Cut To The Quick

A close-up view of the face of a male pronghorn in Yellowstone National Park

I came across this male pronghorn and a few of his females at the end of the day at Yellowstone’s north entrance in Gardiner, Montana. They were browsing in the meadows near the side of the road, a location I’ve seen pronghorn a number of times. The male had some strange rectagular patches of missing fur on his right side, which reminded me of the shaved patch our cat Templeton got when he went in for surgery.

A Dog and a Bone

A black bear, half obscured behind a tree, gnaws on a large bone in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in October 2006

As I make my plans for this year’s trip to Wyoming, here’s a picture from last year. During my first few hours in Yellowstone, I had stopped to watch some bighorn sheep ambling down a steep hillside when this black bear came up the road and walked over to work on an old carcass that was just skin and bones. It drug the carcass off a ways and then took this large bone and settled down under the tree, lackadaisically gnawing on it like a dog with a bone.

Taking Advantage

A black bear cub high in a tree eating pine cones at Yellowstone National Park on a rainy fall day in October 2006

In a world where might makes right being small wouldn’t seem to have any benefits. Indeed whenever the mother of this cub and its sibling sensed danger from another adult bear in the area, she’d send the little ones scurrying up into the trees. When it came time to feed however this little cub discovered its small size gave it an advantage. The larger bears couldn’t climb into the thin branches at the top of the tree so this part still had plenty of pine cones, ripe for the picking for the adventurous cub. Like a kid in a candy store, there were more cones at the treetop than the cub could possibly eat but it stayed for quite some time, feasting on the treasure it discovered.

Crunch Crunch Crunch

A black bear chews on the ribs of an old carcass beside a downed log at Yellowstone National Park on October 4, 2006. Original: _MG_5935.cr2

My first day in Yellowstone set the tone for the entire trip. That Wednesday was my final morning in the Tetons and I drove north to Yellowstone, where I would stay for the rest of my trip. I didn’t see much in the Tetons that morning and the weather was so cloudy that the mountains were mostly hidden. On my drive into Yellowstone, however, it wasn’t long before I started to see wildlife.

On the road towards Bridge Bay I came across two coyotes hunting near a small pond, then found a small group of gray jays working their way through the forest. On the road towards Roosevelt as it was getting late in the day, I pulled off the road to photograph some bighorn sheep lambs and ewes that were near the road. The gentleman next to me mentioned that a bear was coming, and sure enough far down the road a black bear had crossed the road and was heading towards the bottom of a hill.

After not having seen any bears the previous year in Yellowstone, I was excited to see my first of this trip (it would not be my last). As I settled in with my new telephoto lens, a small group of us watched as the bear wandered over to an old carcass of some large mammal and began to work over the bones. When an idling diesel pickup truck left, it was suddenly so quiet that you could actually hear the crunch crunch crunch as the bear began breaking apart the ribs. Eventually it walked back down towards where it had come from. It was time for me to depart as well, the bear had its dinner, now it was time for mine.

Reborn

A gray wolf with black fur watches me from a atop a ridge as dusk falls at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in October 2006

I spent a week in Yellowstone and the Tetons recently. Last year I visited for a week at the same time of year, where the Tetons amazed me day after day, while Yellowstone was more hit and miss. This year the roles reversed. The Tetons were fun with some great highlights, but I quickly realized how lucky I had been last year to see the animals and sights I did.

Yellowstone, however, took my breath away almost from the time I entered the park. On my first full day in the park, I had gotten some nice hiking in but didn’t see much wildlife. At the end of the day I had a great chance to watch black bears and a coyote from a close distance, along with a number of other people. It was getting late so I turned the car around and headed down from Mt. Washburn and back towards my hotel in Gardiner. I hadn’t gotten very far when a black shape crossed the road in front of me. The light was getting low and I only saw its shape and not details, but it took me just a split second to realize that I had just seen my first wolf.

At that point my excitement short-circuited my brain and I struggled to even remember how to stop the car and roll down the window. I barely managed this simple task and grabbed a camera from the seat next to me. The wolf had disappeared into the sagebrush however and left me to wonder at not only being lucky enough to see a wolf, but see it from a close distance. Suddenly the wolf popped up on the ridgeline, curious enough to stop for a quick look before continuing on its way. It stopped only for a moment but long enough for me to get a picture before it disappeared into the advancing darkness.

I pulled over at a nearby turnout, too afraid to look at my camera to see if I had gotten the shot. I eventually worked up the courage and brought up the image and while it was underexposed and a little out of focus, it came out surprisingly well given the circumstances. When I converted the RAW image, I tried to capture the feel of the moment, a dark shape suddenly appearing in the fading light.

Having watched a coyote just a few minutes earlier, the wolf’s larger size was particularly striking. This wolf has black fur, apparently one of several in this pack with dark coloration. My silent reverie was disrupted a few moments later when a pickup pulled into the pullout with me. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they had just missed a close encounter with such an amazing creature. When the woman stepped out of the truck I had a little laugh at myself, as she was carrying an antenna, most likely tracking the wolf by the radio collar around its neck. The encounter wouldn’t have been so rare for her.

After getting back in the car, my spirits were high and I felt reborn. On the drive back to Gardiner I wondered what more Yellowstone could possibly offer in the coming days.

Hard To Say Goodbye

A chipmunk perches on a rock with its tail sticking straight out behind it on the trail to Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming

I grew up in the eastern part of the United States. In the deciduous forests there, eastern gray squirrels and eastern chipmunks are your frequent hiking partners. While the Northwest has many things to offer, one thing I miss is the squirrels and chipmunks. Not that we don’t have them here, just not in the numbers I’d prefer. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even in parks as magnificent as the Tetons and Yellowstone, I’ll photograph just about every squirrel and chipmunk I come across — which is why no one likes to hike with me. And God help you if I see a newt.

The chipmunks in the Tetons and Yellowstone are the yellow-pine chipmunk, the Uinta chipmunk, and the least chipmunk, similar but different species to the eastern chipmunks of my youth and the Townsend’s chipmunks of my not-quite-youth.