Sunday, July 20, 2014

YELLOWSTONE 2014



YELLOWSTONE 2014
"Capture The Moment-Relive The Experience"
With John Gilbert

On June 6, 2014 my friend Niala and I set out for another trip to Yellowstone.  This marks our fifth trip to Yellowstone to date.  Each time we go we try to stay in a different area of the Park.  This year we opted to stay just outside the northeast gate in a little town called Cooke City.  This would afford us the opportunity to concentrate our efforts in the Lamar Valley as well as Mammoth Spring which is just south of the north gate located at Gardiner Montana.

The first day we drove, 810.52 miles and over twelve hours starting out at Jefferson City, Mo with our first overnight stop at Wall, South Dakota, also home to the Badlands. Our route was west on I-70, took the I-435 by-pass to avoid Kansas City traffic, then north on I-29 and finally west on I-90 to Wall.  Once you get to I-90 the speed is 80, four lanes all the way, and limited access and traffic.  I should mention that while traveling I-90 we did go through Iowa and it was here that we pulled off the road to capture a picture of an Eagle nest with juveniles in it.

We made good time and arrived in Wall around 5:00pm Mountain Time.  We stopped at the Badlands to stretch our legs and snap a picture or two.  Behind us were two friends Sharon and Eddy Tuschoff who were also headed out west to Yellowstone.  We all gathered that evening for dinner in Wall and to plan out our tour of the Badlands the next day.

At this time of year the Badlands were plush with green grass and the colors amazing.  We have been here before when it reminded us of a desert.  This was a great day for wildlife photographing, Big Horn Sheep, Prairie Dogs, Bison, Meadowlarks, and the coveted Burrowing Owl. (Figure 1).  

Figure 1 Burrowing Owl
Sharon has been here before and capture the Owls so she knew just where to look for them.  In years past we have searched for Big Horn Sheep will absolutely no luck but this year was to be an exception.  We came across a herd of them lounging along the peaks of the Badlands. (Figure 2)


Figure 2 Ewe with lamb 
By noon we were ready to continue to our next leg of this trip, Sheridan, Wyoming.  This is the entrance to the Big Horn Mountains which we crossed on our first trip back in 2006 and again in 2010.  We wanted to drive this scenic route once again heading towards Cody, Wyoming.  This second leg of our trip was only 313.16 miles/5 hours 18 minutes.  We had time for a stop along the way and Sharon suggested we visit Big Bear County USA. Bear Country USA, is located 8 miles from Rapid City, features the world's largest collection of privately owned black bears. It is a 3 mile drive through this spectacular wildlife park nestled on 200 acres of Black Hills beauty where you'll see black bears, grizzly bears and over 20 other species of North American animals like buffalo, reindeer, wolves and Big Horn Sheep.  This is not your typical driving tour because dozens of adult beer are roaming freely.  No you can’t get out of your car and windows are to be rolled up.  Well we lowered them just enough and long enough to click off a few pictures.  After the driving tour, we walked around Babyland where lots of baby bears frolic in open compounds in the outdoors. (Figure 3)
Figure 3 Black Bear Cubs
We made it to Sheridan, WY with time to spare so we visited the city and made our way to another dining experience.  The next morning we began our trip across the Big Horn Mountains.  This drive consists of 58 miles and the altitude ranges from 4000 ft. to 13,165ft above sea level.  The temperature was dropping with snow/freezing rain in the forecast and I was anxious to make it across this climbing, winding road with numerous switch backs before we ran into bad weather.  Well by the time we got to the highest peak it was spitting snow and the temperature dropped down to 32 degrees. (Figure 4)

Figure 4 Big Horn Mountains
It was on this drive that I spotted a couple of Moose grazing on the side of the road.  Naturally we had to stop for a photo-shoot.  We were unable to contact Sharon and Eddie who were behind us to tell them of our find because in this part of the world there is no phone reception.  We continued on not wanting to linger too long in the mountains because like I said it was cold, the temperature dropping, and lightly snowing.  We hadn’t driven very far before we spotted a small gathering of Moose in a patch of willows eating to their hearts delight.  Yep time for another stop and another photo opt but by this time we had driven far enough down the mountain to escape the freezing temperatures.  There were at least eight of them and they were not the least concerned about our presence.  Add to this little or no traffic so we had this group of wildlife to ourselves.  (Figure 5) 
Figure 5 Bull Moose
We continued our drive and continued our descent down out of the mountains stopping along the way to let the brakes cool off.  We had a 10% downward grade and all though our brakes did not smoke we sure could smell them.  It was low gear and pumping the brakes all the way down. 

