Yellowstone in December
I finally pulled the trigger.
On the last day of November I packed up my car and moved to Livingston, Montana, to photograph Yellowstone National Park in all four seasons.
Making the decision was a struggle. I loved the idea of spending an entire year exploring my favorite park, but with winter on the way it wasn’t easy to leave the mild, comfortable Bay Area for the frozen north.
Any lingering doubts I had, however, vanished when I arrived in Livingston and walked into my new apartment for the first time. The place itself is pretty basic, but the view is not: a sliding glass door in my living room directly overlooks the Yellowstone River. Geese and ducks float by constantly, deer occasionally stop at the river to drink, and soon after I moved in a bald eagle landed in a nearby tree.
On my first full day I made the hour-long drive to Yellowstone. Highway 89 from Livingston to the park’s north entrance follows the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley, a beautiful stretch of ranchland framed by the jagged mountains of the Absaroka Range to the east and the Gallatin Range to the west. I’d rather be living right next to the park, but Paradise Valley makes for a beautiful commute. Deer are everywhere along the highway (making collisions a constant risk, especially at night), and as I drive I often spot bison, elk, eagles, antelope, and bighorn sheep.
Most of Yellowstone’s roads are closed from early November until mid-April, at least to regular vehicles. But the road from the north entrance (by Gardiner) to the northeast entrance (by Cooke City-Silver Gate) is open year-round, which makes a fascinating area of the park accessible all winter. That afternoon I drove most of the way to Cooke City, stopping to watch wildlife, of course, and before returning to Livingston I paid a quick visit to my favorite tree at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Over the next week I settled into my new place while making more trips to Yellowstone. One morning in the park I came across a group of coyotes feeding on a bison carcass. As I stood on the side of the road photographing the scene, one of the coyotes – apparently having eaten his fill – meandered towards me while rubbing his snout in the snow to clean off the blood. He seemed totally uninterested in my presence and eventually crossed the road so close I could have pet him.
On another morning in the park the temperature dipped to -4 degrees Fahrenheit in places (according to my car), and an icy layer of low fog coated the trees in Lamar Valley with hoarfrost.
During my park trips I regularly ran across the wolf watchers, a group of people who closely follow Yellowstone’s wolf packs. Typically the watchers are lined up by the side of the road, armed with binoculars and spotting scopes, gazing intently into the distance. For me the wolves always seemed to be just out of sight, and not until I’d been there a week did I even catch one with my camera – nothing but a dark shape in the far distance.
A few days later I drove to the park well before sunrise, hoping the wolves would be more active early in the morning, and while it was still dark I came across two cars stopped on the road ahead of me. An older man standing next to one of the cars waved me over. “The wolves have a carcass up there,” he said, gesturing forward. “You need to drive right on through, at least past the bridge.”
The man – his name turned out to be Doug – wasn’t wearing a ranger uniform, but I wanted to drive ahead anyway and I did as he said. I looked everywhere but couldn’t locate the carcass or the wolves. So after crossing the bridge I turned around and went back. Doug, looking agitated, waved me over again. “You have to stay in your car,” he ordered brusquely. “Watch yourself out there.”
“You watch yourself out there, too,” I said with a sarcastic laugh, irritated that a fellow park visitor was telling me to stay in my car while he himself stood in the road.
Doug visibly bristled. “I’ve been doing this for years!” he shouted.
“Maybe you should be less patronizing!” I yelled back.
I still couldn’t see anything. Doug moved his SUV to a pulloff and I parked behind him. Getting out of my car I noticed a happy-looking German Shepherd in Doug’s back seat. “Well he can’t be all bad,” I thought.
Doug and I stood on the slope of a hill scanning for wolves in the dim light. “I reported the carcass to the nearest ranger station,” Doug said. “They’ll come to move it pretty soon.”
A few minutes later Doug announced that he was going to drive back to a spot that might provide a better view of the wolves. “You’re welcome to follow and look through my scope,” he said, surprising me with the friendly offer.
