The extreme cold is tolerable if you are ready for it.
As we depart West Yellowstone on a lumbering snow coach at 7 am, the temperature is somewhere around minus five. While not as cold as I’ve seen it, it’s still frigid. The guests are layered in a fashion that makes the most sense to them both fashionably and practically. I speak to give instructions to the snow coach driver who’ll ferry us around for much of our Yellowstone in Winter photography adventure.
Per park rules, just not anyone can enter Yellowstone’s interior during the winter. Save for a scant stretch off-highway along the northern range that connects Gardiner to Cooke City, Montana, the rest of the park is off-limits to the casual visitor in the wintertime. Only national park service-approved operators with adequate transportation are allowed to enter the park proper during the winter. Even then, the entire park isn’t open because now, extreme cold and snow blankets the park. While the Yellowstone plateau looks beautiful adorned in winter’s coat, it is deadly for both man and beast.
Backcountry Journeys’ Yellowstone in Winter trip is a study in sensorial juxtaposition: beauty and danger live side by side continually in an uncomfortable dance for survival. The snow and cold blanket envelop the landscape. The progeny of the extreme elements are animals caught in a perpetual spiral for survival. We are here to witness the drama.
On the trip, the first half is spent exploring the area on a snow coach. Days are spent in search of wildlife traversing the snowscape in search of food or prey. The search usually doesn’t take long as ungulates like bison and elk are typically pretty easy to find. In the snow, bison sway their enormous heads to plow the accumulated precipitation and clear the ground beneath.
While the enormous mammals get a face full of snow for their efforts, they also uncover grasses that while dormant, have stored up a summer’s full of solar energy in their stems and leaves. The meal is scant but sufficient and the bison must spend all of the waking hours feeding. The stored energy in the winter cured grasses is converted to heat energy as the grass is consumed, masticated, and makes the slow journey through the rumen to the abomasum and all parts in between. Naturally, the undigested grass passes through the bison, and the unspent nutrients pass in the dung back into the snow where they will decompose and feed the rangeland grasses in an unending cycle of nutrient exchange.
When you see the bison on the winter rangeland they look cold. Perhaps they are but the beasts are made for the cold. Like a well-insulated home, snow and ice accumulate on the exterior of the animal but because of their fur’s ability to insulate and hold in heat, hardly any of the heat escapes from around their body, and hence, the accumulated snow just piles up on the animal’s backs and does not melt. While they don’t look that way, I suspect that the bison are comfortable in their uncomfortable surroundings.
The bison congregate in large herds because there is safety in numbers. So long as all of the bison are healthy and vigorous, the life lived communally is generally safe for the bison. As such, most of them survive the brutal Yellowstone winters. Occasionally, however, one will succumb to the elements or a wandering predator like a wolf.
Pulling past the Gibbon River, we see a large herd fanned across a snowy hillside. Traipsing around the herd, we see two wolves milling about. While two wolves aren’t enough to take down a mature bison, I suspect this pair of will canines are a scouting party. They sniff about the bison herd to check out the overall robustness of the individuals that make up the herd. If one is sensed to be weak or sick, the wolf hunting party will muster and a hunt ensues. While the struggle is brutal and bloody, it’s necessary for the overall health and vigor of both the wolf and the bison.
Like ghosts, the wolves appear and disappear. We think we know where they’re headed so we travel downriver. By the time we get to where we think the wolves will be, a couple of members of the pack are already there. We stop and file out the snow coach to photograph them and then the rest of the pack pours from the woods to the river bottom meadow. For twenty minutes we photograph them howling and interacting with one another. It’s a scene rarely witnessed much less photographed and here we are, with proverbial “front row tickets.”
While in the park’s interior we see the usual sights like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful, and other thermal features and always stop to photograph endemic wildlife no matter the species. From our temporary base in West Yellowstone, we commonly see American dippers, swans, ravens, and bison. While we expect to see other predators like foxes and coyotes, they aren’t always as accessible but we do see them.
During both phases of the trip, we look for wildlife safari style. We take to the roads and search for the likely places where we’ll see wild animals. This sort of spot-and-stalk technique is valuable and we don’t depart from what works. As the trips continue and we move to the second phase of the trip, we explore Lamar Valley from our Cooke City, Montana lodging. The amount of wildlife we see on the trip is astonishing. Along upper Soda Butte Creek, a pair of moose browse alongside the road, seemingly oblivious to us. We stop and in the perfect evening light, take their picture.
At another stop a coyote circle back from a sage flat and walks directly towards us – each guest getting photos they never thought possible before. And on yet another stop, a group of bighorn sheep lazily browse along a hillside. Time after time, we rarely have to look long to find wildlife – that’s what the Winter in Yellowstone trip is all about. Incredible and abundant opportunities to see wildlife and Yellowstone in a way that most never do. It’s winter’s solitude at its natural best.
Does a photography trip to Yellowstone sound perfect for you? Looking for something this spring? Good news! Space remains on our Yellowstone Wildlife Safari this May. Click the below link to learn more.
Yellowstone Wildlife Safari
May 20th – 24th, 2022
3 Spots Left
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets, and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled his and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from the Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com