On Saturday, December 28, 2013, I had the opportunity to spend a day in Yellowstone. I had been to Yellowstone three times before, but this visit was different. This visit took place in the middle of winter.
Yellowstone’s winters are legendary and harsh, containing massive amounts of snowfall and temperatures the dip well below zero. The majority of the park closes down and cars can only access the northern-most road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City. The road leading out of Cooke City is closed as well, so one must return the way they came.
As is usual on my trips to Yellowstone, the alarm clock went off around 4:30am. My journey into the park was eerie and tense. The sun had not yet peaked over the mountains and the darkness pressed in all around. Nothing could be seen past the glow of the headlights.
Upon arriving in Lamar Valley, I was greeted with hundreds of glowing eyes. A herd of bison had decided to take over the road. As my car approached they shuffled across and into the heart of the valley. I have seen thousands of bison over the past few years. Seeing bison in Yellowstone is as common as breathing. Nonetheless, I am always left in awe by these large beasts.
Not long after the herd moved on, the sun made it’s way over the horizon and the light revealed a snowy landscape, dotted with trees, bison, and the Lamar River, winding its way through the Valley.
As is typical in Yellowstone, the day began with a high level of excitement. I observed the two remaining members of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack emerge from the trees and make their way along Soda Butte Creek before disappearing over a ridge. Their presence was brief, their distance far, but the sight of them was a rush nonetheless.
Word of moose near Pebble Creek drew me further into Soda Butte Valley. As the car rounded a bend I could make out the shape of a moose far in the distance. The road brought us gradually closer and I could see that there was not just one moose, but three. With the car parked, I loaded up my camera bag and tripod and ventured into knee-deep snow. Large, wet snowflakes began to fall, setting a surreal scene: moose in the foreground, scattered bison in the background, and a thick white veil covering the world around me. Beauty.
I trudged through the snow. It was slow going and the moose were immediately aware of my presence. I made my way closer, aware of the eyes that watched me. Eventually I found a spot that satisfied me and I set up my tripod in the snow. Shot after shot, my camera’s shutter clicked away. Suddenly I was aware of a fourth moose, rising from behind the scattered brush that bordered the creek. It wasn’t long before a fifth moose made its appearance. Each moose sported a healthy set of antlers. Each moose had its eye on me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – five bull moose in one spot at the same time! One can speculate on the reasons. Regardless of reasons, I knew I was witnessing a rare event. The snow continued to fall silently in the form of large, heavy flakes. The world was still and the only sound was my camera shutter, snapping photo after photo. My presence, though noticed by the moose, did not seem to disrupt them. At one point, the moose in the middle looked upward into the falling snow, holding its mouth slightly open, like a small child catching snowflakes on its tongue. It did this for several moments before its attention returned to me.
I could have sat there all day. However, my time in Yellowstone was limited and there was much I desired to see. Reluctantly I folded my tripod, secured my camera, and made my way back to the road.
The rest of the day held its own share of surprises. Three bighorn sheep made an appearance on a nearby cliff. Two golden eagles challenged one another at a carcass. Coyotes and bison provided wonderful photo opportunities. And I had the privilege of meeting wildlife cinematography legend Bob Landis for the second time in my life.
Wildlife photography lends itself to seeing uniqueness in nature. This journey was no different. Of all of the day’s experiences, seeing five bull moose congregate along the banks of Pebble Creek will forever stand out in my mind. I’m grateful for the opportunity and know that it is something I will likely never see again.