Archive for the ‘Wyoming’ Tag

Single-image Sunday: Last of the Light   4 comments

The sun has just gone down over the high prairie of Wyoming.

This was a sunset I shot on the spur of the moment while driving through the South Pass area of Wyoming a couple days ago.  I didn’t realize then that it would be the last time I would see clouds and colorful skies for awhile.  It’s been clear as a bell since, and the weather forecast for the entire western U.S. shows nothing but cloudless skies and hot weather for the foreseeable future.

I almost didn’t stop.  But the light was so nice I couldn’t stop myself from pulling off on the shoulder and running up a nearby slope.  There were low outcrops poking out of the prairie, tilted layers of sandstone covered with colorful lichen. It was the only foreground available in the open rolling terrain of southwestern Wyoming.

South Pass is where Interstate 80 passes over the Continental Divide.  It’s by far the lowest and gentlest pass through the Rocky Mountains in North America.  There are gentle passes to the south in New Mexico, but that is where the Rockies begin to peter out.  South Pass has high rugged ranges both to the south and north.

I usually try to avoid interstates because of the dominance of tractor trailers, the difficulty of stopping when I see a shot, and because they generally pass through boring terrain compared to minor highways.  I made an exception this time and chose South Pass because my van is running very hot on hills and needs to be looked at.  The engine is almost new, so I’m not too happy about it.  I’m headed back to the mechanic.

I hope everyone has had a fantastic weekend.  Have a great week ahead!

Yellowstone & Grand Tetons Sampler   6 comments

The Snake River's Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming reflects autumn colors.

The Snake River’s Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming reflects autumn colors.

I am in the process of updating my website with pictures I’ve made in the past few months.  Yes, I know.  I have been suffering that most common of website owner maladies: utter neglect!  I guess I don’t really love my website.  All I like is the color of the background and the photos, of course.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

Here are a few of the shots I have re-edited, spruced up, and made ready for the world.  All are from the first leg of my recent trip around the American west, of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts under a starry night.

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts under a starry night.

If you are interested in prints or downloads just click on the picture.  The versions here are very low-resolution, but when you click you will have the option to purchase high-res. versions.  All of the images are copyrighted and thus illegal to download, sorry ’bout that.  Please contact me for more information or special requests.  The direct link to my main website: MJF Images.

 Hope you enjoy them.

The Grand Tetons are a must-stop on any road trip through America's Rocky Mountain states.

The Grand Tetons are a must-stop on any road trip through America’s Rocky Mountain states.

An icy early autumn morning along Yellowstone's Firehole River and the enormous steam plumes rising from Grand Prismatic Spring.

An icy early autumn morning along Yellowstone’s Firehole River with colorful steam plumes rising from Grand Prismatic Spring.

Bare trees and a frosty meadow form a dramatic setting for lifting morning mist at Yellowstone National Park.

Bare trees and a frosty meadow form a dramatic setting for lifting morning mist at Yellowstone National Park.

Bison roaming the road at Yellowstone, and a tourist who had no idea they were that big.

Bison roaming the road at Yellowstone, and a tourist who had no idea they were that big.


The marvelous Swan River Wildlife Refuge in NW Montana, at the foot of the purple Swan Mountains.

The marvelous Swan River Wildlife Refuge in NW Montana, at the foot of the purple Swan Mountains.


Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of  a crescent moon.

Close and Low: Photography without Shame at Yellowstone   3 comments

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts into a beautiful morning.

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts into a beautiful morning.

While looking over the 10,000 or so images from this recent trip around the West, I’ve been finding little jewels in the heap of…well, let’s just say there are many photos not worth keeping.  Realizing that I already looked at these photos once, however briefly, I know they don’t necessarily have immediate impact.  Their charms are typically more subtle.  Best of all, many demonstrate important photography habits that I practice more or less naturally, and are worth sharing.

This photo I made while camping in a (very) chilly Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.  This is my favorite geothermal area in the park (with Norris being a close second).  I love photographing here in the evening (see image below), well after the sun has set, and also in the very early morning.  I was there in mid-October, so mornings were downright freezing.  This means plenty of steam, but it also means you will probably see buffalo rousing from their beds in the morning.  These iconic beasts often spend the night in thermal areas when nights turn cold.

Moonlight and steam on a cold night at Hot Lake in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin creates a mystical scene.

Moonlight and steam on a cold night at Hot Lake in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin creates a mystical scene.

The concept that the photo at top demonstrates is this:  there is almost no photo, certainly no landscape or nature composition, that is not worth trying from a very low shooting position.  It is often the case where the lower the camera is, the better.  So you need to get down on your belly or have a tripod which allows you to set the camera very close to the ground.

Bison begin the day's grazing after spending a cold night in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin.

Bison begin the day’s grazing after spending a cold night in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin.

