Identification of wolves and their packs is difficult in Yellowstone, even for experts. We thought that the pack we observed at Bijah Spring was the 8 Mile Pack because the kill was at the most southerly end of the pack’s known territory but the NPS identified the pack as the Wapiti Lake Pack. This kill was documented by many photographers besides us and a video made in the hours before we arrived at the spot was posted on Instagram by the National Park Service.
The Yellowstone Forever Wolf Fund sells a guide to the park’s wolves that includes the known number of wolves in each pack, the territory each pack roams, which wolves have radio collars, and males, females, and alpha wolves and their colors. Identification of the Alpha Male in either pack is not definitive but the chart indicates that both packs’ Alpha Males might be uncollared black wolves. While we watched the wolves napping in the afternoon sun, one large black, uncollared male got up and headed toward the kill. As the other wolves stirred and one by one began to make their way down the hillside toward the bison, the black male alone went to the kill and began to feed. All of the other wolves stayed well away from him while he fed. He fed alone for about ten minutes before the others slowly crept into the kill area, still giving deference to the black male. Here he approaches the kill site stealthily working his way through the mists from the hot spring.
The toxic mists spewing from the geothermal pools at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone created lots of mysterious scenes. This lone pine tree emerged from the misty shroud briefly, then was again completely obscured as the breezes moved the mists back and forth across our path.
It was such a privilege to observe wolves at play in Yellowstone. They were not concerned about their next meal because they were sated and their latest bison kill was just a few yards from where they frolicked in the snow. They really are just big wild dogs and they exuded such joy that it was almost hard to believe that they had, only hours before, attacked and killed a huge bison.
There is something otherworldly about the geyser basins at Yellowstone National Park. The dead trees, killed by drinking up silica from Yellowstone’s chemical soup and destined to become petrified, are stark reminders of the unfriendly environment. When we walked in the Biscuit Basin area, I was once again struck but its haunting beauty.
It’s called the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, carved by the Yellowstone River that runs through the canyon. In the winter, its reddish walls are obscured by snow and bear no resemblance to the colorful Grand Canyon of Arizona. It is still a striking image.
We’re in Yellowstone National Park in winter. Much of the park is closed to tourists because it is inaccessible to vehicle traffic. The only way to enter most of the open areas of Yellowstone is through the West Yellowstone entrance and only with guided vehicles. The snow is deep here and we’ve had more snow the past couple of days so the park is blanketed in white. It is cold enough in most of the park for the snow to cling in great blobs to the branches of pine trees and it is truly a winter wonderland here. But, because the area is a geothermal area, some areas of the park do not accumulate snow because of the heat they generate. We wandered through the Midway Geyser Basin on our second day. It was incredibly cold but my hands thawed as we walked on the snow covered boardwalks that traverse the geothermal areas. At the surface, the pools of acidic and super-hot water house living mats of green, orange and pink microorganisms. Your imagination can run wild with the shapes that appear in muck.
It was another eventful day in Yellowstone. We didn’t have the excitement of watching a pack of wolves up close for more than 90 minutes but for me, it was exciting and yet another milestone in my progress toward overcoming my fear of heights.
We were at Firehole Falls on the Firehole River taking images of the falls and blurring the water crashing down the falls with various methods, including a 6 stop neutral density filter, multiple exposure, and the easiest, a very slow shutter speed and small aperture. There were three different sites from which to photograph the falls and while I waited my turn for the others to finish at one viewpoint that had limited access, Moose took me to the last spot with views of what he called “scrubbing bubbles.” The road is close to the edge of the precipice and the snow was piled a few feet high up to the edge of the cliff. I couldn’t tell where the ground ended. At one spot, a large opening at the edge with footprints in the snow in front of it made it appear that someone had fallen through the snow and over the side. I said as much and Moose, completely fearless, walked up to the opening and peered over. “Nope,” he said. I wondered if it might be the preferred spot for the photograph I wanted to get. He took my tripod and planted it right next to the opening, extended his hand to me to help me to the spot. Of course, when I stepped off the packed snow at the road’s edge, my boot sank a foot or so, knocking me off balance and I fell backwards and found myself sitting on the snow. Vinnie helped me up and Moose made sure I didn’t knock him, my camera, and myself over the edge. Then he walked away and left me there. The drop was probably 100 feet and yet I had no fear. Perhaps at last I am beginning to overcome my irrational fear of heights.
Moose asked for my cell phone and created this pano of me to prove that I actually managed to stand at the edge of this precipice and take photographs without fear. Thank you, Moose. The other photograph is the part of the falls I photographed from that vantage point, blurred using my 70-200mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, ISO 50, f/Stop 45, Shutter Speed 1/1.6 second, focal length 260mm. The image, while monochromatic, is not black and white. The water is actually a greenish color.
Photograph by Moose Peterson
Photograph by a fearless Carol Smith
As we drove out of Yellowstone National Park Tuesday evening, we saw our first wolf, a loner that crossed a meadow and disappeared into the trees. Our appetites were whetted. Sightings of Canis lupus, the Gray Wolf. This was our hoped for goal, to see wolves in the park. But, wolves are elusive so Wednesday morning had us visiting Gibbons Falls and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone for landscape photographs of waterfalls.
At our first stop, Moose heard word of a bison kill by wolves earlier that morning and confirmed it while we were at the Grand Canyon when a snowmobiler shared some iPhone photos he’d taken earlier that morning while the wolves fed on their kill. The incredible thing is that the kill was only yards off the road in a large open area near Nymph Lake and Roaring Mountain. The Eight-mile Wolf Pack claims that area as its territory.
