Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Bears, bison and geysers, oh my!
As much as we loved the Tetons, there were geothermal pyrotechnics and wildlife awaiting in Yellowstone, so after a final morning shoot at by-now beloved Oxbow Bend in the Tetons, we headed north. Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, and immortalized in popular culture as Jellystone, home of Yogi Bear. It is one the world’s most thermally active hotspots, a veritable simmering caldron of volcanism. The central park is itself a large caldera basin, 30 by 45 miles. It’s rare to be in a place where one senses so directly the power of nature, the mysterious, seething magmatic heart pulsing within our planet.
Arriving at Lake Yellowstone around mid-day, we decided over lunch in the dining room (corn chowder for me, Reuben for Steve and curried rice salad on spinach to share ) to head north to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We eventually made it, but were stopped in our tracks within minutes by our first bison sightings, en route through the Hayden Valley. Buffalo is the common name for the American bison (scientific name is bison bison). They were scattered through a golden field. We pulled off, the better to photograph a more accessible pair than a larger herd causing a near traffic jam. We had a little cover in the form of an arbor of downed trees, at least it felt less exposed, but our bison subjects were busily feeding and seemed mostly indifferent to our presence. Lest any visitor approach too closely, a couple of rangers were on hand, and were happy to chat and answer questions.
No sooner were we back in the car than we stopped again for bison. These were feeding in front of the Yellowstone River, backed by a smoking fumarole, a picturesque setting.
Arriving to the south rim of the Grand Canyon by late afternoon, the conditions were good for shooting, with clouds and nice diffused light.
Most of our exercise that day came from hiking down (and up!) Uncle Tom’s Trail, 528 steps taking us most of the way down the canyon, many on metal steps.
Steve snoozed in the car while I tackled the opposite viewpoint, which leads down to the Brink of the Lower Falls. For a few minutes, I had the platform above the torrent to myself.
Just making it back in time for dinner at Lake Yellowstone Lodge at 8:30 pm, we shared the poached pear salad, a starter of duck and wild mushroom risotto, and a main course of medium rare bison (our first), with asparagus and mashed potatoes.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Checking in at the colonial style, restored Lake Yellowstone Lodge, we had inquired about a room in the main lodge. Discounted, it was $315, quite a bit more than the room we had booked in the auxiliary building (Sandpiper, although Steve consistently called it Sandpaper) next door at $160. Although painted on the outside the same cheery yellow, the inside was borderline grim. We didn’t see the lobby of our room until 10 pm, though, coming back after being out all day and barely making it back in time for our 8:30 dinner reservation.
We questioned our decision to economize later. The room was quite basic, with no room safe or closet. Peeling back the sheets on my side, I was shocked to see several reddish-brown splotches of what appeared to be blood, about the level where my shoulder would be. I couldn’t believe I wouldn’t have noticed this before, so immediately began whirling around to see where I had been bitten or injured, assuming I must be the source of the mysterious stain. It seemed inconceivable that a housekeeper would have made up the bed with a sheet so stained. The mystery remained unsolved. I had no bites, squashed bugs, or anything else to explain it. In the shower the next day, I did discover a scratch on my shin, but was still at a loss to connect an injury in this location with the stain’s location.
Maybe it wasn’t blood? I even looked overhead for a ceiling source, remembering a mysterious episode in our garage years ago. At the time, Steve had a BMW. Day after day, tiny pellets of rodent excrement appeared on the hood of his vehicular pride and joy. We were at a loss, as there was essentially nothing overhead in our garage, just the metal scaffolding suspending the garage door. As Steve was explaining to me how difficult it would be to find the culprit, he gesticulated toward an open garbage can in the adjacent garage. Just at that moment, he glanced down and saw in the can, a tiny rat, trapped.
Out in the car at 7 am, we headed north toward the Hayden Valley in search of wildlife. What we encountered was a wildlife hunter’s nightmare, but a photographer’s dream: dense fog. Canadian geese foraged in a meadow, bison created a small-scale traffic pile-up.
Heading back, we made a pit stop at Mud Pot, and ended up walking the short network of boardwalk trails. Back at the room, it was naptime. I was so tired, I awoke to find I was still wearing my sunglasses, around my neck on a Croakie. Although the deli sandwiches disappointed (soggy pepper roast beef and blue cheese), the hotel lobby was a pleasant respite, with a lake view and accompaniment by a violinist. While we were sorting through images midday on our laptops in the lobby, a rainstorm came through, including hail. Later that evening, I saw stacks of wrapped sandwiches, already made for the following day, in the now closed deli-no wonder they were soggy.
A surprising change from the Grand Tetons National Park was the complete absence of cell service, and Wifi throughout Yellowstone. Also surprising was the fact the 4 hard-wired computers for guest use in the business center on the second floor were not mobbed.
We headed north again for our second foray, with our destination being the Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park. This took us further north than before, turning east at Tower Falls, along golden meadows punctuated with bison herds. Larger aggregations of cars at pullouts proved to be on the lookout for wolves. Judging from the size of the glass they were sporting, we elected not to spend our time this way, given the long odds.