Coming out of the Big Horn Mountains we stopped at the Big Horn Canyon Visitor Center and decided to take a detour and see the Canyon.  The area is noted for its Canyon, Big Horn Sheep, and Wild Horses.  It also has a long and large desert type Dirt bike area. Rather large mountains with a lot of young people putting their bikes through some paces.  The Canyon was awesome with rich earth tone colors.  It was a beautiful day with large Cumulous Clouds draped with a blue background.

We arrived at Cody, WY around 4:15 pm and took a break before driving our final leg to Cooke City along the beautiful Chief Joseph Scenic By-Way.  This is another one of those winding, climbing, switchback roads but not as steep as the Big Horn Mountain Road.  Again due to the time of year the grasses were a plush green inviting us for a stop or two along the way to get some great landscape shots.  The earth in this area is a rich red and surrounded by all the green grass made for a dynamite picture.  (Figure 6) 
Figure 6 Chief Joseph Scenic By-Way
On June 9, 2014 we made it to Cooke City right on schedule and checked into our motel.  Cooke City is noted for its winter sport of snowmobiling.  The roads out along the Beartooth Highway are closed during the winter.  Snowmobiles are brought in by the hundreds for rent as tourist climb into the snow packed mountains.  There were still some for rent and we were told they would be there for a couple more weeks as the mountains had plenty of snow left.  I considered it but opted for the park instead.  Final leg of our trip was 223.48 miles and 4 hours, 17 minutes from Sheridan, WY to Cooke City, MT.  I am not taking into account the time we lost while stopping to photograph along the way.

Monday June 9, 2014 we headed out into the park, destination, Hayden Valley, LeHardy Rapids, Tower Junction and Breakfast at Roosevelt Lodge.  In the mornings you will see the herds of Bison everywhere and on both sides of the road and even on the road.  They are conditioned to vehicles and photographers but make no mistake these are wild animals and as a visitor to Yellowstone and their home, it is imperative that we give all wildlife space.  Obey the rules and keep your distance.  If you want close up shots of these American Treasures, than buy a telephoto lens.  Remember if you cross their space and they react to protect themselves and or their young, you may be putting them in danger of being euthanized.  We have a responsibility to protect these animals for future generations so remember tomorrows KYDs and Keep-Your-Distance.  

We arrived at Hayden Valley and parked next to a couple who had a spotting scope.  They were excited and shared their scopes with us so we could see a black wolf among some Bison on the side of a mountain.  It was too far away for a photograph but I enjoyed seeing my first wolf of Yellowstone.  Several places rent these scopes so the next time I will either rent one or buy one.  Hayden Valley is a good place to see predators in action but it may have been too late in the morning for us, at any rate it wasn’t happening on this particular day.  After several hours we headed to LeHardy Rapids.  We have been to this location several times in years past.  This is a good place to see Pelicans riding the rapids. (Figure 7)  
Figure 7 Pelican Landing
The park has built a very nice walkway with several lookouts along the shore of the river/rapids.  Next it was on to Tower Junction and a short walk to Tower Falls.  This is also a good place for a restroom break and a visit to its General Store for a cool drink and snack.  We headed back to Cooke City and yet another trip across Dunraven’s Pass and its snow covered peaks.  You climb across the mountains here on numerous switchbacks.  There is an area near its peak where the trees are black and bare from a previous fire.  With snowcapped mountains as a backdrop and snow covered grounds beneath their towering height it makes for a beautiful photograph.  Be there when the sun is on its rise and the snow has a crystal effect and the trees look like pillars of silver.