The kill area was a bit of a drive from our morning destination so we ate our lunches in the vehicle and drove to the site. There, in the snow not even 100 feet off the road, lay the remains of a bison carcass swarming with ravens. A hundred yards or so away, approaching the edge of the tree line beyond the kill, nine members of the Eight-mile Wolf Pack lay sprawled, bellies full and napping in the afternoon sun.
Two Bald Eagles and a single Golden Eagle soared overhead, their crops also full of bison. A pool to the left of the carcass spewed sulfur scented mists that wafted intermittently over the carcass obscuring the view and threatening our camera equipment. We thought the wolves were sated and would return to the seclusion of the forest following their naps so we contented ourselves with photographs of the pack in repose with an occasional wolf head popping above a snow drift only to flop down again and disappear from view. A couple of them disappeared into the thicket of trees in the distance.
After about 40 minutes, the black wolf, the one that is believed to be the alpha male, arose from his nap and slowly approached the carcass. We and our cameras were ready. And, one by one, all the wolves began to approach the carcass, at first letting the alpha male feed without disruption. To our delight, several of the wolves played in the snow and one pair loped playfully near the sulfuric mists waiting their turns to feed. We were on the roadway and we were not disturbing the wolves and the wolves seemed to take little notice of us after their initial perusal of us and our cameras as they approached the carcass.
What we witnessed was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Although it happens throughout the park on a daily basis, few humans ever witness what we had the privilege to watch for almost 90 minutes. Even Moose, who has visited Yellowstone National Park for more than thirty years, even working on wolf conservation projects, had never seen anything like what we saw, let alone photograph such a phenomenal event.
There is more of the Eight-mile Wolf Pack to come to In Focus Daily.
I’ve struggled a bit since I’ve been in Yellowstone with equipment issues, all caused by operator error. None of the issues is major and they are easily correctable and were all preventable.
At the end of our first stop on our first morning in Yellowstone, I broke my new di-GPS attachment. It is a simple gadget and I read the instructions carefully, including the one I neglected to follow: remove the di-GPS before replacing the camera in the camera bag as it is fragile and might break if it is forced for any reason. As I was ignoring this important instruction, it caught on the edge of the camera bag and cracked a piece out of the plastic collar. By 8:36AM of the first morning, I no longer had a functioning GPS tracker. I thought it was broken but at the end of the day, Moose asked to take a look at it and discovered it still worked, even with the cracked collar.
Day 2 started with a drive into Yellowstone National Park on Highway 191 along the Madison River. We pulled over to photograph the morning sunrise and walked through deep snow down to the river’s edge. Once again I had attached the Di-GPS to the D5 and began to take photographs looking down the Madison River toward the colorful clouds and rising sun. My photographs were alarmingly dark and I had to add +1.7 exposure compensation to get anything other than a silhouette. I was standing next to Moose and he heard me grumbling and asked to see my camera. Despite his efforts in the less than ideal conditions (-1° morning temperatures and heavily gloved hands although he did remove his for a few minutes to inspect my camera) he couldn’t find what was wrong and handed the camera back to me. Eric was standing behind me and said, “Carol, did you drop something?” I looked down and a small loop of black thread lay on top of the snow. We were up to our knees in soft snow. I reached down and pulled my di-GPS unit, slightly smaller than my Fitbit Zip, out of the snow. Thank you, Eric. If he hadn’t been standing there, I wouldn’t have noticed its absence until we’d returned to the vehicle. So, by 7:55AM on the second day, the GPS was again out of commission.
When we returned to the vehicle to continue our meander through Yellowstone, Moose again looked at my camera in slightly more ideal conditions. He discovered that I had somehow changed the white balance settings within the Cloudy preset so that there was a pronounced dark blue cast to it. And, I had managed to make those changes the day before when on the first morning, fingers heavily gloved and awkwardly groping at buttons and dials, I hadn’t realized that I was changing settings with adverse exposure consequences as a result. So, I’m not sure what I’ll do about the GPS unit. Buy a new one and be more careful with it, I suspect. As for the problem with inadvertent changes to settings, I need to be more careful with my bulky gloves when I’m making changes to settings.
Each day when we return to our rooms we lay out our gear under towels to acclimate to warmer temperatures in the rooms and to avoid moisture condensation onto the gear. When we return from dinner, we clean all our gear and return it to our camera bags. We do this because of the harsh conditions that our equipment is exposed to as we walk near the geysers as they are spewing steam that is highly alkaline and acidic and very toxic to camera gear. In addition, after the settings fiasco of the early part of the day, I have added something to my nightly routine. I will make sure I return all the settings to my personal default settings.
After the morning I had, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Eric photobombed my sunrise photograph.
It’s a bit chilly here in Yellowstone. It was about 9 degrees when our coach entered Yellowstone National Park shortly after 7AM Monday morning. It was reported that Sunday’s low was -18°. Glad it warmed up Monday from Sunday’s low but it’s looking like the coming week will turn colder again. Brrrr. Even the bison looked chilled.
This bison bull we encountered late morning barely moved as we photographed him from the side of the road. I used a slow shutter speed to show the snow streaking past his thick, dark, coat. We had taken most of our photographs and probably would have stayed longer but a large group of photographers, about 12 or so, arrived. At first they were down the road a bit but they decided our vantage point was better and they crowded around us and even edged between Moose’s and Eric’s tripods when they stepped away to retrieve something from our vehicle. Their tripod legs were crossed, an indication that there really wasn’t any room between them. I pointed out the obvious to the interloper, that two photographers were already there, but he shrugged and argued that there was room for him. We left shortly after.