Certainly one of the most exciting moments of the year was when I found myself sharing a trail with cougars. This was not just the first time I had ever seen wild cougars, it was the first time I had ever seen wild cats at all. The excitement I felt in the moment was overwhelming, and equally was the disappointment when they began to run away. Taking ample time to fully immerse myself in the scene, and not just grab a few shots, it became a defining moment that I will not soon forget.
Yellowstone always provides a great getaway during the winter. Plenty of wildlife scours the blanket of snow for traces of food during the harsh winters, much of it unconcerned if a road crosses its path. Being February, and thus, wolf mating season, I had gone up hoping to catch some good shots of wolves, however with their numbers lower than in previous years, opportunities were much more scarce. While wolves were out of sight, I turned my attention to some other wildlife I had found, such as coyotes scavenging on an already claimed carcass. After losing a short fight, this coyote reluctantly left the scene with its tail between its legs.
With clouds socking in Jackson Hole for most of March, many people considered Comet Pan-Starrs a lost cause. I had certainly begun to share that sentiment until the clouds parted at the very end of the month. Photos and reports of the comet were dwindling, but that didn’t stop me from making the only attempt I might get. Though invisible to the naked eye, my camera was fortunately able to still pick it up. I made several photos of it over the next three nights, including this one, which I though stood much stronger as a black and white image, highlighting the Andromeda Galaxy above it while including three of the major Teton Peaks as well.
Choosing one image from April I found to be especially difficult, since April of 2013 turned out to be one of the best grizzly bear months of my residence in Jackson Hole thanks to a flurry of grizzly activity around Oxbow Bend. It’s the location every nature photographer in the area hopes bears will make their way to so that they can get both reflections and mountains in their shot at one of the most iconic locations in Grand Teton National Park. Despite getting a number of memorable shots of Grizzly Bear #610 and her three cubs there, one image of a new grizzly boar, who became known as Bruno, during a late winter storm stuck out to me. I later converted it into black and white and grew even fonder of it. It seemed to capture the essence that a grizzly’s life is never easy, especially with so many hoping to begin eliminating them the same way they did with wolves.
Full moon’s, more grizzly bears, and even some previously unexplored vantage points rounded out the month of May for me. It was a time-lapse of a meteor shower though that really made me proud. For the first time, I woke up extra early for the Eta-Aquariid Meteor Shower, and while shooting a time-lapse, caught a massive fireball exploding in the atmosphere, with the residue from the impact floating through the sky afterward. It not only inspired me to make sure I never miss another meteor shower, but also forced me to reevaluate how I compose my night shots, since I wasn’t overly thrilled with this composition.
June was a very productive month for me as I churned out some of my best work of wildflowers, northern lights, and even more grizzly bears. However one location in particular both inspired and resonated with me. It was an area that I was completely new to and had never taken the time to see (in more than one way). I was exploring the vast open and deceptively empty stretches of the high desert east of Yellowstone for wild horses. I continued back a dirt road for a few miles and crested a ridge that left me nothing short of astounded at the natural treasure that lay hidden from the nearby highway, a major route into Yellowstone. Outstretched before me were miles and miles of badlands hills that rivaled anything that Badlands National Park has to offer. How something like this had thus far eluded me was unimaginable. I spent more time documenting every angle and abstract shot that I could of the badlands than I did looking for the mustangs. The area even inspired me to wonder if it should be its own national park. It had an immediate effect on me, and thus, left me very concerned for its future.
By the time July rolls around in Grand Teton National Park, grizzly bears have moved on into the deeper corners of the mountains. Their scarce presence becomes an afterthought as the longer, less eventful days stretch into August. Every now and then, though, they surprise you. I was guiding a wildlife safari one day in late July and had taken a detour up Signal Mountain, as I often like to do. The road starts off slow and uneventful, which prompted the question, “What can we expect to find back here?” I replied, “You never know really. Could be elk, deer, black bears…” As those last words escaped my mouth, I noticed some movement in the bushes off of the road as I was about to announce that we had just found said black bear, I saw not only the distinguishing hump of a grizzly, but also a cub running out of the bushes, at which point, without skipping a beat, I added “…or grizzly bears!” While I didn’t recognize them at first due to their size, these turned out to be none other than the legend herself, Grizzly Bear #399 and three cubs-of-the-year (COYs). The best part was that not one, but two other safari companies drove right past us, as did a number of other cars, leaving us alone with Grizzly Bear #399 and her cubs for a full 45 minutes. Like I said, sometimes they surprise you.
If there’s one factor of August that I treasure more than anything, it’s having the opportunity to find peace and solitude in high, remote corners of the mountains. One of my favorite locations found off the beaten path is Delta Lake, nestled just below the Grand Teton. Fed primarily by Teton Glacier, the crushed rock and minerals give the lake a distinct turquoise color that goes unrivaled in the Teton Mountains. This was my second experience backpacking up there, and once again, had the entire area to myself. I eagerly awoke for sunrise, anticipating a sunrise unlike any other as only Delta Lake could offer, and I was not disappointed. Light broke through scattered clouds hitting the Grand Teton, reflecting in the calm, turquoise waters below. It could not have been more picture perfect.
One of my favorite stops while guiding a safari through Yellowstone National Park is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It’s only made sweeter when I notice clouds in the area. Such was the case late in September when some early winter weather had stormed through the area the previous day. With clouds still breaking, light forced its way through clouds, illuminating one layer of the canyon at a time. This not only made for some interesting photography, but I found one shot in particular that I thought made for an excellent black and white conversion.
This past fall, I helped guide a trip up to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada – “the polar bear capital of the world.” Two days on private Tundra Buggies, as well as vehicles to explore the region, did not disappoint. We found plenty of red foxes, arctic foxes, ptarmigans, and of course, polar bears. One of the Tundra Buggy days, we found two younger males sparring to keep warm as they waited for the Hudson Bay to freeze over. Acclimated to the buggies, they were oblivious to our presence, allowing us to get some excellent material from them. It was truly the highlight of October.
Heading back home from Churchill, I made a short visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park before realizing that Yellowstone was due to close for the season very soon. I packed up and shot straight for it. I made it into Yellowstone on the last day it was open, only a couple of hours before sunset where it was evident around every twist and turn of the road that winter had already set in. By the time I got to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the sun had already set, and with it, relatively warm temperatures. It was quite literally freezing, but the blue hour at the canyon was something I had not yet been able to successfully try, particularly with it under the blanket of winter. Coming from the warmth of the plains only earlier that day, I wasn’t exactly well-prepared for the bitter cold that awaited me outside of my car, nor were my camera batteries. I was able to capture a few shots, but combined with dropping temperatures and life on the road, my camera batteries were all but extinguished. From here, there was nothing left to do but make the unusually long drive back to Jackson Hole. The reason it was unusually long: driving at night on icy roads. I averaged roughly 25mph for what is normally an already four hour drive at 45mph.
With winter setting in early in Jackson Hole and other nearby areas, the famous Moulton barns were covered, and surrounded by snow early in the season. What made it even better was that the road to access the barns was open later than usual in the season. I took advantage to get the Milky Way Galaxy stretching out from the barn on a cold, winter’s night, braving -17F to get a few shots before my toes and fingers succumbed to numbness.