On Tuesday, the 10th, we headed back into the park.  Today the Bison herds of Lamar Valley had moved to lower ground so they were close to the road, on both sides of the road and even sparing with one another on the road.  It was a good year for calving.  Grazing among the Bison you will also see Pronghorn.  One stretch of the road was restricted from cars pulling over, parking, or from exiting your vehicle or even hiking due to a she-wolf and cubs being in this area and crossing the road on a regular basis.  We were told this was done so as not to stress out the mother.  Needless to say we looked but never saw her.  Our destination was Mammoth Springs to photograph the Mineral Terraces (Figure 8) as well as visit Sheep Eaters Cliff in search of Marmot. 
Figure 8 Mineral Terraces
We made it to the terraces by 10:00am so we still had good light since it was really only 9:00am by the sun.  Got to love Day-Light Savings time if you are in to early morning photography.  We stopped at a ranger station and learned that there was a Great Horn Owl nest just across the street from them in a cluster of trees.  The ranger further stated that the parents were probably in trees near by watching over their young which had just left the nest.  With camera in hand I began walking the area looking up into the trees.  The trees were in full foliage but luck was with me because I spotted an adult right over head on a somewhat low branch with no obstructions.  Naturally I focused took a test shot and then began clicking away, while standing in the middle of the street.  Cars be damned I was not moving until I had my shot. (Pictures of this Great Horn Owl can be seen at www.jmgilbertphoto.com  Go to the “New Photo” tab click on it and then select 2014 Yellowstone.) Next we visited Gardiner, MT corporate office, to the Yellowstone Association:  Met with the employee manger to learn more about living and working in the park.  Next year I hope to be doing just that. In this area is just one of the many water falls that grace Yellowstone.  We visited Undine Falls once again for a photo shot.  It’s great to visit this park at different times of the year to see the many changes it goes through during the seasons.

I want to start this paragraph off by telling you that we stayed at the Super 8 in Cooke City,  Clean and comfortable but not outstanding.  However, just next door to us and right below our window was the “Bear Claw”, a bakery that made from scratch, every day, fresh pastry’s, breads, and even breakfast.  Just one visit and we started out each morning with breakfast and a few cookies and bear claws to take into the park with us.  This place introduced me to Eggs-Benedict over fresh salmon.  It is Wednesday and we planned to meet up with Sharon and Eddy to visit the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone Canyon.  If you get there at the right time and on a sunny day, usually between 9am to 11am, you can capture a rainbow at the base of the falls in your picture.  It was a short hike to the south rim trail and a view of the falls from along the canyon ridge.  Along the way we met a Marmot on the trail. 

Always hike with a camera at ready.  Yep I got a shot of the Marmot.  It was a beautiful day with nice clouds for the backdrop.  Sharon and I decided to continue our hike to Artist Point to photograph the Lower Falls.  Eddy and Niala drove the cars and met up with us at the end of the trail.  This is a fantastic hike.  Good, clean, cleared path.  Trail rating would be moderate, although there are some switchbacks that are quite strenuous in their climb.  The trail travels along the Canyon on top of its bluff.  The colors are amazing with the rich sandstone and red rock coloration.  Along the way we saw an Osprey nest on the north side of the Canyon Bluff,   lots of birds, and thank GOD we did not meet any Grizzly along the way even though there was a sign warning hikers of their presence in the area.  The lower falls is probably one of the most photographed sites in the park.  (Figure 9) No matter how many times I visit this location and photograph it, I can always take another picture of this photogenic view.
Figure 9 Lower Falls-Artist Point
Between the four of us we had met a lot of photographers who were gracious enough to share wildlife sightings they had seen or heard about.  We were told of black bear and her cubs prior to Tower Falls and a Badger den at Slough Creek in the Lamar Valley.  Sure enough we got some great shots of a Cimarron Bear and some opportunities of the Black Bear and Cubs.  Traffic was backed up along the road and the ranger was nice enough to allow us to photograph the bear and cubs but they were adamant that we all kept our distance.  The bears had been in this area for several days going from one side of the road to the other to feed.  The mother, nor her cubs, were intimidated by all the people are their clicking cameras.  We made it to the Badger den which was not hard to find just look for all the photographers with their big white lenses.  We too joined the group, setting up our tripods, and spraying ourselves with some repellent, the mosquitoes were bad since we were close to a series of ponds.  Like everyone in the group we settle back for the wait.  Those who had been there all day informed us the mother was out hunting for her young.  Sure enough a couple of hours later she emerged over the hill carrying a ground squirrel in her mouth.  We were all located across the gravel road but still she hesitated upon seeing us but quickly made her way to her den and the family awaiting her. (Figure 10)
Figure 10 Badger with kill
Thursday June 12th was another beautiful day day in the park.  We worked our way back into the park and stopped off at Slough Creek where the Badger was because Sharon had told us that further on down the gravel road were several ponds with Yellow-Headed Black Birds.  Sure enough they were there along with the pesky mosquitoes but we were not to be detoured from capturing these beautiful birds on film or in our case on a digital sensor.  Definitely worth the visit. As we continue into the park Niala reminded me of an Osprey nest that Sharon had seen a couple days earlier so that was our next stop.  I spotted an adult flying through the canyon so we set up our tripods, got out our longest lenses and snapped on a teleconverter.  While we were there shooting a family arrived with two children one of which was a young man around 14/15 years of age.  He approached me with his Nikon camera and kit lens of 18-200mm in hand and wanted to know what we were looking out.  I told him and pointed out the nest but he was having trouble locating it.  They blend into their surroundings amazingly well.  I let the young man look through my camera to give him a point of reference.  We stood here with all this big equipment yet this young man was thrilled to be in the park with his rig.  While I continue to work with this kid, Niala struck up a conversation with his dad and learned that his dad used to be a photographer in the military and his mom was into wildlife photography as well shooting with a Canon and 300mm lens.  The dad was getting back into the sport and this was becoming an annual event for the family.  OK well I wanted to make this kid’s day and since he was shooting with a Nikon interchangeable lens camera I let him attach his camera to my tripod mounted lens.  I was shooting with a 300mm with 1.4 teleconverter on it.  That would give him a reach of 420mm.  Add to that his cropped sensor of 1.5 for a maximum of 630mm.  The first words out of his mouth were WOW.  After taking several pictures he thanked me several times as did his dad.  One of the great things about photography is being able to help others,  Niala and I never pass up an opportunity to offer to take a couple or family photograph, using their cameras, if we are near and they are taking a portrait to capture their visit or the moment.  This trip was no different and we offered our services several times, always with a grateful thanks from the subjects. 