The shame part of the tip comes from the fact that people will often stare at you while you’re in “strange” shooting positions.  I will usually start off shooting the composition from a bit further away, then move closer as I shoot.  Usually the best photos are the closer ones.  When I am very low, hand-holding the camera, I will often crawl on my belly towards my subject.  In the case of the photo at top, White Dome Geyser, I was doing my best imitation of “army guy crawling under razor wire” when I felt a rumbling in my belly.

The moon is enlarged through the steam over Hot Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The moon is enlarged through the steam over Hot Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

At first I thought it was just my stomach telling me it was past breakfast time (I had been shooting for a couple hours, since before sunrise).  But the geyser quickly made it clear what the rumbling meant as it began to erupt.  I managed to get a few frames off before I started getting pelted with hot water and had to scramble away.

As I got up and looked around, there were at least a couple observers chuckling and nudging each other.  Sure, I felt a little embarrassed, but I also knew there was a good chance I got a nice shot.  Always remember this:  your photo will last longer than you, while your shame usually lasts mere minutes; you will have forgotten all about it by next day.  So go ahead, photograph without any shame.

Steam drifts over Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin on a starry evening.

Steam drifts over Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin on a starry evening.



Yellowstone III: One Hot Spot   Leave a comment

Perhaps you’ve heard this cheerful little nugget of information: Yellowstone National Park conceals a huge volcano that will soon explode and destroy most of America.  Well, I’m not overly worried about this admittedly enormous volcanic system.  And it’s not because the prevailing winds would likely blow the ash toward the east, away from my home in Oregon (even though this does help me sleep at night).

No, the real truth of the situation at Yellowstone lies somewhere between Discovery Channel’s scare tactics and the blissful ignorance that we lived with in the pre-super volcano days.  By the way, just this past summer there were two people killed (one partially eaten) by grizzly bears.  “Jellystone”,  America’s  iconic family camping destination, with friendly Yogi & Booboo hiding behind a pine tree hoping to steal your “picinic” basket, will never again seem so innocent, so charming.

One of Yellowstone’s iconic thermal features (and one huge hot spring) is Grand Prismatic Spring, as viewed from a nearby hill.

This post will concentrate on the geology of the Yellowstone volcano, so if you’re not too much into science, feel free to view the pictures of thermal features instead.  After all, it is the geysers and other features that are a direct surface reflection of the sleeping giant beneath.  If you click on any of these images, which are copyrighted and require permission to download and use, you will be taken to my website, where purchase for either download or print ordering is very easy to do.  Thanks a bunch for your cooperation and interest.

The moon creates a surreal scene in Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

So-called super volcanoes are known by volcanologists as caldera systems.  Essentially, these are raised, roughly circular areas underlain by large underground chambers of magma (melted rock).  The magma in caldera systems tends to be particularly charged with gases.  This is in large part because the magma is not buried very deeply, thus receiving rainwater from the surface.

When the volcano eventually erupts, these dissolved gases flash to the vapor phase and drive an eruption so violent and complete that most or all of the magma chamber is evacuated.  And since the overlying area is large you get a catastrophic collapse of the volcano back into the emptied magma chamber.  The collapse itself can drive continued violent eruption, like a giant piston driving the remainder of the magma forcefully out.

The eruption produces, for the most part, deadly hot ash flows (called pyroclastic flows) that race across the landscape, along with truly enormous clouds of lighter ash which can bury landscapes hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

Caldera volcanoes range in size from those that erupt with not much more violence than average-sized volcanoes, the ones we have experienced in historical times, to those that can change the course of life on Earth.  They rarely resemble most people’s idea of a typical volcano.  They’re not usually steep-sided, but instead form large areas of irregular topography, often with one or more large lakes.  The lakes occupy depressed areas in the interiors of the calderas. Large deposits of volcanic ash and the rock equivalent (called tuff) mantle and partly fill the caldera.  So they definitely don’t look like the volcanoes you might have scribbled as a  kid in school.

Luckily for all of us living things, the truly apocalyptic caldera eruptions, those that have been documented in Yellowstone and a handful of other systems around the world, happen very, very infrequently.  Not so seldom as far as Earth is concerned, but on a human timescale they could be regarded as being below a minimum level of probability that we should worry about.

Of course, some living things, even people, must experience a caldera eruption.  It’s believed, for example, that the last really large caldera eruption, that of Toba in Sumatra some 70,000 years ago, led to a collapse of the small human population in Africa to a level that caused a “genetic bottleneck”.  In other words, there was some interbreeding going on among the few thousand survivors, who then went on to reproduce and spread out of Africa, carrying a set of genes that even today still reflects an unusually limited genetic diversity.

