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Yellowstone National Park reveals itself in many ways...and for this year's Aperture Academy Wildlife and Landscape workshop, it didn't waste any time.
On our first day in the park, we were greeted with partly cloudy skies — you know the type, the ones that look like giant cotton balls just hovering, with that nice blue sky that when viewed with a polarizing filter just pop out adding great depth to the landscape.
We weren't in the park 30 minutes when we had our first wildlife sighting, a coyote foraging near a pond. He was about 75 meters off the road and actively hunting in the tall grass for rodents. We quickly and quietly jumped out of the van and grabbed some of our first captures of the workshop. The coyote proved to very entertaining to watch. He would utilize a series of high, bounding hops, like being on a pogo stick to pounce upon his small prey. With a bit of timing and high speed frame rates, many in the workshop walked away with some nice mid-air captures.
Getting back in our van, we continued our critter search. One doesn't have to wait long when in Yellowstone. We had scouted a hilltop earlier in the week before the workshop began and had located a nice sized bull elk and his harem. Now, with the workshop participants, we hoped our homework would pay off and luckily for us, it did! We relocated the herd a short distance away from our original sighting. This time though, the herd was located on a nearby horizon line with an absolutely perfect big drama sky as a backdrop. Participants worked numerous angles and the bull elk seemed perfectly at ease with our presence as his main focus was on keeping his harem within eyesight and away from other potential suitors. Gorgeous frame filling images were captured by all.
From there we continued on, driving deeper into the heart of Yellowstone. Great luck seemed to accompany us as we came upon a site of a recent bison kill. Although a bit far for photography, binoculars and spotting scopes proved exceptionally useful to observe the interplay of a pack of wolves and a grizzly bear struggling to gain access and rights to the carcass. Sometimes its just nice to sit and watch nature's show. For the next hour or so we stood and watched this ancient spectacle, along with other observers that had gathered on the hillside, before moving on to our next grand site and a bit of lunch. The grand canyon of Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls proved to be a great scenic spot to stretch our legs, grab some landscape images, and fill our bellies. I suppose watching the grizzly and wolf feeding on the bison had whetted our appetites.
After our field lunch, we made our way down into Hayden Valley where we spotted a grizzly bear with her two cubs only 200 meters from the road. We spent nearly an hour photographing her and the cubs as they dug for insects in the soft grassy hillsides near the river.
During our drive back to Gardiner for the night, we made a couple of stops for landscape images and just as the light was fading we spotted some big horn sheep on the cliffs. Even though the best light was gone, we did our best to grab a few images, knowing we'd be back to try again.
The second morning, once again, not 30 minutes into our journey into the park we spotted a large lone bull elk on a small grassy hilltop. Quickly, and quietly, we snuck up the back side to a near perfect vantage point where a 7-point elk sat in the sage brush. We were about 150 meters away, so we slowly began making our way closer...a few meters every few minutes so as not to alarm or disturb him...grabbing images the entire time. Once we were about 50 meters out we were plenty close to get great images of him and still be a safe distance away and not disturb him. It ended up being about an hour shoot total, since he kept falling asleep and we had to wait for him to open his eyes for the best pictures. Toward the end we noticed on one ear he had a tag..."#10" it said. We later learned the story of #10...
With some great images in our cameras, we moved on down the road where we encountered some bison, which were in a nice environment for great iconic images. We loaded up and about 20 minutes later we encountered our first black bear of the trip! He was high on a hillside, just outside the range for good photography so we vowed that we'd return the next day to see if we might find him in a better place, more conducive for photography.
After lunch, we drove out to the Lamar Valley. It was an overcast day, perfect for wildlife photography. Finding critters was high on our list. All eyes were scanning the rolling fields of grass and hillsides when all of a sudden "Wolf!!!! Holy SH@T!!! THAT'S A WOLF!" Stephen yelled. Everyone immediately turned to see a large gray wolf not 20 meters off the road, peering directly at us as he stood between two large rocks. There was no place to stop and pull over so we quickly turned around, jumped out and hid behind the van...trying to see if we could spot him. Nothing. We looked and looked and then finally heard the entire pack howling in the near distance sending a shiver of excitement through everyone. Most in the group had never heard wolf calls in the wild and for all that are lucky enough to hear this primordial sound, its a sound one never forgets. Although he was gone before we had an opportunity to photograph him, we all felt fortunate to have seen him at such close range. Little did we know, another, far more thrilling wolf sighting was going to happen on our last day.