Continuing on we stopped to photograph black bear on the road to Mammoth but the highlight of this day was a Grizzly Bear feeding on an Elk carcass some 300 to 400 yards from the road.  When we arrived and finally found a place to park, we began shooting a pair of Sand Hill Cranes close by the kill.  This is one of Niala’s favorites and my first opportunity to photograph these birds.  Sharon and Eddy were there and we all settled in on a hill just off the road to wait for the Grizzly to come out of the woods to feed.  Other photographers told us he was feeding about every two hours and it was time for him to come out.  Visualize if you will about 50 people with long lens and tripods setting on the side of the road and you can imaging the pandemonium we were creating with traffic.  Add to this that about two miles down the road a construction crew was doing road repairs.  Well the bear came out as did a Park Ranger who informed us that we had 15 minutes and then we would have to leave.  In that fifteen minutes I probably shot about 400 pictures of the Bear as he came out of the woods and made his way to the Elk carcass which was lying in a creek. (Figure 11)   We concluded the day by coming upon a Coyote feeding on his kill.
Figure 11 Grizzly at Elk Kill
Friday morning Niala and I headed east on the Bear Tooth highway to photograph some very large cascades and water fall.  Later that day we all got together again to hike to Trout Lake.  It was an uphill hike with steep grades in sections of it.   I was able to photograph some trout swimming up stream from the lake.  This area is frequented by Grizzly Bears.  On our way back to Cooke City we came across the Black Bear and her three cubs.  The cubs were in a tree and the mother was sleeping beneath it.  No good opportunities this time.

Saturday we got up early around 5am to allow us time to have breakfast at the Bear Claw CafĂ© prior to heading home.  It was a beautiful morning with some cloud cover and a full moon. (Figure 12)
 I set up to attempt to capture the shot.  During breakfast the owner’s husband called from Mammoth and told his wife a major snow storm was headed our way.  
Figure 12 Moon Over Montana
We finished breakfast and hit the road.  I wanted to get over the Chief Joseph Scenic By-Way before the storm hit.  Half way into the mountains we saw the storm moving in.  The clouds were grey and dense in their cover.  We learned from Sharon that it was a heavy storm. 

We made it to the eastern part of Nebraska where we ran into two major storm fronts one to our south and one to our north and both moving in the same easterly direction as us.  At one point we pulled into a gas station just in time to avoid a hail storm.  We decided to go ahead and get something to eat when we heard on the local news that severe tornado warnings were in the area.  It got really dark but Niala thought we could get ahead of the storm so resumed our travel.  All I can say is I have a new respect for nature.  The heavens were full of energy lighting up the skies with a vengeance.  It was another 10 miles down the road before we gave up and pull off and got a motel for the night.  We later learned of numerous tornados which touched down in the area where we had been.  The rest of our drive was uneventful and we made it back to Jefferson City ahead of schedule.  The final tally, I took 2,611 pictures and I have processed 65 of them.  We drove 2,694.32 miles to and from Yellowstone and another 500 miles in the park.  It took us 21.5 hours to drive from Jefferson City, MO to Yellowstone National Park.  

If you would like to see more pictures of our trip please visit www.jmgilbertphoto.com  Go to the “New Photo” tab click on it and then select 2014 Yellowstone.  Thanks for stopping by and please, become a follower to this Blog.

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