Last month myself and fellow guide Mark Hamblin set off on the arduous journey from Inverness to London to Salt Lake City to Bozeman. Three flights, four airports, two body scanners and several questionable airplane meals later, we were on the fringes of the world’s first National Park. Mark is a well-seasoned “Yellowstonee” having visited the area ten times. For me, it was only my second trip there and my first time experiencing the cloak of winter.
We met up with our guests in the hotel restaurant and over a breakfast fit for a king (think Henry VIII more than George VI), we started to discuss the week ahead. It came to light that most guests had watched the recent Yellowstone documentary on TV and so their expectations were high. Wolf, bobcat and even mountain lion were on the target list of the group. I think at that moment the entire restaurant heard Mark and I gulp simultaneously. That’s the excitement of Yellowstone though, part of it is about what might happen and what might be seen. Just knowing you’re in the same location as some of these animals is enough to keep the blood warm and the fingers tingling.
The pressure mounted on the very first day; our initial afternoon drive into the beautiful snowy landscape of the Park was a little on the quiet side. Even the usually reliable bison were not to be seen apart from the odd one in the distance. We managed a few shots at different stops and then headed back to the hotel as the temperatures began to drop. Our spirits lifted with a few mule deer walking about Gardiner town upon our return.
Over the next two days we explored the small section of the park open to normal vehicles and our initial poor fortune was thankfully just a blip! We had a lovely encounter with a red fox, which emerged next to a pinnacle smothered in snow and lime green lichens; we were also able to locate the previously camera-shy bison. With the much quieter roads of winter, we didn’t think it would be a problem to stop for a little while, however the Park Rangers had other ideas. Every time we seemed to pause you could almost guarantee that a ranger was pulling up behind you. A flash of the blue lights, a “yes sir, sorry sir, thank you sir” and we were back on our way to try our luck further on.
In the Tower area of the park, we had a great stop for a coyote that was walking adjacent to the road, which allowed for some intimate close ups. Later that day, a bull elk was pushing the snow around to find the vegetation beneath, before eventually lying down to rest in the warm afternoon light.
A third of the way into the trip and after a morning scramble around the famous Mammoth Hot Springs, we met our beloved snow coaches to take us deeper into the interior of the Park. These 1950’s vehicles were the last remaining bombardier style coaches left. They were fantastic, much quicker than their modern counterparts and each had their own individual quirks. Imagine the changes they’ve seen during their 60 years of service, in one of the most pristine National Parks in the world.
The first two days of snow coach exploration was an exciting array of photographic situations. The bison were a lot more numerous in these areas and we had ample opportunity to photograph them from the road. This was lucky because every time we strayed off piste, we were wading through four or five feet of powder! We had another excellent encounter with a red fox, which was fast becoming a favourite species amongst our guests. It’s amazing how a canvas of snow can transform an image of a species we’re very familiar with back home. We even managed a chance encounter with a beaver busily eating reeds on the mostly frozen river.
We allowed the group a day to explore the steaming geysers and hot springs around our hotel at Old Faithful. Explosive vents and saturated hues of blue and green interrupt the snowy landscape, as we stay adjacent to the most active geothermal area in the world. I decided to experience this location by using cross country skis, which was a bad idea; thankfully, my camera bag containing expensive equipment softened the blow every time I fell over backwards…
On our final two days on the snow coaches we spent most of our time back and forth along the Madison River. We were in search of an elusive bobcat that had been spotted that week. It seemed we were always 5 minutes too late, but eventually our persistence finally paid off. The young cat came out of the trees and stalked along the opposite side of the river, haranguing ducks in the water.
Watching the bobcat seemed like a fitting way to end the trip. A species we hoped to see but didn’t expect to - beautiful, graceful and exciting. Just like Yellowstone itself.