On Saturday, our third day, we headed back toward Lamar Valley, to the location we had seen the black bear the previous day, in hopes of getting closer shots of him. We got out of the van and surveyed the hillside, but he wasn't in the spot where we had last seen him. However, a thick low lying fog bank was slowly making its way up the forested mountain valley, which provided a surreal, almost J.R. Tolkien-esque landscape. When Yellowstone secrets away one photographic opportunity, it often reveals another one in its place. In this case, long lenses used for wildlife were replaced with landscape lenses and we all had a great time incorporating the fog into a variety of ethereal compositions. Finished with our landscapes and thinking the bear had given us the slip for the morning, we decided to head off in search of other wildlife opportunities. To our surprise though, our black bear was only about 500 meters down the road. Even better, he was right off the road in a much better position, about 100 meters away, easily close enough for great photography. And to top it off, this time he was laying up on a log sunning himself! We watched and waiting and when he would lift and turn his head, everyone grabbed the shot.
Once everyone had their fill of black bear images we headed to one of the most famous locations in Yellowstone National Park...Old Faithful. We timed our arrival well and only had to wait about 30 minutes until the next eruption. As the students set up their gear, Stephen and Scott set up the picnic lunch right at the edge of the geyser so students could enjoy sandwiches, pasta, chips and cookies during the wait. A few warning steam bursts let us know Old Faithful was ready to blow. She erupted pretty much on schedule staying true to her name and we had nice puffy clouds with blue sky as our backdrop.
From Old Faithful we made our way to the Grand Prismatic, one of the largest and most impressive of the Yellowstone geysers and hot spring locations. Due to the colder temperatures, the steam was strong and blocked our view of the most colorful areas (common in the fall/winter) but we did manage to wait for some nice gusts of wind to clear the scene a bit so we could capture the rainbow of colors growing on the edges of these vast boiling pools of water. We also took advantage of the myriad of sediment patterns created by the thousands of years of bubbling activity to compose unique and captivating fine art abstracts.
On our way back north toward our sunset location, Mammoth Hot Springs, we spotted another coyote. He didn't hang around long but some managed to get some quick pics. Since we had a little extra time before sunset, we decided to revisit the big horned sheep. When we arrived, they were high on the cliff's edges, giving us some dramatic late afternoon sky silhouettes. As most of the group was focused on the high cliff side action, one of our participants turned in the other direction to see a large cinnamon-colored black bear walk right up from the river bed. Bear!!!! We were all taken by complete surprise as the bear rushed immediately behind us and started climbing the slope. He was extremely close so we backed up quickly, shooting of course as he eventually climbed up and over the mountain ridge. We were able to grab some nice frame filling images. Nothing like a surprise close-up bear sighting to add a little spring to the step!
With our adrenaline pumping, we loaded up and headed to Mammoth for our last shoot of the day...sunset over the colored hot-springs of Mammoth Geyser. Sunset turned out very nice, with some high clouds turning a subtle pink with nice patterns and variation, making for an attractive sky to compliment the alien landscape that lay before us.
We returned to town where a tasty crockpot dinner awaited us — for this trip, BBQ Pulled Pork sandwiches with baked beans! Stephen and Scott revealed the comical origin of the first Aperture Academy crockpot as everyone enjoyed the current fillings.
Our fourth and last day would prove to be the highlight of the entire trip...but we didn't yet know it. The morning started off very slow, we were on our way to Hayden Valley, which is about an hour's drive from where we started. All along the way we scanned for wildlife, but saw relatively little except the usual suspects of mule deer, elk and bison. As we entered the north side of Hayden Valley, our luck dramatically changed. Almost at the exact same time, every one yelled "Wolf!!!! There's a wolf chasing a bison!!!" We then realized it was actually two wolves, one a beautiful dark charcoal-colored with bright eyes, and the other, a thick furred gray and white, closely stalking two buffalo just across the river, only about 100 meters away. We quickly found a place to pull over, grabbed our big lenses and found a place on the river's edge to watch the drama unfold. The larger male bison was doing his best to protect his smaller female, often turning face to face with the two wolves and charging at them. Both wolf and bison temporarily disappeared into the forest brush. We quickly setup where we could see an opening on the other side of the river and a couple minutes later we could hear large branches breaking and then three elk sprinted across the opening. We were giddy with excitement...this is an extremely rare event to see and we were going to do our best to witness, and photograph, it.
