From the night we all first met in Bozeman, the group who’d amassed for the Yellowstone Wildlife Safari seemed to click. Everyone was here for the same reason: to experience the wildlife and witness Yellowstone on the ecosystem’s terms.
I had just finished up a trip in the area less than a week ago so everything is still fresh on my mind. However, the weather and wildlife in the park are dynamic this time of year and in a day (or even in a few hours), conditions can change dramatically. It is the unpredictability of the area that makes trips here so exciting.
When I left in mid-May the weather was spring-like. In the five days in between the time I left and came back, winter returned to the area and dumped several inches of snow on the mountains and valleys. the roads were clear but the scenery was completely changed. Without hesitation, however, we head into Yellowstone.
By the time we arrive at Mammoth Hot Springs from Bozeman, the weather once again moved in. I’ll often stop at Mammoth as a first shoot option but this time, the clouds spit snow just heavy enough that we move on. It’s good that we did.
A lot of wildlife photography is being at the right place at the right time and because we didn’t stop at Mammoth, everything ended up great half an hour later. A small traffic jam portends that something is ahead. In a creek valley right off the road is three grizzlies. They feed and dig in the snow as if we weren’t even around. By keeping a respectful distance from the bears they were completely at ease with our presence. Seeing the bears in an amazing way to start off the trip and I jokingly tell the group that we are finished with the tour.
But in reality, the trip is just now beginning, and little do I know just how much we’ll see.
We stay with the bears for a while and then decide to move further south to see Old Faithful and have lunch at the venerable thermal feature. Before we reach the location we see a small group of baby bison that may not be a day or two old. They are worthy of a stop so we frantically photograph them until the snow moves back in.
As we arrive in Old faithful Village, the snow is still coming heavy but breaks long enough for us to see and photograph a geyser eruption. After lunch, we stop over for a brief visit to Midway Geyser Basin before heading back to Gardiner to check into our new hotel and grab an early supper.
We head out of the town proper and before we even get to the Yellowstone pay station, we see a couple of nice pronghorns in a field to our south. It’s a harbinger of the good luck and the good weather that’s to come. Excited we head-on into the park.
A short drive and a technique talk later, we’ve photographed some cow elk and a throng of bighorn ewes. At the upper end of our drive for the evening, we find a pronghorn buck who’s generous with his time and patience and as a bonus, he poses for us in great light.
As if things couldn’t get any better, we find a black bear feeding on a slope just off the road. He’s close enough to get some good environmental shots and we stop off to spend some time with him. Soon, he’s spooked off by a grazing elk and we finish the day with a bull elk in great light.
We arise early and are out the door by 5:30 am to take advantage of the early light. Overnight the weather deteriorated once again but the overcast makes our drive non-frenetic as we’re not necessarily in a hurry to get to the Hayden Valley.
On our drive we see a red fox cross the road in front of us and as a bonus, he stops on the side of the road. With cameras at the ready, each of us gets photos of the picturesque canine. Later in Hayden Valley, we see a single wolf walking beside the road. The sighting is brief but we do manage to get some photos of him. After that we see a bison silhouetted nicely against the sky on a ridge and then see a pair of grizzlies feeding in the trees. The action is fast and we do our best to keep up but we are far from finished.
We work our way up to Yellowstone Lake where we find marmots and then back down to LeHardy’s Rapids where American Dippers and Harlequin ducks awaited. Both of these bird species feed in the choppy waters of the rapids and are at home in the swift water.
We slow the action a bit by photographing the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone and stopping for lunch but as evening falls, we are back in the field and heading up to the Lamar Valley to explore – what some argue – is the finest patch of wildlife ground in America. On the drive, we see plentiful bison and elk and ravens who greet us from rock tops. Once in the valley, we spot a lounging coyote. With that, we’ve accomplished a three-dog day in Yellowstone. We’ve seen fox, coyotes, and wolves all on the same day. That doesn’t happen very often.
After leaving the lounging coyote behind we spot another coyote actively hunting and he cruises right past us as he searched for food. He was too close for my big lens but that’s a nice problem to have.
On the way out the weather begins to deteriorate but the skies delight us with a beautiful view of the mountainous valley. In addition, a bull elk was near the road where he feeds in the last light.
We wake up to rainy weather on the last full day of the shoot but head into the Lamar Valley anyway. In the upper reaches, snow is falling and the mountain light is dramatic. Bison feed in the creek valley and we take advantage of photographing a trio of bulls that are nearby. We head into Cooke City to look for moose and grab a late breakfast. Along the way, we find another red fox who’s hunting alongside the road.
After breakfast, we head back into the Lamar Valley. Now that the weather has cleared, the animals are on the move. Alongside the road, I see a badger waddling through the sage. Everyone piles out to photograph the animal from the roadside while I go and park. When I park the vehicle I look back to where the guests are and see a coyote. Curious, I watch. At first, I don’t realize what’s going on but then I see the badger following the coyote. They are hunting together…
Enthralled, we all shoot frame after frame of the pair as they traipse through the sage. It is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
From there we explore the valley more where we photograph a few wildflowers, a bald eagle, pronghorns, and a string of bison. Before the day is over, we once again find some wolves. Although they are too far away to photograph, we do accomplish another three-dog day.
On the last morning, we head out on our last outing to photograph whatever Yellowstone gives us. We aren’t disappointed by the pronghorns and the bison.
By now we aren’t even disappointed in the five moose we see even though they are quite a distance away. This latest iteration of the Yellowstone Wildlife Safari has provided us plenty of opportunities for incredible imagery.
It even gave us one more fox for the road.
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 he 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 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