Bison herds were blocking the roads periodically. We were lucky to see two pronghorn antelope, one of which we were able to quietly follow up a ridge in close enough range to shoot.
We partially fulfilled our exercise debt to our Apple watches by a short hike near Tower Falls, a lovely cascade over eroded and sculpted rock formations. At one of the pullouts overlooking the formations at Tower Falls, I positioned my tripod (and myself) just on the other side of a thick-log barrier, just to eliminate the foliage blocking the view. This required no particular athleticism or heroics on my part, and I was at least 10 feet from the slope and dropoff. Funny how strangers just can’t resist commenting. One friendly man said I was braver than he. An older woman said, in a disapproving voice; “That’s how people end up dying.”
Nearing the Lake Yellowstone turnoff again, we were surprised to pass through a white field on the ground. This looked like snow but couldn’t have been-not cold enough in August. It must have been hail. The extremes of temperature in a single day have been a surprise, with the days warming up to the 70s, but nighttime temperatures as low as 33 degrees F!
Friday August 28, 2015
For our last morning at Lake Yellowstone, we elected to do our sunrise shoot at the lakefront Lodge down the road, as we had hardly spent any time at the lake itself. The lake wasn’t visible per se, as there was dense fog again, beautifully separating and isolating trees in the mist. The sunrise was colorful and there was frost on the ground.
Around 8 am, we jumped in the car and headed up to Hayden Valley again, to see what mysterious effects the fog might be producing along the river. Micheal Kenna, watch out, was my reaction to the gorgeous minimal effects being wrought.
Bison were piling across the roadside. A photographer in the car in front of us was sitting in the windowsill of the passenger seat, hanging out in a vulnerable way, craning his neck back in our direction. A large bison was jogging up the road behind us, not in a menacing way, just…coming right for us!
Checking in at Old Faithful Inn, we were redirected over to Old Faithful Lodge, another classic large wooden National Park structure, serving as lobby for our collection of cabins. Ours was ADA compliant, meaning we actually were entitled to use the adjacent handicap spot assigned to that cabin!
Late afternoon took us north to Norris Geyser basin.
We so thoroughly enjoyed walking this moonscape of bubbling pools, crazy colors and spouting geysers that we largely missed a planned sunset shoot of Old Faithful at 7:30 pm, arriving as it was erupting. The sun was still really too intense and difficult to hide behind the plume. Then we had a dinner quandary-we had an 8:30 reservation at the venerable Old Faithful Inn. But, we thought the 9 pm eruption of Old Faithful would be illuminated by a near full moon. As expected, we couldn’t adjust our reservation earlier, so we cancelled and had a quick and tasty bite next door at the Bearpit (Bar). I had trout cakes with Angry Orchard cider and Steve had a local IPA with bison bratwurst and chicken sausage with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. Exiting the bar to head to our cabin and retrieve our gear, we were surprised to see the moon already up, higher than we expected from the Iphone Moon Seeker app. Steve was pessimistic, shaking his head: “This isn’t going work.”
But, we positioned ourselves with a group of full moon watchers on the far side of the geyser and set up tripods, pre-focused, estimated exposures and hoped for the best. It went off even better than we hoped for. The moon looked so high that we thought it might at best illuminate the plume, but not be in the shot. Actually, the spume extended so high that the moon was readily covered, which was wonderful.
We had such a good time we decided to try to shoot Old Faithful again in the early morning, when the near full moon would be descending, hopefully into a position to again backlight it.
We made our calculations. Old Faithful goes off every 90 minutes, roughly, plus or minus 10 minutes. So, 9 pm, 10:30 pm, midnight, 1:30 am, 3 am, 4:30 am. Moon Seeker said the moon would setting around 4:30 am. Very early, but maybe worth it.
At 4 am, the alarm sounded. Resolved, we threw on layers, grabbed cameras and tripods and headed out. It was dark, but easy to see by the silvery moon. We had the boardwalk to ourselves. We walked out to where we could align the geyser and the moon, and hoped it would set where it would again highlight the spume but be itself obscured. Just after we had our tripods set up, test shots taken, settings adjusted and were waiting expectantly for the greatest nature show on earth to begin, a woman with a distinctive gait and voice passed by. We said hello, and her response was a cryptic:
“ We have a beehive indicator down by the river.”
“Huh?” I gaped.
She repeated, in an I’m-clearly-speaking-to-an idiot tone, enunciating each word:
Or, perhaps she thought she was speaking to non-English speakers, as her response was analogous to English speakers turning up the volume thinking that makes them more comprehensible to those not fortunate enough to speak English.
After a few more “Whats?” and clear expressions of incomprehension, she finally broke down the code:
“Beehive, the big geyser, down by the river, has indicators, it’s going to go off. 20 minutes.”
And off she stomped, leaving us to ponder a move or stay put. From where she indicated, it seemed like the wrong orientation to profit from the moon’s illumination, so we stayed put.
Then Steve let out an agonized moan: “No, it can’t be.”
“What, what, WHAT??”
