A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of showing some great folks around Yellowstone for our August Yellowstone Wildlife Safari and workshop. Our primary objective for the five day tour was to photograph the bison rut, which begins each year right around the first week of August. We would of course be chasing a few other iconic photos in our nation’s first National Park, but the primary focus would be the wildlife, and the wildlife did not disappoint.
Our first full day together, as always, seemed to start especially early. Coming from Bozeman, the two and a half hour drive to Lamar Valley means having to get on the road by 5am in order to have enough time to shoot wildlife in the morning light. As we made our way through the park, a very moody fog was still hugging the valley floor, making long range views all but impossible. Fortunately for us, we’re not in the business of long range views, and want to prioritize close up shots of the wildlife that give Yellowstone the nickname, the Serengeti of North America. With 67 different mammals, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is the most diverse intact ecosystem in North America, and affords plenty of opportunities for interesting wildlife photos to anyone with a camera and a bit of patience.
Fortunately for our guests, that patience really paid off this week. We began our first morning with some rather moody bison photos through the fog of a chilly August morning. We watched as the fog lifted and the bison began to get a bit more agitated. Early August is a great time to see bison begin to seek out a mate, and the largest bulls will begin to grunt and roll around to show their strength and size. These aggressive bulls are extremely active and will spend the entire day following a cow, maintaining their position between the cow and the rest of the herd to show that she is no longer “available”. As the day warmed up, the bison moved around quite a bit more and we watched as the males bellowed and grunted, seeking their mate.
We made our way through the Lamar valley over the course of the morning, photographing bison, pronghorn and osprey along the way. We stopped briefly when a crowd gathered along the road alerted us to a black bear and two cubs that were playing in the bushes about a hundred yards uphill from the road. We never did get a good photo of them, as there was a lot of foliage between us and the bears, but we did get a chance to watch them briefly for a bit before they bedded down behind a log.
As we drove around the park, we kept our eyes peeled for more wildlife, and eventually came across a family of bighorn sheep on a ridge, close enough to photograph. We stopped and shot from the road as the bighorn family enjoyed their time in the sun, uninterested in the small group of photographers that had gathered below the cliff. The sheep were so unphased by us that at one point one of the rams actually mounted a ewe, and Alan was there to get the shot! Such a natural part of life certainly made for a pretty funny photo.
Later that evening we were fortunate enough to get a great look at some big pronghorn males in some really great light. Right as the sun was setting we went out looking for more action in Lamar, hoping for bears or wolves, but alas, were “only” rewarded with a beautiful sunset looking down the valley. Such is life in Yellowstone.
Day two began with clearer skies en route to Lamar valley again. We were rewarded with more pronghorn, bison and eventually a family of Blue-winged or Cinnamon Teals sunning themselves on a rock (we were never 100% sure which). Mom clearly had her hands full as we counted seven or eight juveniles in great light. Our drive back to the lodge for an afternoon off was uneventful, but welcomed after a long first day and eventful early morning.
Later that evening we would make our way back to Lamar valley, in hopes of seeing some bison fighting. We arrived in Lamar to find a very large herd of active bison moving across the road, so we got out to shoot. This would prove to be our most eventful bison encounter of the week, as we spent over an hour watching big bulls cross the road to make their presence known to the ladies on the other side. Part way through the evening, a friend of mine, another Bozeman local, Tom, was shooting video footage from the roadside when a large bull walked up to investigate his camera set up. We all held our breath as Tom only had time to grab one of his two camera set-ups and get out of the way! The bison sniffed his camera and was kind enough to leave it standing on the tripod, but not before giving Tom a minute or two to wonder how well his equipment was insured! As the bison moved on, we all breathed a sigh of relief and continued shooting as bison bellowed, wallowed and postured for over two hours in great light, giving everyone ample opportunities to capture the rut footage they were after.
