(continued from last week)
The mad weather experience
Having abandoned the spectacle [with the bears and the wolves] in want of other photos (you may have read in last week’s blog post), I finally had a day with a sunset! 4 days with morning clouds, evening clouds and afternoon heat haze are neither easy nor ideal photographic conditions. And what a sunset it was! Stunning panoramas across the Hayden valley, not a cloud to be seen in the sky. The bison were semi co-operating, staying relatively close and higher up on the hill, rewarding me for my patience with these beasts. I felt like maybe my luck had turned and I could finally get the shot I had in my mind. I did not have access to the weather forecast, and for all intents and purposes this seemed like a logical thing to think.
As the night progressed and I was sound asleep in my tent, along came the clouds that brought torrential rain for two whole days. On the first day the rain was accompanied by flashes of lightning for over 24 hours, but when trying to photograph it the unpredictability and long intervals made this rather difficult. The animals were meek and I couldn’t stay outside for prolonged periods of time as my gear was vulnerable plus there was no way of drying out my clothes at my campsite.
Day 2 of extreme weather not only brought with it golf-ball-sized hail but also heavy snow (the first of the season) that saw one of the highest passes in the park closed off!
Finally some respite from the heavens, I saw a glimpse of blue sky the next day as the clouds moved away. A clear evening with a full moon to accompany it – perfect, you say? Ho ho, not quite! On what was now a Saturday (maybe, I had lost track by this point) I woke up to a freezing -6ºC and a frozen-over windscreen in the car. Was I really sweating in a t-shirt this time last week!?! Over the next few days the cold snap eased off bringing a few days of sunshine before a daily snowfall became a permanent feature of the weatherscape. Winter was here.
The tourist experience
I had been in the park for roughly 5 days now, and on several occasions been confronted with the amount of tourists the park supports in September these days. As I had up until then stayed in Slough Creek, one of the more remote and small campsites that is located off the main road by a 2-mile-long gravel path, it was easy to ignore all the cars and people. My grizzly feast was a strong example of people appearing out of nowhere and flocking to a big mammal hotspot.
When looking for wildlife, you have two excellent sources of information: a) the rangers. Don’t hesitate to pop in to ranger stations and have a chat – most will specialise in their local area as well. b) Other tourists, especially other photographers. Most visitors are very friendly, and love having a chinwag about what places are particularly good for photographing what animal. Strike up a conversation, trade information. And yes, if someone is pulled over and watching something closely it seems silly not to have a look yourself. But watch out because this kind of behaviour, as relieved as you might be at times when it helps you when the roles are reversed it can be the WORST thing in the world.
Here is proof: about a week into my trip I decided I really wanted to try and find some bugling elk (elk are basically a large type of red deer, and their rut equivalent is called a bugle), as well as some bald eagles. Bald eagles are everywhere so it’s difficult to name one particularly reliable place where you can find them. But I decided to attempt the west Yellowstone road that takes you into the park via Madison junction. Every few seconds a car would pass. When I finally did find a bald eagle pair on some branches I pulled over, and quickly someone followed my lead. Before I knew it there were about 20 cars stopped and all of them wanted to know what I had seen. That didn’t bother me so much, and I would inform them there was a pair of bald eagles on the branch over there. When someone was particularly excited I would even lend them my binoculars. But it was the ‘oh, it’s just a bald eagle. I thought it was a grizzly or something’ that made me cringe every single time. Think ‘animal-spotting’ steroids that leave many tourists unsatisfied unless they see the money makers of the park.
Different parts of the park are developed very differently – where the campsites in the Lamar valley have only a longdrop toilet, campsites in Madison and Norris have sinks, heated flushing toilets, and even vending machines! And if you are in the Old Faithful area (which is the only part of the park with a two lane highway section), you must take the time to have a look at the Old Faithful Inn because it is one crazy hotel building.
Some people come to yellowstone for the wildlife, some people come for the fishing and some come for the geothermal activity (supervolcano anyone?). This is by far the easiest and most predictable tourist activity in Yellowstone so free parking spaces are often few and far between. Most geysers and geothermal pools are on the left side of the park and I went there to tick off the areas off my list rather than necessarily wanting to join the hoards of tourists, and so my comments on these places are fairly limited, other than that they were genuinely impressive. I only scratched the surface by visiting Mammoth’s terraces, the Norris basin, the Midway Basin and Old Faithful.