These COVID times are tough to navigate. In general I’m trying to minimize my risk of catching or transmitting the virus, but how far can you take that before it becomes counter-productive?
A road trip to Yellowstone, for example, unquestionably carries some risk. But the risk seemed relatively low. I’d drive there by myself, eat only take-out food, and spend most of my time outdoors. At no point would I be close to other people without wearing a mask.
The benefits, on the other hand, seemed pretty substantial. Some time in Yellowstone would go a long way towards managing my uncomfortably high levels of restlessness and cabin fever, and I’d be supporting small businesses that depend on tourist revenue, even in the winter.
It may or may not have been the most responsible decision, but I gave myself the green light for another trip to Yellowstone. A window of relatively mild weather opened in mid-January, and very early on a Tuesday morning I loaded up my gear and made the long drive to Gardiner, Montana, just outside the northern entrance to the park, where I planned to spend four nights.
My focus in Yellowstone is always wildlife photography, but on this visit I had a secondary agenda as well. For a while now Marie and I have been keeping an eye out for a home to buy. We really like Colorado, but the properties we’ve seen around Longmont haven’t jumped out at us, and the prices feel a little overheated. We’ve also been Zillow-watching properties around Yellowstone, and two homes caught our attention at the same time I was considering a road trip. It worked out that I could see both of them during my visit.
I arrived in Gardiner just before sunset and headed straight into the park the next morning. It felt great to be back. As usual there were bison everywhere, and I’m always impressed by the way they endure the frigid temperatures and deep snow.
Near Pebble Creek I spotted a moose about 100 yards from the road. I parked at the next pullout and walked back to get some photos as the moose appeared and disappeared behind snow-covered pine trees. The moose was casually moving towards the road, still well over 25 yards away, when suddenly it bolted into a sprint, parallel to the road, first in one direction and then wheeling around the opposite way. I froze.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know how close is too close when it comes to wildlife. The general rule at Yellowstone is to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards from other animals. Many would add that if a wild animal is changing its behavior because of you, you’re too close. The moose I was photographing clearly wanted to cross the road, and my presence – along with that of a few other photographers walking towards me – was obviously changing its behavior. I felt awful. As soon as I understood the route the moose wanted to take I slowly backed away, and eventually it felt comfortable enough to trot across the road. Despite technically following the rules I’d mishandled that situation and I vowed to be more careful in the future.
Early the next morning as I was approaching Floating Island Lake a quick movement on the left side of the road caught my attention. A wolf! Its bright yellow eyes locked on mine for a moment and I managed to take a few shots from the window of my car before the dark-colored wolf continued on, crossed the road behind me, and disappeared into the trees. Making eye contact with a wolf is a unique rush. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
The first of the two homes Marie and I were interested in was a mountain cabin next to a creek, and on Friday I stopped by to take a look. This feels strange, given that I’ve never cared much about houses before, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that I fell in love with the place. The photos on Zillow looked nice, but in person it became clear that the cabin was truly special. I was hooked.
Driving in the park not long afterwards, my mind still spinning furiously with thoughts of the cabin, I noticed a few small figures with cameras out by the edge of the mostly-frozen Lamar River. Maybe they had an otter? It had been two years since I’d seen one. I bundled up as quickly as I could, shouldered my big camera, and hiked out through the snow. Sure enough, there was an otter relaxing on the ice by an open patch of water, watching the encroaching paparazzi with tolerant nonchalance. The otter indulged us for about a half hour before a few overly eager photographers ventured too close and sent it back underwater and out of sight. What luck to have stumbled across one of my favorite animals!
On my way out of the park I noticed a coyote at a pullout and stopped for a few photos. To my surprise the coyote seemed not at all wary of my presence. At first I shot from my window, but, curious about its behavior, I stepped out of the car, expecting the coyote to dash off. Instead it just lay down in the snow, totally relaxed. It was disheartening. The coyote didn’t look sick or injured, so I guessed it had been fed by people and was becoming dangerously habituated. Later I read an article about a professional photographer who’d recently been caught feeding foxes in Grand Teton National Park (although he denied it). It’s not uncommon for park rangers to have to put down food-conditioned animals, and it makes me crazy that anyone – especially those who should know better – would put wildlife at risk that way. Realizing that my presence wasn’t helping the habituation problem, I said goodbye to the coyote and headed back to Gardiner.
On Saturday morning I visited the second house. It was fine, but the setting wasn’t even in the same league as the first place, and the presence of other similar homes nearby made it feel a little cookie-cutter to me. As I drove home to Colorado I tried my best not to get my hopes up about the cabin by the creek.
After hearing my report and seeing the photos and videos I’d taken, Marie was interested enough to want to check things out herself. It wasn’t easy for her to take time off work on short notice, but she thought she could slip away for two days that coming week. So we decided to make a lightning trip: a 12-hour drive up on Wednesday and an equally long drive back on Thursday. My mom was kind enough to watch our dogs while we were away.
“Do you think we’ll see the pine marten?” I asked Marie as we drove. In the year I spent photographing Yellowstone I’d never managed to spot a pine marten – a type of weasel that looks like a cross between a squirrel, a cat, and a wolverine – but apparently one lived near the cabin by the creek, and I was really hoping to see it. Naturally, then, I interpreted it as a good omen that the moment we pulled up to the cabin the neighbors called us over and pointed out the pine marten darting around playfully in one of their trees. As if I wasn’t already smitten with the place.
I’m happy to report that Marie loved the cabin too. I don’t want to jinx anything, but we’re doing our best to make it our next home. All my fingers are crossed.