Yellowstone’s caldera, one of the world’s largest, is in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.  This might seem a strange place for a big volcano, since the Rockies are not a volcanic range.  But the story of why it’s there is a very interesting one.  Yellowstone lies over a hot spot.  You might have heard that Hawaii has formed over a hot spot.  Most active hot spots have, indeed, been identified in ocean basins (Iceland lies over another).  Hot spots are formed when huge columns of heat rise from deep within the Earth, causing melting of rocks in the upper mantle and lower crust.  This melted rock, since it is lighter, follows fissures upwards, eventually creating volcanoes at the surface.

A frigid morning breaks over a thermally heated meadow in Yellowstone Park.

The neatest thing about hot spots is that they remain in one place while the crustal plates  lying above them move horizontally.  Actually, hot spots may move, but either VERY slowly, or only after long periods of being stationary (not much is known about if and how they might move).  In the case of the Hawaiian hot spot, the movement of the Pacific Plate northwestward has created a string of volcanic islands, with the most recent, still-active one (Hawaii, the Big Island) on the southeast end.  It is here where the hot spot happily pumps away.  Actually, there is a newer volcano, called Loihi, still a few thousand feet below the waves, off the east coast of the Big Island. It’s coming.

Now to the Yellowstone hot spot.  Along the southeastern Oregon – northern Nevada border, there are a series of quite large, caldera systems that last erupted about 17 million years ago.  There are more calderas to the east, slightly younger, and even younger lava fields in southern Idaho.  In fact, there is a line of volcanic fields that becomes younger as you go east, marching in a broad arc and pointing right at Yellowstone.  The Snake River Plain was created by this volcanic activity.

Geologists took too long to recognize this for what it was, but now it is well recognized as the track of one of those rare beasts, a continental hot spot.  Again, the track results not from the hot spot’s eastward movement, but from the movement of the North American plate westward, over the stationary hot spot.  Yellowstone, just like Hawaii, is sitting right over the hot spot.

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano is the most active volcano on Earth, erupting almost continuously but not too dangerously.  Yellowstone erupts catastrophically, but only once every half million years or so.  That difference is because of the totally different type of crust that the two sit upon.  The crust under Yellowstone is made of granitic rocks, and is quite thick (30 miles or so).  Under Hawaii, the crust is basaltic and very thin (5 or 6 miles).

Yellowstone has not erupted for more than 600,000 years, but the eruptions before this were separated roughly by that same 600,000 time interval.  So does that mean it is due for one now?  Yes and no.  Yes one might assume that quite soon, in geological terms, Yellowstone will erupt again.  But this is a volcano with very long intervals between eruptions, and it could easily be 5000, 10,000, or more years before it erupts again.

So…I would relax if I were you when you visit this park.  Enjoy its living, breathing geology, its wildlife.  Yellowstone is one of the world’s unique places, and unless you’re immune to wonder, you will most certainly spend much of your time here  with wide eyes.

In a remote area of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, a large and very hot thermal pool (which occasionally erupts) resembles a scene from another planet.

Yellowstone and the Park Circus   5 comments

At dawn in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin, Great Fountain Geyser blows off a little steam.

Yellowstone is the only National Park I have a love-hate relationship with.  I do not like so many things about this park, but I realized this time around that all of my disdain has to do with how it is managed by the N.P.S.  It’s not at all about the place itself.  I really love its unique landscape, its awesome geology, and (most of all ) its wonderful wildlife.

A frozen meadow at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, slowly thaws as the sun appears.

I worked a long time ago, for just one season, at Mt Rainier.  Many of us called it the Park Circus, and it has not gotten any better since then.  I know many people have pet names for the places where they work.  But it seems that when it comes to government agencies, these cynically funny monikers are especially apt.   The Farce Service, the Bowel Movement (BLM), the list goes on.

I visited Yellowstone late last August, and while (as always) it was pretty busy, I was able to actually obtain a campsite. Earlier in the summer it is very crowded, and I would avoid the place from about mid-June through mid-August.  I had hopes that this time around, visiting at the end of September, the park would be almost empty.

Unfortunately, it seems that everyone has been told Autumn is the best time to visit Yellowstone in order to avoid crowds.  As might be expected, this has resulted in a significant number of people visiting in September and October.  Add to this the fact that the Park Service believes it is uncrowded, and closes many campgrounds, lodges, roads, etc., and you have a bit of a squeeze.  They also cut back on ranger staff, which doesn’t break my heart at all.

I’m not saying that visitor numbers in fall approach those of summer, but I do know that it was plain impossible to get a campsite during the week I was there.  There is definitely a campsite shortage in Autumn at Yellowstone.  No problem for me, so long as there are not enough rangers to patrol at night.  I just pull my van off in a lonely spot once darkness has fallen, and at dawn I’m up and shooting, so I’m pretty much low-impact (if technically a scofflaw).

