Every other year my daughter and I take a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Usually we make the trip around Memorial Day or the week after. This year, however, Heather had to compete in the Colorado State Games for Special Olympics the weekend after Memorial Day so rather than cut our trip short we decided to visit the parks the week of Labor Day. This was a good choice for a couple of reasons but the main one was the chance to photograph a bull moose with full antlers. In the spring they don’t have antlers growing yet. So off we went.
Usually our trips start the same way. We drive from Denver to Cody, WY, spend the night in a motel, then have breakfast at the Irma Hotel in Cody followed by a couple of hours browsing the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. This year we broke from tradition. Instead of time spent at the museum we decided to take the Red Canyon Mustang Tour. It was great! Our guide put us on a herd of 28 wild mustangs in the McCullogh Peaks HMA. (Herd Management Area) We spent about 15 minutes slogging through the mud after them but it was really worthwhile and I came away with a couple of really nice images
After the Mustang tour we headed towards Yellowstone entering through the East Entrance. On the way to our rented cabin near Gardiner, MT we took a quick detour to the Lamar Valley. Lots of bison, zero elk. What we did see was pretty exciting. There was a cow elk standing in the Lamar River with 2 wolves that turned out to be the alpha pair of the Junction Butte pack harassing her. At one point the alpha female jumped into the river after the cow but was unable to get near her. A little later when the elk climbed up the bank on the same side of the river as the wolves I thought she was a goner but they didn’t move. We heard later that they had been playing that game since 7:00AM and the wolves were clearly too exhausted to kill the elk. We watched for a little longer before heading off to our cabin to get settled in for the night.
Monday morning found us in the Lamar Valley at sunrise. We made a cruise up and down the valley with no results but decided to stop in at Slough Creek where the wolf watchers congregate. There was quite a crowd there with parked cars all the way out to the main road. We asked a photographer type what was going on and were told the wolves were out but more importantly there was a grizzly moving down the creek and he was probably going to come into view in a couple of minutes. We got in line behind a big suburban and headed downstream about 1/2 mile. Pulling into a parking area the guy in the Suburban got out and walked about 50 yards to view the creek. He immediately turned around and sprinted back to the vehicle and started gathering photo gear. When asked what he saw he said “Grizzly….CLOSE!” I grabbed my camera gear and followed him and we spent a few minutes photographing a medium sized male grizzly moving downstream across the creek.
Later, when we finished and were putting away gear the Suburban guy came over and asked if we were the folks staying in Cub’s Cache. Yep. “Well, I’m Brad. My wife owns the cabin you’re staying in.” Turns out he is a photographer and tour guide in the Yellowstone area and a really nice guy. You can check out his website here: http://horsefeathersphotography.com/ The rest of the morning in the Lamar was uneventful so we decided to head down to the Hayden Valley and check things out. Things there were slow too so back to the Lamar for a while where we spent a couple of hours watching the carcass of a dead bison hoping some apex predator would come feed on it. No luck there so we ended the day sitting watching Floating Island Lake where we were told there was a good chance we’d see a bull moose. No luck there so just after sunset we headed back to the cabin. On the way we spotted another wolf near Blacktail Ponds bringing our total wolf count to 3. Not bad. But that night the rain stopped.
When Tuesday dawned clear and sunny we thought it would be a good thing. It had been raining on us off and on since we left Denver Saturday morning. Well, we were wrong. it was as if someone closed the gate and kept all the critters in the barn. No wolf watchers when we passed Slough Creek. Nobody sitting at any of the turnouts on the Lamar Valley road. We found a few folks at the Confluence turnout watching the bison carcass and spent a while there waiting but today even the ravens weren’t around. Where did all the critters go? Back to the Hayden Valley…nothing. When we got back to the carcass we met Rick, one of the chief biologists on the Yellowstone Wolf Project. It’s said he has been out there watching wolves for over 10 years without missing a single day. Incredible! We also spent a few minutes talking to Brad, our landlord. Between the two of them we got a tip on another carcass near Canyon Junction and decided we’d move to our new location in West Yellowstone the go sightseeing. I got the chance to do a little fishing and caught a couple small trout but nothing worth mentioning.
Wednesday sunrise found us trying to locate the carcass near Canyon with no luck. We headed on down the Hayden Valley and I stopped to shoot the famous trees in the fog near Alum Creek.
We heard of another grizzly east of Fishing Bridge and decided to head that way. Along the way I was struck by the fact that we were not seeing any wildlife. Even the number of bison was dramatically reduced from the first two days. We had no luck finding grizzlies near Fishing Bridge and a stop at LeHardy Rapids didn’t even produce a view of Harlequin Ducks. What is going on? We finally decided to head back to Westy and visit the Yellowstone History Museum and the Grizzly and Wolf center. Both are very cool and we make a point to visit every time we’re in West Yellowstone.
Thursday morning we were on the road to Grand Teton National Park. This was exciting because we thought we had a good chance of seeing Grizzly 610 or maybe her mother #399. We also knew there were more moose than in Yellowstone so we had a better chance of seeing a big bull. We drove around Jackson Lake Dam and the Oxbow for a while with no luck so we headed to the Moose/Wilson road. Again, no critters. Drawing on all our resources we drove out the Gros Ventre road and saw nothing. After checking into our motel in Jackson and having an early supper we headed north on the Moose/Wilson road. About 2 miles north of town we saw some cars stopped and pulled over just in time to see a big bull moose run into the woods. Okay, this is encouraging….we finally saw some wildlife for the first time in nearly 2 days. Unfortunately that was the only critter of the day. We ended the day at the Oxbow and were rewarded with a glorious sunset which made up for the paucity of fuzzy woodland creatures.
We were up early the next day and headed for Moose/Wilson again. At the large turnout just south of the park road And finally it seemed our luck would change. While we were watching the pond a cow moose came into the clearing and started grazing. This is encouraging though we wanted to see a bull so after a while we packed off to the Gros Ventre and Eureka! We found a bull. Unfortunately he was in some really harsh light and all the time we watched him he gave us nothing but Butt shots. Great. We headed back to the hotel for a nap and a late lunch/early supper before heading back up Moose/Wilson. The cow moose was still grazing in the pond and I decided to photograph her in case we didn’t see any more critters.
Finally, nearing sunset we headed back out the Gros Ventre to see if Bullwinkle was back and we were greeted with none other than Mr. Bullwinkle. He stayed out of the woods long enough for 1 exposure….just 1. And here it is.
I know, it’s not the perfect moose photo. But it is the only one I got and it came in the last hour off daylight of our last day on vacation. We were happy with it. Next morning we were both a little sad to be heading home but inside we felt good. We saw Bears, Wolves, and Moose OH MY! One of our objectives on this trip was to see a bull moose with full antlers and we did. We saw some wild horses and even some wolves that were close enough to be identified as wolves. It was a great trip.
In 2 years when we head back we’ve decided to change things up and hit the Tetons first then finish up in Yellowstone. I can’t wait!