with some low clouds and we were able to snap off some really neat reflection shots and moody cloud landscapes before heading towards the Tower Junction area where the week before, our Tetons and Yellowstone trip had been lucky enough to capture this year’s triplet black bear cubs. While we never did get a glimpse of those triplets, guests were treated with our first black bear encounter, only seconds after I suggested they keep an eye out as we were entering an area of the park dominated by black bears. We were the second car on the scene and had the pleasure of shooting not one, but two bears right along the road before traffic piled up and eventually spooked the bears up the hill and out of sight.

Already with great photos and suddenly much higher expectations, we continued on toward Tower Junction and Rainey Lake where the bulk of the black bear action had occurred the week before. Sure enough, another roadside bear was spotted, and again we were the second car present. This one was so close to the road that we had to remain in the car while the 2 year old juvenile bear munched on grass right outside the car window. We enjoyed a good five minutes of uninterrupted shooting time with the bear while other park visitors tried to get a look at him just feet from our car door. Eventually, park rangers showed up and the comotion became too much for our bear model who made his way into the woods. Three roadside bears in the first hour in the park. At this rate, I was beginning to think I would run out of ways to keep our guests entertained for three more days! But Yellowstone has a way of pulling you deeper into nature as long as you’re patient, and the next three days would only prove to be just as engaging for this group of wildlife seekers.

Over the next few hours our group would head south on the Grand Loop Road looking for more wildlife, spotting fox, elk and bison, and eventually landing at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to photograph Artist Point and the view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. This was a great opportunity to practice some slow shutter speed captures of blurred water, and a temporary break from all the wildlife action, while seeing an iconic feature of the world’s first National Park. But not to be distracted from the wildlife, we soon after set up shop to capture an osprey nest in the canyon. High ISO and even higher shutter speeds were the name of the game as the nesting pair of osprey swapped duties under great light three times in twenty minutes, allowing us all to practice our bird photography. This practice would certainly prove helpful later in the week!

As we made our way back to the hotel, guests were all smiles looking over their captures. We took the afternoon off to relax, review photos and rest up before an evening session. During our time off, a storm moved in and pounded the area with thunder, heavy rain and large hail, sending most of the animals running for cover. After such a storm, the evening shoot would not be providing much for wildlife, so we opted for a sunset landscape shot from the upper Gardiner river plateau where we shot reflections of a cloudy Electric Peak before heading in for the night.  Whew! We had a lot of great images already, and that was just day one!

The next morning we awoke to heavy rain, and low clouds. We knew this would be a day to stay near the car, rather than setting up shop in Lamar Valley hoping for good light on active animals, which would prove to be a good call seeing as we had rain and snow the entire day. Our group headed south out of Gardiner toward Old Faithful, stopping to photograph the Fountain Paint Pots and a few roadside bison. When we arrived at the Old Faithful Inn only minutes after an eruption and during a period of heavy rain, we opted to stay in the lodge and photograph the beautiful early 20th century wooden architecture while waiting on the next eruption of the geyser. In traditional, predictable fashion, Old Faithful erupted 94 minutes later and our group was on the balcony of the Old Faithful Inn, cameras at the ready. After capturing the eruption, we continued south in hopes of some wildlife along the lake and a break from the weather.

Rather than letting up, however, the rain turned to heavy snow, a beautiful sight amongst the old growth pines and firs of the southern corner of the park. Continuing around the loop road brought us up and over Dunraven Pass and back to Tower Junction where we stopped for lunch as the rain finally began to subside. Almost as if on cue, a black bear was spotted moving across an open field right as we finished our lunch. We moved the vehicle to set up in the direction the bear was headed, and sure enough, had a front row seat as the bear marched in our direction, and eventually across the road right in front of us! The entire group had great light and plenty of time to ensure proper camera settings before shooting the very active juvenile. Another roadside bear encounter left us finally feeling satisfied with our morning, and we headed to the hotel to let the weather ease up and to rest from a long day in the car.

The evening started as an attempt to go shoot bison in Lamar Valley, but our mission was interrupted by yet another roadside black bear. This time we were the first car to stop, and we ended up having a good fifteen minutes with the bear wandering along the road, eating grass, and at one point, investigating the underside of the front bumper of our vehicle! We, of course had to watch from inside the car, but later were able to get some excellent close up shots as the bear moved away towards the trees. As the bear decided to move away from the road, our group finally had enough close ups of black bears that the remainder of the week would see us driving past bears that were any more than 100 feet from the road! A real treat indeed.