"Thanks again for such a fabulous workshop. I know I had a blast, and I'm pretty sure Andrew did too. I think I'm going to be processing shots for a long time!"
About five minutes later, the two bison reappeared at the river's edge. In a desperate attempt to escape their pursuers, they entered the river and began swimming to our side of the river. The two wolves reappeared at the river's edge and intently watched the two bison make their way across the river. We started hiking up the path toward the bison, being very careful not to get too close. The gray wolf sat and watched the bison, and us, for about two or three minutes before he began trying to cross the river himself! On his first attempt he turned around, the water was too deep and the current too swift. His second attempt he reached a small sand bar but again turned back. Finally, after running up stream, the wolf crossed in a shallow part of the river about a quarter mile up and then ran back to where the bison had exited the river, running right past some in our group as well as others who had also gathered to watch this amazing scene. The lone gray wolf instantly picked up the scent of the two bison who had fled to a nearby grassy field. With the bison and wolf safely across the river we worked our way toward a small bridge which gave us a good vantage point to see them in the field. The wolf honed in once again on the smaller, female buffalo. The wolf would circle and look for a strategic opening. The bison would turn and charge the wolf. Back and forth this would go until they eventually made their way deeper into the forest and eventually out of sight. It was hard to believe what we had witnessed. It was far better and much more exciting than any Discovery Channel program. Little compares to having a wild wolf sprint past in full pursuit of its prey. We waited around for a bit longer in case the chase came our way again but after a while, we packed up and headed off to eat lunch, excitedly recounting everything we had just seen, as well as reviewing all our new images.
After lunch, we scouted around Hayden Valley some more in hopes we might see the grizzly with cubs again, and we did, but she was too far off in the distance for good images. So, we decided to head back up to the wolf/bison sighting. As we approached we knew something was going on...there were several rangers there, and park visitors with cameras lined up at the bridge. The bison, with the now lone gray wolf, had returned to the grassy field and, sadly, the female bison was down from an injury. You could see she was tired and losing her fight for survival. The wolf was playing a very patient game, sitting in the shade and approaching the female bison only when her guard was down. Part of this was difficult to witness, but everyone understood that this was the natural life and death struggle to survive in the wild. Respectfully, we took a few images of the wolf sitting, sometimes nose to nose, with the bison. Light was falling and in all likelihood, the pack who had yet to show would probably appear late in the night to conclude this particular hunt. For most, it was somewhat humbling to witness firsthand something that had been taking place for many millennia, long before humans appeared on the scene.
Our last stop of the day was the cliffs below Mammoth in a last chance effort to get some close ups of the big horn sheep that we had seen on previous days, but were always a little too far from for frame filling shots. It turned out to be a great group decision. The big horn sheep were there and literally running up and down the steep cliffs! It was quite a site and great for photography, as they were just on the other side of the stream.
The light of the day began to fade, so we packed up and headed back to town for a good-bye dinner and to share our stories from the past four amazing days.
We really enjoyed our time in Yellowstone this year with a great group of people and look forward to getting back next year!
Until next time,
Stephen, Scott and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
As for "#10" and the rest of his story... while in the Mammoth area, Stephen had spoken with an assistant Park Ranger. The topic of #10 came up, given he was such a large 7-point bull elk, which is rare. The story was told that #10 had a long history in Yellowstone. The previous year, he had at least 10 females in his mating harem, but this year, he had been alone all season, and was no longer confrontational with the younger males. From his history, they have estimated #10 is 17 years old, which is at the higher end of the life span for an elk.
We were fortunate to have spent an hour with #10 as he enjoyed a beautiful fall afternoon in Yellowstone. After learning his story, #10 got a special place in our hearts, along with the memories of sharing that autumn hillside with him.