Yellowstone in October
Watching a grizzly bear charge straight at you is a unique experience. It’s particularly unforgettable when you’re watching through a 600mm lens, making the bear look close enough to touch.
On the first day of October I finally found a well-known grizzly I’d been hearing about for weeks. Raspberry, as she’s called, was grazing on clover in her usual stomping grounds around Yellowstone Lake. A park ranger on the scene was letting photographers stand on the road despite the fact that Raspberry was no more than 50 yards away. The rangers have a long history with Raspberry, and they trust her to ignore crowds of humans as she goes about her business. Eager to capture this celebrity bear in action, I set up my big lens next to several other photographers and started firing away.
After Raspberry had been casually grazing for a while, she abruptly raised her head and in a split second went from stationary to full-speed charging right towards us. Normal people in that situation, I’m guessing, would immediately drop whatever they’re doing and look for the best escape route. But photographers are a strange lot. Not a single one of us even looked up from our camera. Only our index fingers moved, filling the cold air with the furious trilling of rapid shutter-clicks. Raspberry’s charge was so sudden, unfortunately, that I didn’t have time to bump up my camera’s shutter speed, which made my shots of her in motion all blurry.
After a short sprint Raspberry slammed on the brakes and looked behind her with a worried expression. Apparently she’d been spooked by a noise on the side opposite us, and once she decided there was no threat she went right back to grazing.
Later that same day I also came across Raspberry’s daughter Snow, a young grizzly with a beautiful almost-blonde coat. She only just this season made the break from her mom. Over the next few days I found both Raspberry and Snow again and spent hours watching them forage for clover.
Despite mostly good luck with wildlife during my time in Yellowstone, I haven’t been able to find all the animals on my wish list. Some – like mountain lions and wolverines – are almost never seen, so I won’t feel bad about missing them. Not spotting a Great Gray Owl, on the other hand, would have been tough. I’m fascinated by their noble, full-moon faces, but until the second week of October I’d never managed to be in the right place at the right time.
I’d heard some people had seen a Great Gray Owl just south of Canyon, and while checking out that area one morning I noticed a few photographers pointing their lenses towards the tree line. Expecting to see a bear, I pulled out my binoculars and found myself staring at a Great Gray Owl perched on a snowy branch. Yes! Frantically fumbling to bundle up and gather my camera gear, I rushed over to get some shots.
The owl put on a real show, dropping down to an open patch of pale yellow grass at one point in an unsuccessful attempt to catch a rodent.
A few days later I was happily surprised to spot a moose at Round Prairie. Snow had fallen the night before and the willow branches along Soda Butte Creek were covered with a fragile layer of ice that glowed bright white in the morning sun. The moose was on the other side of the creek, so I hiked out towards him over a crunchy blanket of new snow. Eventually one other photographer joined me, but for an hour I had the moose all to myself in that magical landscape. “I love Yellowstone again,” I thought. People who only visit in the crowd-choked summer are missing the best part.
In the middle of the month I spent a night in Jackson, Wyoming, to position myself for one more sunrise at the Snake River overlook in Grand Teton National Park. On the way to Jackson I came across a grizzly very near the road, just outside the southern border of Yellowstone but not yet at the northern border of Grand Teton.
The sky the next morning was completely clear, which meant I was able to watch the first light of day slide its way down the very top of the Tetons, but it also meant there weren’t any clouds filling the background with interesting color.
It feels very real that my time in Yellowstone is almost over. I arrived at the end of November last year and I still plan to return to California at the beginning of December, leaving me with only one more month. Towards the end of October I drove my first load of stuff back to Mountain View, so now my apartment’s even-emptier-than-usual appearance is a constant reminder that my days here are numbered.
I’m looking forward to a change of pace, but it’s frustrating to be leaving when my enjoyment of Yellowstone is spiking again. The maddening crowds of high season are gone, and the cold weather is making it easier to find wildlife. Bison and elk are growing heavy coats, bears are preparing to hibernate, and most of the animals are moving to lower elevations. Winter in the park is unpredictable and intimidating and fearsomely beautiful.
I feel better when I reassure myself that Yellowstone isn’t going anywhere (at least until the supervolcano erupts), and that it will still be here when I’m ready to return.