I noticed a big difference between these fall crowds and those of summer.  In fall, since it is cold, most people drive around and don’t hike.  This leaves the trails empty and the roads busy.  The Park Service encourages people to stick to roads at Yellowstone (I experienced this personally).  Their misguided belief is that this helps them to control the large number of visitors.  I had a ranger actually recommend that I drive up and down the Lamar Valley in search of wolves and other wildlife, which she thought were much better viewed from the roadside.  I wanted to tell her that, had I wanted to do the wildlife safari thing, I would have gone to the place a few hours from home, instead of driving two full days to visit Yellowstone.  I just smiled at her and kept my mouth shut.

Bison roaming the road at Yellowstone, and a tourist who had no idea they were that big.

And so during my recent week there, I ignored the standard advice, parked my vehicle, and walked some of the relatively short trails that I haven’t done before.  Last August most of my hikes were either longer trails or off-trail, to avoid people and have a better chance at wildlife sightings.  I think, what with the enormous size of this park, that there is already enough driving involved in simply getting across the park.

A male blue grouse displays in the forest of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Below are a few of the things I don’t like about Yellowstone.  All of these result from two things: (1) the high profile nature of this, the world’s first national park; and (2) the Park Service’s inability to see the forest for the trees, that is, it’s awkward attempts to “control” the admittedly large number of visitors.

  • For some reason there are many more “cop-rangers” in Yellowstone than in other parks.  Rangers you are likely to come into contact with at Yellowstone are actually law enforcement, not natural resources professionals.  They’re much more likely to be found inside an idling SUV (often barking at people alongside the road through a megaphone) than out on the trails.
  • Because these new-style rangers burn expensive fuel and wear out expensive vehicles, they’re naturally much more expensive staff to employ than traditional rangers.  Traditional rangers, that vanishing breed, can be found at points of interest, or out on the trails wearing out nothing more expensive than boots.  I believe the number of these police posing as rangers is overkill, a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.  It’s also one reason why I think the Park Service needs to become much more efficient in the way it spends its limited budget
  • From the time they arrive until the time they leave, visitors are pounded over the head with rules and regulations.  Any natural history education is cloaked heavily in rules and regs., and I think this dilutes the value of that education and turns people off.  Also, their “education” regarding wildlife is almost exclusively fear-mongering, an attempt to keep people from approaching the animals and getting their dumb selves hurt.  I agree with some of this approach, having witnessed some incredibly stupid behavior, but I think it is way too much.  Don’t they know people start tuning it out if they get too steady a diet of it?
  • The staff, of course with notable exceptions, is generally more tense and less relaxed than in other parks.  They’re also less-informed.  This last thing is very evident in the person of the growing legion of volunteers, but also is obvious with full-time rangers.  These are tough things to describe objectively, but they lead, just like the above effects, to a diminished visitor experience.

    Dry grasses rooted in cracked earth and cut by buffalo trails are typical of Yellowstone National Park in late summer.

I really believe the Park Service is shooting themselves in the foot at Yellowstone.  The agency’s budget is in truly sad shape, and the public face is all about rules and control, not about the wonders of the park.  A very big percentage of the N.P.S. budget goes to Yellowstone, whose roads are excellent, while those at (very busy also) parks like Mount Rainier fall apart.  Rangers patrol the roads in the middle of the night in Yellowstone, when there is nobody out – only wildlife which is at risk of being killed by the rangers who are paid to protect them.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The N.P.S. needs good will in order to keep their budget from pulling a vanishing act.  They need people to actually donate to the foundations created for the purpose.  I’ll give you a couple examples why I will not support increased funding to the Park Service until I see major changes.

Just outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone is one of America’s most beautiful drives, the Beartooth Pass. This picture was taken on a hike near the pass, as a late summer thunderstorm threatened.

Last year I was watching, at sunrise with just one other guy, a buffalo herd cross the road to reach the Lamar River.  Along came a cop-ranger who leaned on his horn, blared through his megaphone at us to move our vehicles (we were off the road but our tires were touching the pavement).

I watched him actually bump one buffalo cow, who scurried off the road while her calf was left on the other side.  I was shocked, as he got out of his SUV and said he was trying to clear “his” road, and didn’t have time for this.  I got into it with the A-hole, but it was very apparent that he would have found some way to fine or even arrest me if I didn’t retreat immediately.  So I left.

Those buffalo, which were the target of this Police Academy refugee’s disdain, are the reason he has that job.  Their protection is the reason the American people pay his salary.  Those buffalo were simply trying to get a drink, in their home, not his.  What a jerk-off.

Another less-dramatic example: At a popular viewpoint, I asked a “ranger” (clean-cut and too chubby for being young and working in the outdoors) about a trail that took off from the paved path to the viewpoint.  He gave me a dumb look, and I volunteered a guess.  “Maybe it’s just a couple hundred yards to a different viewpoint?”

I noticed he had been reading a text, and he was stealing glances at his phone.  He seemed distracted as he said yes, I was right.   After he was gone, not trusting his answer, I went and found out that the trail was about a half-mile one-way to a very different and very cool lookout.

