Day Five – West Yellowstone
We were joined the next three mornings at 7:30 AM by Carl, our driver. Passenger cars aren’t allowed into the park. Carl drove a large Ford on huge snow tires. In addition to being a safe driver, Carl was expert at spotting wildlife and a fount of local information about the park.
Me standing by Carl's snowcoach (I'm 6'2")
The first wildlife we saw in the park were trumpeter swans in the Madison river. I asked to pull over for these beautiful creatures twice that first morning. Others in our group were more “paws and claws” oriented.
Trumpeter Swans in Madison River
More swans at a bend in the river
After a brief stop at Gibbon Falls, we made our way to the Norris Thermal Area. Though I didn’t know it at the time, hot water from this area makes its way along a fault line to come out at the Mammoth Hot Springs area near Gardiner. Norris was nearly in whiteout because the steam from the vents not only filled the air, but covered everything in deep snow. We did get some glimpses of color through the fog. From there, we made our way over to Lower Yellowstone Falls. In the flat light of that morning, it didn’t make much of a photo, but it is a beautiful canyon. The yellowish color in the canyon walls comes from the oxidized iron in the rhylolite rock that forms it. This is not the origin of the name Yellowstone however. That name came from the yellow banks of the Yellowstone River several hundred miles downstream.
Path to Norris Thermal Area
Hot pools beyond frosted trees
Steam vent and hot pools
Path away from pools
Later that afternoon in the Hayden Valley, we spotted a red fox near the road. It appeared he intended crossing the road ahead of us. Carl stopped the car and Dale told us to quietly walk up the road without looking at the fox. When we got to the point where the fox was more visible, we began taking some shots. Just then two Bombardier buses came roaring past us (they have diesel engines and tank treads), scaring the fox. The buses quickly stopped and a horde of English photographers poured out of this tiny buses like clowns pile out of a tiny car. As they all ran towards the fox and aimed their lenses, the fox ran off faster. Wouldn’t you? Who knows how many precious calories or daylight hours were squandered for that fox? I was mad. I questioned the driver/leader of that group and let him know how I felt about what he had done. He tried to give an excuse about needed to reach a pullout to stop his cars, but that was lame given how anyone else would have stopped behind us on the road. Dale talked to the photo leader and Carl also talked to the driver. We heard later that day that the very same driver got a speeding ticket in the park. I hope he changed his behavior.
Red fox on hillside
Red fox at top of hill nearer road
Red fox looking at us
Red fox profile
Back in the car, Carl told us that the guides with one tour company are ostracized because they led the BBC film crew on snowmobiles into the back country to chase bobcats in the making of Planet Earth 2. That was 3 years ago. Bobcats haven’t been seen since. We did end up seeing two other foxes that day in the Hayden Valley, but neither of those was closer than 300 yards away.
3rd Red Fox of the day
We also saw a trumpeter swan preening. Dale said, “Be ready, he will spread his wings to dry off.” Sure enough he did. I had told Carl the previous day that wanted to get a shot of a trumpeter swan, backlit in the fog and spreading his wings. Carl replied to this and similar requests that he would call the swans manager and let them know. I believe in asking for what I want, regardless.
Trumpeter Swan drying wings
On the way back down the Madison River, we saw a coyote sitting by the edge of the water with the last light of sunset reflected in the clouds. When the coyote got up, Dale recognized him as “Fishing coyote.” The backstory is that this coyote was observed numerous times perched at the edge of the Madison peering down. All at once he would spring and come up wet with a 20 inch trout in his mouth. He was apparently very successful but was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg. You can see the black and hairless section of his leg.
Fishing Coyote with reflected sunset
Fishing Coyote with scar on left front leg
Coincidentally, while carefully walking across the parking lot from our hotel to the “Slippery Otter” restaurant that night, I slipped on the ice and was thrown hard against the ground, smashing my right hip and wrist. I lay face down in the snow and ice for several minutes trying to get my breath. I eventually pried myself up using a nearby car bumper and carefully put weight on my leg. I was able to bear weight I told myself, so if it’s fractured, it isn’t all the way through. It sure felt fractured, but I made it the rest of the way to the restaurant and sat down to catch my breath. The rest of the guys arrived shortly thereafter and I let them know I was injured. I spent most of dinnertime and later that night, massaging and stretching my injured parts. I sprained my right wrist but could still press the trigger on the camera so I decided to go out again the next morning if I could walk. In the morning, I was very stiff and sore. I couldn’t fully move my right wrist and I had a very painful lump on the front of my hip, but I figured I would do better if I kept moving rather than lying in bed.
The next morning started out with Carl spotting a great blue heron in a creek near the road. I don’t know how he could see a nearly grey bird in a dark grey streambed before dawn but he did.
