Archive for the ‘Yellowstone National Park’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk ~ Sound in Video   2 comments

Last week because of Christmas I skipped Foto Talk.  I hope the holiday was fun and festive for all.  The series on video is not done yet, so let’s jump back in with perhaps the most important (and challenging) aspects of video.  I’m assuming that you wish to catch native audio; that is, the sounds that you hear during your video clips.  Adding audio later, whether it’s music or something else, is certainly possible and in many way easier.  But my initial goal is always to capture interesting audio at the same time as the video.

Check out the previous posts in this series for tips on the visual half of video.  In order to view the videos in this post, click the title at top-left, or on the link.  You’ll shoot to my Vimeo page where you can click on the play button.

There are several pitfalls to watch out for when recording audio.  The main ones follow, along with solutions.   As you do with photography, tailor your solutions for sound-recording problems to the specific subject and situation.

  • Built-in Microphone.  Your camera’s microphone, while usable, is essentially a starter mic.  Depending on its quality, the sound can be tinny and harsh.  It also can’t easily be used with a windscreen.  But don’t forgo your internal mic entirely.  It can be a better recorder of ambient sound than the shotgun mic that you’ll likely purchase (see below).

  Solution:  An internal microphone is okay for starting out.  But sooner or later you’ll want to purchase a separate external mic (or two) that mounts on your hotshoe.  There are two basic types of microphone, and what you most like to record will determine whether you get one or the other (or both).  If you want to record discrete sound sources (bird calls, a person talking or singing, etc.) get a shotgun mic.  If you most often record diffuse soundscapes with the sources scattered around you (the video at top is an example), get an omnidirectional mic.  The shotgun mic (which comes in different types which vary in their degree of directionality) can cost a lot more than the omni mic.  But it’s useful in a far wider set of circumstances.  So I recommend buying a shotgun mic first.

  • Wind.  The wind often adds atmosphere to a setting (see link to video below).  So why not record it?  Not so fast!  Your ears are designed in a wonderfully organic way.  But when wind hits a microphone it doesn’t sound atmospheric.  It just sounds like somebody trying to annoy you by blowing into a mic.

  Solution:  There is a deceptively easy solution to wind noise.  If and when you buy an external mic, buy a windscreen for it and don’t take it off.  They come in foam or hairy (“deadcat”) versions, or you can make one yourself.  Depending on how strong the wind is they can be very effective in blocking out wind noise.  But they aren’t 100%, so you should take steps to shelter the mic further from strong winds.  Point down-wind and block with your body if at all possible.

Wind and Quaking Aspens: Colorado Rockies

  • Image Stabilizer & other Space-outs.  I hate to admit how many great soundscapes I’ve recorded that are immediate candidates for deletion.  Why?  Because I forgot to turn off the image stabilizer (IS on Canon, VR on Nikon).  That little motor you barely notice while shooting stills will sound like a generator, even if you use an external mic.  Another easy thing to forget is the sound setting itself.  If you turn off sound recording in the menu (say you plan to add sound later), you’ll feel as dumb as a post when you play back to dead silence.  You may think it’s hard to be this forgetful, but when you’re grabbing a quick video in the midst of shooting stills, believe me it’s easy to space out.  Finally, if you have an external mic it can be easy to forget to turn that on.

  Solution:  Get in the habit, every time you switch to video mode, of checking to make sure that IS or VR is turned off.  Also helpful is getting in the habit of reviewing and listening to at least portions of your clips.  And before you do any video make sure that the sound setting is turned on.  Then if you turn it off for a video or two, go in right after and turn it back on.  Make it your default setting.  Most external microphones have a little light that says it’s on.  But get used to turning your mic on (and off when you’re done) every time you record.

  • Planes.  Aircraft (planes, helicopters, and now drones) are a type of unwanted noise that deserves its own category.  Whether you’re recording the human voice or the sounds of nature, planes just seem to show up at the worst times.  Soon after you press the record button, you’ll hear one buzzing overhead.  It’s almost guaranteed.  I never fully appreciated the amount of air traffic in our world until I started shooting video and recording natural sounds.

  Solution:  Mostly patience is all that is required.  Planes don’t take too long to pass over, though while you’re waiting it can seem an eternity.  If you’re under a flight path it may take awhile to get a silent window.  If a helicopter is working in the area you’re stuck with it and should probably return another day.  If somebody has a drone and insists on flying it near you, well that’s what a slingshot or pellet gun is for (just kidding..I think).

There is more to sound than the above, and next time we’ll dive in a little deeper.  But if you can overcome these simple stumbling blocks, you’re well on your way to recording quality sound with your videos.  Thanks for reading, and have a happy and photographic New Year!

Happy Birthday Yellowstone Park!   22 comments

Yellowstone's most famous features are caught erupting on a cold morning in Lower Geyser Basin.

Yellowstone’s most famous features are caught erupting on a cold morning in Lower Geyser Basin.

On 1st of March, 1872, the U.S. Congress (which in those days actually worked) established the world’s first National Park in the territories of Wyoming and Montana, naming it Yellowstone.  The huge diverse and geothermally active plateau had been known for years by that name, because of the color of the rocks exposed along the Yellowstone River.

The park's most famous rA close encounter with the park's most famous wildlife species.

A close encounter with the park’s most famous wildlife species, a lone alpha male wolf.

America started a world-wide movement in that year.  There are now more than 1200 parks and preserves in over 100 countries.  It’s one of the best things that my country has ever done.  Years later all parks and monuments were included in one system, managed by the Department of the Interior.  In the early days soldiers of the Army often assumed the roles now filled by rangers.  Currently the U.S. has more than 400 parks and other preserves covering over 84 million acres in all 50 states.  They include sites of historical as well as natural importance.