This post has grown too long, and it seems now that I’ve begun to whine too much.  So I’ll stop and make a promise.  My next post will extol only the glories of natural Yellowstone, which despite the pressure of visitation and the arrogant mismanagement at the hands of the Park Circus, remains a unique and wondrous place.

Yellowstone I: Wolves and other Critters   2 comments

Part of a small herd of bison begin to feed on a frosty morning in Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park.

I visited Yellowstone again this year.  I spent a week+ there last August, and returned this year for late autumn there.  I spent a chilly first first week of October.  Mornings were icy, afternoons sunny and brisk.  Plenty of people were there, considering the season, but almost exclusively on the roads.  Trails were almost empty.  This post will focus on the wildlife.  I’ll post later on the (sorry) state of the Park Service, as well as the geysers & other thermal features.

Last year was the first time I had been to the park since the reintroduction of wolves in the 1980s.  Yes, it had been a long long time.  I saw some wolves on a kill last August, but they were so far away that no pictures were possible.  I went back this year, to try and get closer.  And boy did I!  Of course buffalo, and also elk, are your most likely large wildlife sighting in this park.  Also, recent times have seen an increase in fox.

The setting sun illuminates a resting pronghorn in the lamar River Valley of Yellowstone National Park.


A bison grazes the late autumn grasses on a cold sunny Yellowstone morning.

I started in the northern part of the park, concentrating on the Lamar River Valley.  This area is an excellent place for wildlife, and feels pretty wild compared to, say, the Old Faithful area.  My first morning in the Lamar I woke at sunrise and quickly found a sizable group of wolf-watchers parked at a picnic area in the upper valley.  They all had their spotting scopes, their long glass, etc. etc.  I normally don’t like these gatherings; I want to photograph the people’s behavior rather than the wildlife.  But this time, since it was quite early, there were no tour buses (beep beep beep backing up) or other nonsense going on.  So I went for it.

There were four wolves not too far away, and they were prancing and playing.  Still, they were a bit far for my 400 mm lens, so I just enjoyed watching them through binoculars.  As they finally departed, the lead wolves howled for the others to catch up.  The howling, echoing off the cliff walls that border the Lamar Canyon, and with the crackling cold air, was just plain magical.

There were plenty of pronghorn in the Lamar.  During one hike, three of them jogged over to me in the wide open valley, curious as to what this creature was.  Since these animals can run at over 60 mph, much faster than any predator, they can afford to indulge their curiosity and get pretty close.  Pronghorn are a unique animal, the only species left of a group that evolved in North America millions of years ago.  They are NOT antelope (a creature of Asia and Africa), though they resemble them.  When they evolved, the now-extinct American cheetah still prowled the west.  This accounts for their speed being ridiculous overkill for today’s predators.

I camped two nights in the awesome Lower Geyser Basin, taking star pictures at night.  I woke one morning a frigid steamy atmosphere, and soon spotted a herd of buffalo emerging from a hollow in the hills where thermal features were particularly concentrated.  They had obviously spent the night on the warm ground there, and now wanted to enjoy the rising sun’s warmth (which I certainly couldn’t feel!).  A few of the big bulls were last to emerge, one by one, and I got some good shots of them.

I saved the best for last.  Now there was an occasion a very long time ago, in Alaska when I was in my early 20s, working in the interior on recon expeditions looking for gold.  I was climbing a bare tundra hill, a stiff wind in my face, when I crested the hill and stopped short.  At first I thought it was a stump, but I saw that 25 yards or so ahead was a sitting wolf, facing away from me.  He was enormous, the biggest wolf by far that I’ve ever seen.  He was light colored with a beautiful coat that was flecked with red in places (like the tips of his ears).  He was scanning the valley below.

I made a small noise while reaching for my camera and he whipped his head around.  I’ll never forget his surprised look!  He immediately ran down the far slope, onto a small saddle several hundred yards distant.  He did not run like a dog, but sort of glided, not appearing to exert himself but covering the ground very quickly.  He sat down again, looking up at me, and let out the first wolf howl I had ever heard (to that point).  After he tipped his snout back down and quieted, I tried my best to imitate him.  We spent about 15 minutes howling back and forth before he just turned and trotted away.

On a frigid morning at Yellowstone National Park, a big bull bison emerges from his warm geothermal bed for the night.

Back to Yellowstone.  I stopped, just before noon, at a nondescript wide spot in the road just south of Madison Junction.  There was an old disused powerline right of way (no more line though).  So I took my little dog Charl (a shih tsu), who had not been for a walk yet that morning, and we went for a short stroll.  I grabbed my camera as an afterthought, which had the 24-105 mm on it.  Nobody stops here, so I didn’t bother with a leash for Charl.  Rangers will definitely ticket you for an unleashed dog, but he’s old and always stays close.

A large bull elk appears to be just as surprised as the photographer upon bumping into each other in the forest of Yellowstone National Park.