Day three finally brought us a slight break in the rain, but with low lying clouds and threats of precipitation, we still didn’t quite have the light we were hoping for. Nevertheless, to Lamar we went, searching for the not so elusive “red dogs” of spring. There were plenty to be photographed in the Lamar Valley, satisfying the hopes of all the guests on the trip. We then moved farther up the valley where we had heard reports of a roadside badger den with multiple cubs inside. Many photographers lined the road, anxiously waiting for mom to emerge with cubs in tow. After only about twenty minutes, she slowly poked her head out and looked around. Cameras were firing in rapid succession as she gave the line of tripods and long range lenses a curious look. A few minutes later, two cubs crawled out of the den, wanting to see what mom was up to. After only a minute or two, the two babies wandered back into the den, not to be seen again that day. We were already pretty excited with our luck, as we heard of multiple people who had spent the entire day prior waiting on the badgers to make an appearance, only to see them twice in fourteen hours. Fifteen minutes later, after putting the cubs to bed, mom wandered out again and down the hill in search for food. With two great appearances, our group was happy and we carried on up the road in search of more wildlife.

Later that evening, we made our way back to Lamar for an evening shoot, hoping for close ups of pronghorn, one of the few species we had not yet had a good chance to photograph. After only seeing pronghorn 100+ yards off the road, we opted instead for a sunset landscape shot overlooking the valley before turning in for the night.

Our last morning finally provided us with the great light and beautiful sunshine we had been hoping for all week. We hopped in the car and headed straight for Lamar, certain we would get the shots we hadn’t been able to get all week. And sure enough, the wildlife delivered. We got great shots of roadside pronghorn in beautiful morning light, something our guests had been hoping for all week. We also got to witness a wolfpack attempt to take down a bison, and while not close enough to make for great photography, the whole event unfolded in plain view from the road, and was a real treat for everyone. We continued up the valley to see if the badgers were out, and sure enough, under sunny skies we had the mother and all four cubs out for a good fifteen minutes! Cameras were firing away and the community of Yellowstone wildlife photographers were all smiles. Badgers are typically pretty elusive creatures to photograph in the park, spending large portions of their lives underground, so one with four cubs was a really special opportunity.

We continued our tour southwest toward the Madison River valley, stopping to check on a Peregrine falcon nest that we were told had eggs due to hatch any day. We set up in hopes of seeing the mating pair swap positions, but only saw the one adult. Peregrine falcons share the nesting duties and males and females do not have any distinct coloring differences, so we were unsure of whether it was mom or dad who was watching the eggs, but we did get a short look at the eggs when the adult changed positions. Still eggs, no chicks. We were told by a local bird photographer that the eggs were on day 29. Peregrine eggs typically hatch between day 30 and 32. We would miss it by one day. A consolation prize however was when a beautifully colored Yellow Rumped Warbler landed in the trees right in front of us, allowing all of our group members to really test their tracking skills with the high shutter speeds we had practiced earlier in the week. The birder who was waiting on this warbler told us it was one of the most beautifully colored warblers he had ever seen, and was spending his entire day waiting on a chance to photograph it. A special moment for all of us.

As we made our way out of the park, we still hadn’t gotten any photos of a Yellowstone staple, the grizzly bear. So, in an effort to satisfy the quest for the last animal on the list of common Yellowstone big mammals, we stopped at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. The center is a non-profit educational preserve focused on protecting wolves and grizzlies from the dangers associated with habitat loss. All of the grizzlies at the center were once wild and were relocated after being habituated to human food sources. The bears have enough space to play and forage while visitors look on and photograph the especially active bears. This was a real treat for our guests who walked away with some really engaging close ups of full grown grizzlies, before heading back to Bozeman for the conclusion of our trip.

After a surprisingly fast four days in Yellowstone, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, all with full memory cards loaded with images to remind us of our time in the park. There were moody landscapes, active animals, and some especially close bear encounters. We all had a great time and left the park with a long list of other photographs we would like to capture. Yellowstone is one of those special places that you can never “finish” shooting, but rather only develop a longer list of desirable shots, as was certainly the case this week. Until next time…

Chris Gheen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website www.chrisgheenphoto.com

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