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses at Yellowstone.

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses at Yellowstone.

You may have heard that most of Yellowstone is underlain by a super-volcano that could erupt at any time.  It’s done so many times in the past, and with such explosiveness that, far to the east in Nebraska, the fossilized bones of entire rhinoceroses lie buried in volcanic ash traced back to Yellowstone.  Don’t let this dissuade you from visiting however.  Yellowstone caldera erupts on a very long timescale of 600,000 years or so.

White Dome geyser erupts into a starry night.

White Dome geyser erupts into a starry night.

If you haven’t visited Yellowstone yet, I highly recommend it.  Because of its popularity you’d do well to consider an off-season visit, or at least avoid the high summer months of July and August.  But Yellowstone is a big park and you can always do a lot of hiking if you find yourself there during a busy time.  I recommend planning ahead and reserving campsites along a route through the park, or a room in one of the lodges.

A pronghorn rests in wildlife-rich Lamar River Valley.

A pronghorn rests in wildlife-rich Lamar River Valley.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley.

So here’s to Yellowstone Park on its 144th birthday.  And may the idea of national parks that started with you never die!

The peaceful Lamar Valley at dusk.

The peaceful Lamar Valley at dusk.

Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Obstacles – Light   5 comments

Sunrise over the Olympic Mtns., Washington state.

Good photography is all about overcoming obstacles.  And not just those easy ones like how to afford a good camera, or which tripod to buy.  It’s about tackling problems both internal and external, those you create yourself along with the ones that are present whether you decide to photograph or not.

Light is one of photography’s most important variables.  Light is so important I can only write about it with the expectation that I’ll be leaving a lot out and of necessity coming back to the topic in future posts.  I’ll also be discussing a thing of beauty (top image), which is never smart (and which I never claimed to be)

Obstacles related to light are many.  There is, for example, the struggle to get your butt out of bed at zero dark thirty to catch great morning light, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle at times.  This post will concentrate on finding the right sort of natural light for landscape and nature subjects.  It’s all about making compromises.

Night light:  It's rare for me to post a sky-only image, and if the setting moon hadn't been playing an intriguing game of peekaboo with low clouds over the mountains, I would not have shot it.

Night light: It’s rare for me to post a sky-only image, and if the setting moon hadn’t been playing an intriguing game of peekaboo with low clouds over the mountains, I would not have shot it.

Finding the Right Light

In natural light, this usually means shooting in the golden hours (or at least with a low sun).  However, it’s not a good idea to be rigid about light.  Sometimes you want bright overcast, other times rainy and overcast, and still others dark, stormy skies.  Sometimes (not often) you even want mid-afternoon light.  And don’t forget about the night (image above), where the light of stars, moon and various ambient sources both natural and human can give you the right look for certain subjects.

How does one know what light works best for a given subject?  My advice for this topic more than any other in photography, is to not look to be taught by others.  Instead, shoot relentlessly and experiment continually.  Become an observant “student of light” and you’ll eventually attain a genuine feel for what light to shoot a given subject in.  After all, you learn the most about light when you use only light as a teacher; you don’t need anyone else, no matter how much expertise they have.

It also takes perseverance to shoot in ideal light.  That’s because, even though you do everything else right, Mother Nature will simply chuckle and at the last minute throw you a curve.  Clouds move in, or clear out.  Light with deep contrast becomes flat for no discernible reason.  Don’t despair; return another day and try again.  The important thing is to take the time to shoot things in the right light, even if that means repeatedly missing dinner or dragging yourself out of bed before dawn.

Excellent light falls on mossy pilings along the lower Columbia River in Oregon.

Excellent light falls on mossy pilings at sunset along the lower Columbia River in Oregon.


Shooting Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park represents a somewhat unconventional example.  The thermal pools generally don’t show their characteristically deep blues at sunrise or sunset.  They are at their most colorful with a higher sun angle.  But light on the landscape around the pool is better with a lower sun, so an obstacle related to light pops up if you’re trying to capture Grand Prismatic at its bluest.

During one visit, I wanted to capture the spring in just this way.  I wanted to feature the sapphire color of the mineral-rich water.  I wanted to include a bit of the surroundings to avoid a totally abstract look and lend a sense of place.  Also, as usual, I wanted a composition that differed from the others I had seen, my own unique take on it.

It was obvious that I needed to compromise on the time of day.  By shooting later in the afternoon, I’d risk losing the blue color.  But risks are necessary in photography, especially when dealing with natural light.  The hill sitting just west of Grand Prismatic provided an opportunity.  I thought if I got up higher and had the sun at my back, I might still, because of the angles involved, see that nice blue hue even with a sun that was starting to sink (and cast nice enough light on the pool’s surroundings).

I climbed the hill and, working around a lot of obstructing trees, finally got a clean composition just before the sun sank too low and the pool lost its color.  The hill in the past has been a popular place to shoot this spring from.  But the trees grow higher each year, blocking the view.  It’s an example of not only finding the right light but also handling physical obstacles (discussed in a post to come) to get a good point of view.  The lower sun provided a bonus in addition to good foreground light.  It caused a long shadow to be cast behind a lone snag.

Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring an hour or so before sunset.

That’s it for this Friday.  A long one, but there’s so much to say about light.  I’ll end with one more thought: may you have the best of light this weekend and for all your photo ventures.

The Source: Sunset over Roatan.

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.

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