We were heading back to the van, only about 100 yards from the road, when we turned a corner and saw him at the same time he saw us.  A black wolf, obviously not young with his gray highlights, stopped short, surprised by our meeting.  He stood for a moment, looking back and forth from me to Charl, then back to me, then more intently at Charl.  My poor little half-blind partner did not even realize he was less than ten yards from his wild brethren.  But I certainly was, and quickly took a couple steps forward, scooping up Charl.  This got the wolf moving, but he didn’t leave right away, giving me a chance to snap a few shots.  At 105 mm there is no reason to expect a decent shot of a wolf, but mine aren’t too bad.  After he trotted away, I paced off the distance that had separated us; it was about 12 yards, and Charl was closer!

An older alpha male wolf in Yellowstone National Park is unsure how he happened to get so close to the human.

I was on a high all that day, so much so that I walked into the visitor center at Canyon and told the young female ranger what I had seen.  She wasn’t too interested, strangely,  but as I described him she brought out pictures and we identified him as the alpha male for the Canyon Pack.  He was an older wolf, not all that big, and had been alone inside another pack’s territory.  I suppose there is more to being the alpha wolf than brawn.  He has years of experience on his side, wisdom.  I take much encouragement from this encounter.  I’m not a spring chicken anymore, and just like him I need to rely more on my experience than my strength.  This is not a bad thing.

Grand Tetons: Wildllife   Leave a comment

Late Autumn along the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming means the moose are busy fattening up for the coming winter.

I was initially pretty disappointed in the lack of animals over the first couple days I was here in western Wyoming.  I heard in the mornings the bugling of elk as they continued to arrive from the colder high country of Yellowstone to the north.  I also got close to running into one large bull on the road while driving at night.  I try to keep it to 35 mph in National Parks (or any wildlife-rich country) at night.  The speed limit on the roads is 45 mph, which I think is too fast to stop in time unless you are really hyper-alert.  I was routinely being passed by cars doing 55-60 mph, which is just asking for a nasty encounter with a large mammal.  Or you will kill a fox, coyote, or even a wolf.  Plain stupidity.

One morning on Signal Mountain, a great place to watch the sunrise from at the south end of Jackson Lake, I glimpsed a fox crossing the empty road.  I pulled up and just watched him, since the light was way too low to try a shot.  He was just beautiful, with a long bushy tail tipped with a bright blaze of white.  Signal Mountain has a seldom-walked trail which winds up its flanks.  You can drive to the top as well, but an early-morning hike will likely reward you with sightings in this wildlife-rich area.  The picture below is not strictly of wildlife, but it points to the fine horse ranches to be found on the drive along the east side of the park, north of Jackson Hole.

The Grand Tetons form a spectacular background to a fine herd of horses in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The main animal I wanted to see, and hopefully in good light with a background of the Tetons, was moose.  After the glorious sunset I posted on last time, I was going to just head into Jackson for the night.  I was nearing two weeks without a shower and needed to do laundry too.  But the sunset got me into the mood to try for a good sunrise, so I drove up to a place called Schwambacher’s Landing, on the east side of the Snake River.  I camped there for the night (illegal but there aren’t many rangers this time of year), and woke early to a nice sunrise (see image below).  Not as colorful as the sunset of the previous evening, but it was worth bearing the temperatures in the teens (Farenheit).

Now I really had to leave for town.  Or did I?  After letting my lazy little dog (who had taken over my sleeping bag and was snoring) out, I decided to take a stroll along the river.  I took only my camera and long lens, a Canon 100-400L.  I saw some birds, including a busy little water ousel (a.k.a. dipper) who didn’t realize I was there laying prone on the stream cobbles.  He approached pretty close, and I got nice stills plus videos of one of my favorite birds, a denizen of cold rocky streams all over the mountain west.

The dipper, or water ousel, frequents all the best mountain streams in the mountains of the American West.


An American dipper goes under on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

The morning was warming rapidly as I walked back, this time eschewing the trail along the river and cutting through the cottonwoods that grew back quite a ways from the riverside.  I was glad I did.  All of a sudden I looked into some willows ans a massive head appeared, not more than 20 yards away: a bull moose!  He was softly grunting and munching away on the willows, occasionally scraping his massive rack on the branches.  I was happy (not the first time) that my lens wasn’t a fixed 400.  Even so, at 100 mm, I had to back up a few steps to get most of him in (see top image).

Now I know from my Alaska days how dangerous a moose can be.  So I was cautious.  But then I noticed the young female and her calf nearby (see image below).  They were very much aware of me, unlike Mr. munch mouth.  When she decided to trot away, her cute little youngster following, the bull followed, grunting and obviously all hot and bothered.  I wouldn’t need to worry about him; his mind was fully occupied.  So all I needed to do was keep my distance from the cow and her calf, something she made very easy to do.

