Trip Report: Yellowstone Wildlife Safari – October 2021

When my plane touched down in Bozeman, Montana, the skies were blue, the sun was shining, and temperatures pleasantly warm. I was arriving in preparation for this autumn’s Yellowstone Wildlife Safari, and during my two days of scouting conditions were ideal. A warm sun illuminated the sagebrush valleys in soft light, and white wispy clouds meandered across the sky. But these conditions would not hold. 

It was actually moments after my plane landed that I became aware of the approaching winter storm. Backcountry Journeys (BCJ) director, Russ Nordstrand, had sent me a short text informing me of the coming weather. I quickly did a survey in my head of the cold weather gear in my luggage, confirming that I wouldn’t freeze to death. Confident that I was well equipped, I spent my scouting days in the park, chasing wildlife reports in preparation for my client’s arrival. As I wrapped up my last morning of scouting and started the drive back to Bozeman, I could already see dark winter clouds collecting above the high peaks of Yellowstone’s northern range. 

Yellowstone’s climate is dynamic and intense. Unexpected snow squalls can explode in fall due to the park’s high elevation and unique topography. Most of the park sits in a high bowl, surrounded by mountain peaks on all sides. These high ridges trap cold air and precipitation, making the park one of the coldest places in the lower 48 states during winter. But, we were here in fall! I was expecting cool temps, sunny skies, and golden aspen trees wreathed in glowing sunlight. But, the gathering winter storm had different plans. 

The night before our trip’s commencement is when it broke. I awoke to find over six inches of snow in Bozeman, meaning that the park was undoubtedly receiving even more. With our first night in Bozeman complete, we embarked for the park in the early morning hours of the following day. The snow was still falling steadily, coating our world in a white blanket. The high mountain pass between Bozeman and Livingston was especially frozen, as traffic slowed to a crawl navigating the three-inch layer of compacted snow and ice on the road. But, our trusty BCJ Sprinter van navigated the conditions with ease, and before long we were arriving safely in the town of Gardiner. And still, the snow came down. 

Our first photographic quarry would be some towny elk that like to hang along the park’s northern border. A bull elk was guarding his harem of cows and calves along a ridgeline. The thick falling snow posed a challenge to our camera’s autofocus systems, but with persistence and a few tweaks of the dials, we acquired tack-sharp eyeballs in our viewfinders of this impressive animal. 

Photographers come to Yellowstone for an endless list of reasons, whether it be to capture the geysers and hot springs, grizzly bears, or the long-shot chance of a close encounter with one of the park’s 100 gray wolves. But one iconic shot that almost everyone has seen and wants to capture on their own camera is the frosty bison.

These rugged beasts were hunted almost to the point of extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, but through conservation efforts, the Yellowstone bison herds now cumulatively number almost 30,000 individuals. The bison spends the entirety of the Yellowstone winter exposed to the harsh freezing conditions. Though some individuals are taken by the cold each year, most survive even the coldest of winters. During the winter, as well as early season blizzards like we were in the midst of, the thick coats of the bison collect snow, ice, and frost, turning their dark brown fur white.

It is a classic Yellowstone image and one that tells the story of an animal tough like a few others, hardy enough to survive the brutal Yellowstone cold. And, we would have countless opportunities to photograph these amazing animals casually navigating the blizzard as if it were any other day. 

Due to the large amounts of snow falling, we were forced to deal with regular road closures in the park, which forced me to chuck my carefully constructed itinerary into the bin and do a little improvisation.

But this would provide us with some interesting opportunities that would otherwise have gone overlooked in lieu of searches for wildlife in the park’s northern range, Lamar Valley, and Hayden Valley. One such opportunity was our day in the Madison River Valley and West Yellowstone. 

On a typical Yellowstone Wildlife Safari with BCJ, we do not venture that far west, as it is a long drive and there aren’t many bears in that section of the park. But with roads to Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley snowed-in and closed that fourth morning of our trip, we were left with few other options. So, in the dark predawn hours, we made the drive into the Madison River Valley. This part of the park is one of my favorites due to its idyllic beauty.

The smooth waters of the Madison River snake through the narrow valley, lined with naked rocky peaks and thick pine forest. It was this part of the park that inspired the setting for the short story A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, and the subsequent film (which is an all-time favorite of mine). Here in the Madison River Valley, we photographed a beautiful snowy landscape, featuring the steamy Madison River and pine bows coated in thick snow. 

This venture to the west also allowed us to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center to see some of these iconic predators up close. Animals here are rescues, born in the wild but relocated to the center after human conflict or after being orphaned by the ill-timed death of their mother. 

Another notable sighting was the Wapiti Lake wolf pack that we encountered a day later in the Hayden Valley. They were quite far off for a nice photo, but we could clearly watch them playing in the fresh snow a few hundred yards out.

And on our last day, we came across a black bear den, and within it, a black bear sow was slumbering with her young cub. We waited for quite some time hoping they would emerge, but alas, she only stuck her face out from time to time. 

By the morning of the last day, the clouds had finally broken and the thick layer of snow was melting away. We spent our last moments in the park in the Lamar Valley, hoping a grizzly bear would pop out, but one never did. The snow had pushed them into the woods for cover. But, for our efforts braving the winter storm, we were rewarded with some beautiful images of majestic animals in a winter wonderland.

Ben Blankenship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See Ben’s most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com

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