“No!” Not after all our preparations the night before. It seems he had been wearing the same photo vest all week, with an extra battery and card, but just this one morning, wasn’t wearing it.
It was 4:30 am, time for Old Faithful to kick into action, but no help for it:
Me: “GO! RUN!”
Steve took off for our cabin, 10 minutes away.
After he was out of sight, the big geyser across the river, Beehive with a capitol “B,” did indeed go off, shooting what appeared to be hundreds of feet into the air for what seemed like a long time.
Steve returned in time to see some of Beehive’s performance. We continued to wait for Old Faithful, which gave a few encouraging puffs before reverting to its baseline low-level emission. It was delayed enough that we actually thought that perhaps Beehive’s issue had somehow affected Old Faithful’s. The afternoon before, at Norris Geyser Basin, we had read how the erratic eruptions of Steamboat Geyser completely drain nearby Cistern Spring, which refills in a few days.
But toward 4:45 am, Old Faithful made those unmistakable preambulatory rumbles, and a column erupted skyward. It was awesome!
We went back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep, no matter how much of Steve’s heat I siphoned off. Finally, around 7 am, I arose and tried to persuade Steve to accompany me on a geyser walk. He begged off, citing our plans to drive to West Yellowstone and wanting to be a responsible driver.
I headed out, circumnavigating Old Faithful, trying to find an alternate access to cross the river to Beehive Geyser. The near-by trail was closed. As I completed my loop, I realized it was almost time for the regularly scheduled Old Faithful eruption. The sun was up, but low, so in good position to backlight it.
We headed to the western border of the park to West Yellowstone, a town which is home to the West Yellowstone Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. Monica had mentioned it to us, and having devoted so much thought, energy and money (each of those cans of concentrated bear repellent pepper spray are $40-plus, and we each had one, plus the one I sacrificed to the waterfall gods) to deterring bear attacks, this seemed a good opportunity to see a grizzly up close for the first time. The center is home to grizzly bears that have been relocated from National Parks or are too habituated to human food, as well as wolf packs, in semi-naturalistic settings. We’ve seen bears in the wild a few times, not too close. Once was walking in a forest near Port Hardy, northern British Columbia, waiting to start a dive trip. Bears were even more in evidence on a kayaking and camping trip in Glacier Bay, Alaska. We saw a mother with cubs on shore, from the safe distance of a kayak offshore. Another day on the same trip, at the end of a day with extra long mileage, 10 miles, when I was oh-so ready to be out of the kayak and to stop paddling, we landed at our intended evening campsite. However, one look at the beach and even a bear novice could tell there was abundant evidence of active bear occupation, namely fresh scat. Back into the boats it had to be, another 2 extra long miles to the next suitable site.
As for wolves, they were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995, after being eradicated for decades.
But to see them…park rules don’t allow approaching some more dangerous animals (bears) closer than 100 yards, way too distant for a decent shot with the glass we own. We had seen the line-ups of cars along the Lamar Valley, with giant spotting scopes, and knew this exercise would take more time than we were willing to spend, and the photographic results would be mediocre, even if we were lucky to see a distant, tiny wolf dot through binoculars.
The grizzlies were truly impressive animals with beautiful brown fur coats.
We happened on an interesting exercise the morning of our visit. Manufacturers of bear-proof canisters, used by campers to keep food away from bears, submit their products to the center for testing. The containers are baited with bear-enticing foods and have to withstand a full-bore bear assault for 60 minutes to be certified as “bear-resistant.” The single-minded determination we witnessed was most impressive.
In some ways, we saved the the most eye dazzling geologic and thermic show for last, the Grand Prismatic .
From the boardwalk, we could see tiny figures on a distant trail, not diagrammed on the map-how to get there? We figured it out eventually, through a process of elimination. We climbed up a slope off Fairy Falls trail, south of Grand Prismatic, trying for a more elevated viewpoint. The footing was sketchy, very loose and silty grey sand and scree. We had a surprising amount of company for a non-sanctioned trail, an Indian couple trying to set a new world record for the most prolonged selfie session ever.
For our evening shoot back at Old Faithful, the plan was for sunset with a moon rise at 8 pm. However, it was rainy with thick cloud cover. After we set up in the expected direction of the moonrise, we noticed intense sunset color developing behind us in thick distant rain clouds. But, the moon wasn’t visible as expected. I took off with my jacket draped over the camera on the fully extended tripod, trying to get to the other side while the color held in the sky and before Old Faithful went off. I made it with just enough time to get set up before Old Faithful erupted at 8:15 pm.
For our last evening in Yellowstone, we relaxed over a comforting dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes for Steve and trout hash for me at Old Faithful Inn. The next day would be long, an all-day trek north and west across Montana, to Bigfork, where we could lean on Monica and Charley’s local expertise as to where to be and when. Yellowstone was a mind-blowing, alternate universe, with the earth’s thin veneer barely containing a bubbling cauldron of super-volcano energy below. It was a fantastic introduction to a region we hope to explore in every season.
Coming…eventually, Part 3, Glacier and Montana.