The next morning we headed toward Hayden valley after getting a report that wolves and bears had both been sighted from the road the day before. Arriving right as the fog began to lift, we saw nothing more than a few Canada Geese, and opted for a few quick landscape shots before moving back north to Lamar where we had had great luck all week.
On the way north, we stopped to shoot the iconic Lower Falls of the Yellowstone from Artist Point. Originally made famous by Thomas Moran, Artist Point is one of what I’ve termed “The Four Postcards.” Go into any convenience store, gift shop or visitor center within fifty miles of Yellowstone, and you’ll see the same four photos on postcards for sale in all of them. Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, a bison, and the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone from Artist Point are four of the most iconic images of Yellowstone, and we decided to take the opportunity to photograph one of them as we drove by.
After shooting the falls, we continued north back to Lamar Valley, hoping to get more footage of angry bison, pronghorn, and hopefully the elusive grey wolves and grizzly bears of Lamar. Striking out again on the wolves, but with more close ups of pronghorn and bison, we opted to head back to town for lunch and the afternoon off, before an early start to the evening. Just before getting back to our hotel in Gardner, we spotted the herd of bighorn sheep from the first day, only this time much closer to the road. We all jumped out of the car, excited to shoot some of the smaller babies, and spent a good twenty minutes watching, and photographing as the sheep played in the stream.
After our siesta, we headed right back out toward Lamar, this time looking for a badger that had been reported to us the night before. While we never saw the badger, Sheila’s sharp eyes spotted two different coyotes. The first had disappeared behind a ridge before we could stop to shoot it, but the second was right out in the open, only forty yards off the road. We watched as the coyote caught and devoured a ground squirrel. As soon as it was done with its meal, it started carefully walking straight toward us. Wondering why this wild coyote would seem so unafraid of the people with large cameras pointed straight at it, we watched as it came closer and closer. Then, suddenly, it lurched into a bush, grabbed another squirrel that it had clearly stashed in the bushes, and ran off away from the small crowd that had gathered. A great experience for all of us, thanks to Sheila keeping her head on a swivel!
Satisfied, we elected to drive back toward our hotel, expecting to shoot more bison along the way. Instead of casually driving along the Lamar Valley road however, we were soon stopped by a large line of cars waiting on a herd of bison to cross the road. Sure enough, it was another bison jam, a constant reminder that people are still not in control in such a wild and natural place. We waited nearly an hour as over a hundred bison crossed the road, giving us ample time to make dinner, take photos, and enjoy the slower pace of life in Yellowstone.
On our final morning, we packed the car and turned south toward Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring, the final two “postcard” shots on our list. We arrived at Old Faithful with enough time to relax and get our cameras set up and dialed in for a shot at the world’s most famous geyser. If shooting early in the morning, or late on a clear day, careful positioning can provide viewers with a rainbow in front of the geyser as it goes off, and that’s exactly what we hoped to capture. As we waited, we played with composition, settings and various shooting techniques in anticipation of the three to five minute eruption. As Old Faithful finally went off, our cameras started firing away, capturing the arrival of a beautiful rainbow across the frame; a great way to put a finishing touch on our week in Yellowstone.
But we weren’t quite done yet. Sheila had come to Yellowstone a couple years ago and the overlook for Grand Prismatic spring had not yet been completed. From day one she had wanted to capture the iconic look at Grand Prismatic from above. We had the time and the weather, so I obliged and off we went on our one and a half mile walk to the overlook, where a few carefully placed panoramic shots, and one family photo later, we all were happy with what our week in Yellowstone had to offer.
On our way back to Bozeman, we stopped at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, and got to witness some up close interactions between full grown captive grizzly bears and wolves. These animals were at one point becoming habituated to humans, so the center is a place for them to still live peacefully while providing an opportunity for school groups, tour groups and other visitors to observe and learn about these beautiful creatures. If you’re in the area, or would like a non-profit organization to support financially, this is a great option and they make sure that every penny is poured right back into the preservation and protection of wild animals and their habitats. Check them out online at www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org
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