Blue Heron fishing the creek
Not long after, we saw lots of wolf tracks crossing the road and moving around the meadow near a herd of bison. Carl said, “I think the wolves have already named those bison.” “Mine?” I asked. “That or Lunch and Dinner”, he replied. I asked Carl if he could arrange for the wolves to be attacking the bison when we came back later that afternoon. He let me know that he had their agent’s number on speed dial and would get right on it. Later after passing a Yellowstone traffic jam, we watched a coyote working a hillside with bison in the Hayden Valley.
Morning traffic in Yellowstone
Coyote & Bison
Nearly face to face
We drove on to Lake Yellowstone and then had our sack lunches at a ranger station. On the way back, we saw a different coyote working the same hillside with the buffalo. While focusing on the coyote, others in the group called out for me to look up the road behind me. A small herd of buffalo were heading my way. Not wanting to pit my 182 lbs against their collective tonnage, I backed up to the car and continued photographing them as they came my way. To my delight, one young bull started trying to pick a fight with another. Having raised two sons, this was not entirely new behavior to me but my boys didn’t have horns and hooves.
Herd of bison coming down the road
Two bulls facing off
One jumps on the other
By the time I heard the other photographers pointing the opposite way down the road, I wasn’t in a good position to get a shot of the coyote approaching Dale and another member of our group, Patrick. Dale and Patrick had both put down their lenses and looked down so as not to frighten the coyote (Their long lenses were useless anyway because the coyote was too close to focus). The coyote came to within about six feet of the men, then walked behind them and lifted his leg to mark territory. For the rest of the trip we teased Dale that the coyote owned him.
Coyote walking by
Coyote lifts his leg - Dale's pretty happy!
Dale decided that instead of the Hayden Valley, we would work our way out to Old Faithful and the geothermal areas. It was our first day with some sunshine, so he figured the steam of geysers would look better with blue sky instead of overcast. On the way out to Old Faithful, we stopped along the road to photograph dead lodgepole pines in the fog. It was one of the most beautiful areas we saw on our trip. Dale referred to the trees as “bobby socks” because minerals have soaked into the dead trees at their base and colored the trees white for the first foot or two. It was absolutely lovely.
"Bobby Socks" trees and creek
"Bobby Socks" trees
"Bobby Socks" trees and fogbow
As promised, the steam rising from Old Faithful looked beautiful against the blue sky
Old Faithful steam with blue sky
Now if only those darned buffalo hadn’t wandered into the frame
Old Faithful with bison close
How lucky was that? After watching the eruption, we wandered down the path towards the firehole river (hole being the word trappers used for a valley. Hence Jackson Hole is the valley containing the town of Jackson). At the far end of that path is geothermal vent called Chinese Spring and across the river is the Cascade Geyser. The Chinese Spring made the news last year because a previously unknown bacteria was found growing in it. The bacterial mat is purplish (it didn’t photograph well in the shade) so researchers tentatively named it “Purple Haze”.
Frozen grass in Old Faithful's outflow
The bacteria that grow in Yellowstone’s hot springs are a biological wonder. Many of them don’t use carbon and oxygen like the rest of life on Earth. Some consume Hydrogen, Sulphur or even Arsenic. These are very primitive life forms that give a clue as to what sorts of life might have evolved on other planets. Some of these life forms are of the genus Archea. They have no cell nucleus and were likely the first forms of life present on Earth. One of these bacteria consumes sulphur dioxide and spits out sulphuric acid, creating one of the lowest pH (most acidic) environments on Earth. The water in some of Yellowstones hot pools gets down to a pH of 1, about the same as your car battery. Last year, the some clothes and a cellphone were found next to one of Yellowstone’s hot pools, left there apparently by a young man who wanted to take a hot bath in one of the pools. Since the pool was 190 degrees F, he was likely dead in less than a minute. His remains were never found because the acidity of the pool completely dissolved his remains within hours.
After watching Old Faithful erupt a second time, we went to a number of other geysers and thermal areas as we worked our way back to West Yellowstone.
We also stopped and took a few shots of Firehole Falls.
Firehole Falls with slow shutter speed
As we were heading back along the Madison River, we saw a lone coyote working a meadow near the road. We stopped and watched him for about an hour. The late afternoon light was lovely and we enjoyed seeing him sniff the snow and turn his ears smelling and listening for mice and voles. One five occasions, we watched him stiffen, crouch and then pounce into the snow. Three times he came up with something to eat. What a marvel of survival.
Coyote in late afternoon light - sniffing the snow for mice and voles
Hears something behind
Turns to investigate
Close up of coyote's face
We on the other hand enjoyed some fabulous Texas style BBQ that night at Firehole Barbeque across the street from our hotel. The next day we parted company. The other photographers drove off in their own cars and Dale drove me back to the Bozeman airport. I am happy to have gained some new skills, seen new sights but most of all to have witnessed the majesty of Yellowstone’s wildlife and their ability to survive. Best, David