I thanked him but decided to walk a little way up the hill, where I stood next to a man and woman hunched behind a serious-looking video camera on a tripod. I noticed some movement back on the road, but it was a fox, not a wolf.
And then I saw them, small indistinct shapes on the hillside about 100 feet off, heading away from the road. Wolves! Four or five were waiting on the ridgeline to the north, and another two or three were running to join them. I did my best to get a few shots despite the distance and faint light.
Another photographer walked up. Her name was Deby, a retired cop in her 50s. Deby said she’s been living just outside Yellowstone for five years and looks for the wolves just about every day.
“How long are you here for?” she asked.
“All winter,” I said. Deby laughed loudly, making me wonder if I’d misunderstood her question. “Oh do you mean how long am I here for today?”
“No, I’m laughing because when I first came here it was just for one winter too.”
Thrilled to be talking with an expert, I peppered Deby with questions and she graciously opened a window on the dynamics of Yellowstone’s wolves and wolf watchers. Both groups, it turns out, are full of characters and drama.
Doug, Deby explained, is a longtime wolf watcher, but he doesn’t work for the park. The only wolf watcher who operates in an official capacity is Rick McIntyre, the biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. Rick watches the wolves full-time (including his days off), and he leverages a network of volunteer spotters who communicate with each other via “Rick radios.” He also has telemetry equipment capable of pinpointing the wolves that have been outfitted with tracking collars.
Apparently there’s tension between two types of wolf watchers. Some, like Doug, primarily use spotting scopes to observe the wolves from far away. Others, like Deby, want to get close enough to take photos. The Doug types get frustrated with the Deby types, who – in their view – sometimes disrupt the wolves’ behavior.
“They’ve filed several complaints against me,” Deby said. “It doesn’t seem to matter that I always follow the rules.”
Doug’s arrogance made him tough to like, but I’m a sucker for people who dedicate themselves to quirky pursuits. And I understand his anti-photographer bias. It must be maddening when someone frightens the wolves away, even if it’s accidental. (In hindsight, his seemingly friendly invitation to let me follow him that morning was probably an attempt to get me further away from the wolves.) I hoped I’d run across Doug again and have a chance to learn his story.
But as a photographer I identify more with Team Deby, of course. Deby mentioned that she posts her photos online, and back at my place later I discovered that her Facebook page has more than 30,000 followers. No wonder – her photos are spectacular. They were so good I felt a little daunted, painfully aware that I have no chance of putting together such an impressive collection in just one year.
On top of that, over the next week it became agonizingly apparent that compared to Deby I’m a bumbling amateur. Several times I spent hours in the park with no particularly exciting sightings, and then later I saw on Facebook that on the same day Deby had been right next to wolves, or a family of otters, or two moose butting heads.
The day I met her was a good example. After the wolves vanished over the ridge, several of us, including Deby, gathered across the road to watch a coyote feed on the carcass while three red foxes waited on the rocks above for their turn. It was an amazing scene.
Park workers eventually came to move the carcass away from the road. One of the foxes followed the carcass like a hungry dog, trotting right by me as he went.
Once the coyotes and foxes wandered off I drove aimlessly to other parts of the park, didn’t see anything else exciting, and eventually returned to Livingston. Deby, on the other hand, parked her car across the road from where the carcass had been and waited patiently for hours. She suspected that once the humans cleared out the wolves would come back to where they’d left the carcass, and she was right. Several wolves dropped back down to the road and Deby captured them in upsettingly incredible photos. Aaargghh, I have a lot to learn!
Just before Christmas Marie and her two dogs came to visit, and it was awesome to spend the holidays together. By Christmas day we had about a foot of snow on the ground, which thrilled Marie’s Border Collie as much as it horrified her Maltese.
We were snowed in some days but still managed to make a few trips to the park, where the highlight was watching Marie’s Border Collie react to seeing a bison for the first time.
Overall it was a great first month in Montana. I like my new apartment, I’m having fun exploring the area, and I’m excited to work on getting better at photographing wildlife in the park.
Happy New Year!