A peekaboo hole through the trees is enough for me to get a glimpse of a cow moose with her calf (and for the little guy to see me), near the Snake River in Grand Teton national Park, Wyoming.


One of the Tetons forms the backdrop for a silhouetted moose in Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming

I pursued for awhile, getting some nice shots, even though the light was getting pretty harsh by that time.  I didn’t want to interrupt the family’s morning too much, but I did notice that after a bit the cow relaxed a bit.  She apparently had realized I wasn’t much of a threat, though I never got as close to her or her calf as I did the bull.  It was interesting how she let the slower bull catch up to her, even though she could have made sure of her calf’s safety by leaving me in the dust.

It was near noon when I returned to the van, and the day was so warm that I switched to shorts, cracked a celebratory beer, made a sandwich, and reflected on the sheer randomness of wildlife sightings.  There was another one I was thinking of – the wolf in Yellowstone a week ago.  But that’s a subject for another post.

A beaver-dammed channel of the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park is the perfect mirror for sunrise.



The Grand Tetons: Overview   Leave a comment

In Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, old homesteads cluster together in an area known as Mormon Row.

I’ve been here a couple times over the past two years, once late August last year, and now in early October.  One of these years I may visit during the mid- to late-September period of peak Autumn colors.  But then again, given it’s popularity for photography workshops and groups during that time, maybe not.  Even now there are plenty of photographers here. I’m really not the type to fight other photographers for tripod space.

All that aside, it is really a nice National Park. I like the fact that it is less crowded and has less uptight staff than Yellowstone just to the north.  Who amongst us mountain lovers cannot love the Grand Tetons.  They are spectacular mountains, named by French trappers for the “big tits” they might have thought often about while paddling endless miles in search of beaver.  But as you can see from the pictures, if there are breasts like this on a woman somewhere, I would like to see them (or maybe not!).  The mountains, especially the Grand Teton, which at 13,770 feet (4200 meters) is the highest in the range, are by no means smooth.  In fact, they rise in jagged splendor from the Great Plains to the east.

A view of the high alpine country, Grand Tetons, Wyoming includes a beautiful tarn, erratics and an arrete.

Geological Tangent (feel free to skip if you’re not especially interested in how mountains are formed)

The Grand Teton is obviously the highest in the range viewed from most any angle, here from near park headquarters at Moose, Wyoming.

The Grand Tetons’ steepest side is to the east, on the Wyoming side. This sheer mountain front lies along a steep-angled fault in the earth’s crust called by geologists a normal fault.  The mountains rise (or remain static) while the basin drops along a steep (70 degrees or so) fault zone.  Jackson Hole is the lowest point of this down-dropped basin.  “So what” you might say.  How does this tie into the formation of the Rocky Mountains?  Well, this is a big deal.  It’s the main geological process that has made continents out of what was originally not much more than volcanic islands sticking out of a much-larger-than-now ocean.

In the case of the Rockies, back in the Dinosaurs’ prime time (the late Cretaceous) some 55-90 million years ago, the enormous Pacific tectonic plate (actually geologists call it the Farallon Plate to distinguish it from the modern Pacific Plate) got serious about pushing east against the North American Plate.  It had been doing so for a long time before this, but during the time the Rockies were formed it dove beneath the continent (as oceanic plates will do) at a much shallower angle.  This forced mountain building much farther inland than usual.  The tectonic collision resulted in buckling, folding, mashing and munching in rocks buried deep within the earth.  This “Laramide Orogeny” initially formed a large, high plateau, like modern Tibet.

Much of the massive compression during collisions between ocean basins and continents happens because numerous islands (which don’t dive down beneath the continent as well-behaved oceanic crust typically does) are slammed up against the continent.  It’s a process called accretion, and is responsible for  much of western California and the coastal ranges of the Pacific Northwest and Canada.  Anyway, as hinted at above, the orogeny did not push up the high mountains of the Rockes right away.  That’s what many people believe when they learn about this stuff.  Instead, the action took place deep below ground and very slowly (geological things are mostly very slow).

One thing that happened, other than the aforementioned folding and mashing, was melting.  Rocks on the continent melt at a relatively low temperature compared to those under the oceans.  Plus, since they’re made of a more diverse assortment of rocks, which all melt at different temps., the melting is really partial.  This means a lot of smallish magma chambers separated by solid (but hot!) rock.  I know, a lot of detail.

But here’s the kicker:  melted rock is lighter than solid rock.  And what’s more, partial melting then cooling of continental rocks result in granite and its relatives.  These are some of the lightest rocks around.  You might not be able to tell, with a piece of (oceanic) basalt in your left hand, a piece of granite in your right; but if you wait a half-million years, your right hand will start to rise while your left sinks.

