Return to Yellowstone
Is it considered excessive to visit the same place seven times, with the intention of returning again? If so, then I am guilty of excessively visiting the Yellowstone region. This summer I had the opportunity to return to the place that inspired a love of wilderness that has only grown over the past decade. The last time I visited the park for an extended period of time was in 2015. I spent a week by myself exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. After that trip, life gained various layers of complexity, photography diminished, and my focus turned elsewhere. However, as mentioned in a previous blog post, I have had somewhat of a reawakening as it pertains to photography and it felt fitting to return to the region that started this passion nearly a decade ago.
This trip would prove to be unlike any other I have had out west, or anywhere else for that matter. Plagued by the most unforeseen car issues, my 2012 Subaru Outback limped into the gates of East Yellowstone on a flat tire. This would be far from the end of our troubles as broken lug nuts on the trip home left us stranded in Rapid City, South Dakota for three days. Car issues aside, this trip was by far the best I have ever had in terms of photography. The primary goal of any visit out west is grizzly bears. I have been mesmerized by grizzly bears ever since I watched a mother and her cub forage along the shores of Lake Yellowstone in 2011. However, getting a quality photograph of a grizzly bear is a challenge for many reasons. In my first six trips to Yellowstone I had walked away with one photograph of a grizzly that I was remotely proud of. It was a photograph of Grizzly 610, famous sow of the Teton region, standing in the middle of a field. Aside from that, I felt as though my grizzly archives were lacking and therefore I wanted the focus of this trip to be on bears.
We scheduled this trip for late May. It’s a unique time to visit as winter is still lingering in parts of the park. It can be in the 70’s during the day and drop into the 20’s at night. One morning we were greeted with a fresh blanket of snow on our tent and treacherous road conditions. By midday it had melted and felt like fine spring weather again. This is also a season where grizzlies have recently emerged from their dens. Boars are busy searching for mates. Sows with cubs are doing their best to find food to keep their family strong. This is also a season where more bears can be found at lower elevations, thus providing more opportunities for sightings. Our expectations were high and the trip did not disappoint, beginning with a young male grizzly greeting us just outside of the east entrance to Yellowstone. He was far away on a hillside and I only managed a shot of his backside as he lumbered into the trees, but it was an encouraging start to the trip.
Many of the grizzlies in the Yellowstone region are known by numbers from research tags or nicknames given them by local photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. We were privileged to view a handful of these "celebrity bears," including Grizzly 791, arguably the largest bear in Yellowstone National Park. Last fall, a lucky photographer captured video of 791 drowning a bull elk in the Yellowstone River. It sat on the carcass for several days, drawing photographers from all over the country. We happened upon 791 while driving back to our campsite late one night. He was with another bear, a sow known as the Beryl Spring Sow, indicating the area of the park which she tends to frequent. The two had partnered up for mating season and were spending time along the roadside, drawing large crowds of viewers. The crowds that show up for these bears can be problematic for everyone involved. Rangers have the task of keeping both bears and people safe, yet bears are what draw many people to the park in the first place, so the excitement to see one often overrides common sense. There is a constant struggle in the Yellowstone/Teton region to provide people with opportunities to see and photograph these incredible animals while ensuring the safety of all involved.
Returning to the bears we saw, we were treated to views not only of 791 and the Beryl sow, but thirteen other grizzlies, making for a grand total of fifteen grizzlies seen on this trip. For the most part, I walked away with photos of most of these bears that I am proud of. Each sighting was different. There was the breathtaking encounter of a sow and her two cubs just after sunset in front of the Tetons, the ambient light reflecting on her fur as she foraged for food. Then there was a young male grizzly who had partnered up with a slightly older sow. The two spent several days together, foraging and engaging in other related adult bear activities. These two in particular gave us our first really good looks and photographs of the trip, and it was a memorable morning watching them forage in a field in front of a throng of photographers with little to no care of our presence. Then there was the famous bear called “Snow” who we watched nap in a patch of snow for over an hour along Yellowstone Lake. What was particularly special was that I had photographed Snow's mother when she was just a cub back in 2011. Each encounter was unique and each bear seemed to have its own story.
While the bears are what draw me westward, there are many other aspects to this region that only enhance the experience. The dramatic mountains, winding rivers, and hot springs create a majestic landscape at very turn.
Bison roam freely throughout the area, often within feet of cars that make their way through the vast valleys they call home. The mysterious presence of wolves, though not always visible, add to the anticipation of what one might see on their visit. There are also the little experiences that may not seem special when retold, but in the moment are meaningful and unique. Such as sitting in the midst of a marmot colony, while over ten different marmots wander around, checking me out and ducking in and out of their network of tunnels. Bluebirds along Yellowstone Lake, providing entertainment while I waited for any grizzlies to make an appearance. Wandering through hot springs, admiring their unique color and grasping the concept that I am basically standing in a volcano at that moment. In short, there is so much to appreciate about that region that it would take pages upon pages to share.
It is all of these reasons that have continued to draw me back time and again. And at the forefront of these reasons are the bears, some of which have stories that go back over twenty years. There is just something special about a wilderness that still has grizzly bears as its apex predator and as long as they continue to roam the wilds of the Yellowstone ecosystem, I will continue to visit at a rate that some may consider excessive.
Keywords: adventure, animals, bears, bison, bluebirds, explore, grand Tetons, grizzly, marmots, mountains, nature, road trip, Tetons, travel, wilderness, wildlife, wildlife photography, wolves, Wyoming, Yellowstone
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