This is what happens with mountain ranges like the Rockies (and Alps, Caucuses, etc.).  After much of the damage has been done by the compression and heating deep within the Earth, the crust adjusts.  The lighter rock, some still molten, rises and pushes up the land.  One other thing though.  The Earth’s crust along a mountain range like the Rockies thickens (’cause of the buckling and melting both).  But there’s a lot more rock added beneath the mountains than what is pushed up.  In other words, the root of the mountains, deep beneath our feet, is much more impressive than the height of the mountains.  This fact leads to a flexing upward of the entire crust along the length of the mountain range, as the crust adjusts to the added mass below.  This so-called isostatic adjustment really is the main cause for the creation of high country.

Anyway, once the mountain range is well on its way to being nice and high, two things happen.  The main thing, of course, is erosion.  (This is part of the reason for the root being much greater than the height.)  Water and (much later in the case of the Rockies) glacial ice, begins early and never, ever gives up its assault on the high ground.  Erosion, as you might have heard, always wins in the end.  But in the meantime, as long as the tectonic collision continues, the (lighter) mountains continue to rise, and the age-old battle with erosion is waged.

Mount Moran stands at the north end of the high Tetons in Wyoming.

Now we are finally back to the Tetons.  Well, the story is a bit complex, but the main thing you need to realize is that once all this land is lifted up, you often get stretching along the far (east) side of the mountain range from the big oceanic plate that’s causing all this havoc.  This area behind the mountains has long been called by geologiasts (even before the theory of plate tectonics) the “foreland belt”.  In the case of western North America, there was more than this normal extension along the foreland.  After all those ages of compression along the edge of western North America, which lifted the West we enjoy today from beneath the waves, the situation reversed in a big way.

Well into the Tertiary (the time of the rise of mammals), a pulling apart began, forming the Basin and Range.  We went from compression to extension because the Farallon Plate disappeared beneath North America and the modern Pacific Plate started to slide past the edge of North America along the San Andreas Fault.  Like people, continents, at least along their active margins, are rarely standing still.  They’re either getting munched or being pulled apart, albeit much more slowly than we our changes.  North America’s western edge has now entered a period where things could start getting pulled off it instead of added.  Eastern Africa is a bit further along this path, and a sea will eventually invade the Great Rift Valley there.  The same might occur here too, starting in SE California and southern Nevada and extending northward.

So I know I’m taking a while to get back to the Tetons.  The Basin & Range extension that continues today results in steep-angled normal faults, which in brittle rocks close to the surface is the way any rock will respond to being stretched.  The normal faults along the eastern back-side of the Rockies are the furthest east of these faults; nost occur in Nevada and bordering states, where the crust is much thinner.  But in the thicker crust of the rockes, these faults are responsible for some of the most spectacular mountain scenery of western North America.  The Grand Tetons are just one example.  It really is the end-game of mountain building here, where the thickened crust under the western Plains has fallen dramatically down while the Tetons have risen along the Teton Fault.  There is only so much rising and thickening to be accomplished before things start to break apart.

The battle between the rise of these mountains along the Teton Fault on one hand, and erosion on the other, creates the rugged, fantastic mountain landscape that climbers and photographers, that all of us really, admire.  But count yourself lucky that you are alive to enjoy it right now.  After all, it’s a temporary situation.  Remember, erosion always wins in the end.

In the Gros Ventre Mountains east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an earthquake in the 1950s created a beautiful lake. The well-named Red Hills are in the background.

Back to the Trip

I know that was a long-winded explanation, but if you sorta got it, you get the whole thing about mountain building throughout the world.  Well, besides the building of strictly volcanic mountain ranges, but a lot of the same concepts apply there too.

I spent a half a week here in the Tetons this time, not doing as much hiking as last year (see image of the tarn 2nd from the top, taken at the top of Paintbrush Canyon).  Also last year, I made it up the rough dirt road east of the Tetons, where there’s a gorgeous, quiet lake (image above).  But I did manage to wake for each sunrise this time, even though they were mostly blah in terms of color.  The leaves on the aspens and cottonwoods were browning rapidly, and the whole landscape looked dry and thirsty.  Fires continuing to burn in the region added some haze and smoke to the air.  In short, light for photography was not ideal.

But along came the evening of the 8th of October.  Clouds built through the afternoon over the Tetons, and I took a run along the excellent bike trail that stretches 20 miles from the town of Jackson and Jenny Lake in the Park (no I didn’t run 20 miles!).  After the sun set behind the mountains, as I expected might happen, the clouds lit up.   All of a sudden we had a fiery sunset!  I was not at one of the classic locations for landscape photography in this area, but near the park’s headquarters in Moose.

Ansel Adams made places like the Snake River Overlook and Oxbow Bend famous, and to get dawn and dusk shots from these spots you would need to fight for your tripod space.  I’m not into it.  So I just walked around the Snake River bridge near Moose, finding a spot where I could get a nice panorama of the Tetons.  I was happy.  One more post on the Tetons is to come, focusing on the wildlife.

The Grand Tetons surprise me with a fiery sunset on my last night in the park.

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