It felt incredible to drive into Yellowstone again.
The northeast entrance gate by our home had been closed to cars since mid-June, when an unprecedented flood washed away some of the park’s roads. Thankfully the reconstruction work went relatively smoothly and the northeast entrance re-opened on schedule the morning of October 15th. Marie and I – eager to visit Lamar Valley for the first time in over four months – were the third car through the gate. I didn’t get any good photos, but it was really interesting to see the results of all the repairs.
The very next day my mom arrived for what turned out to be a great visit. We drove all around the park, with stops at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Falls, and Grand Prismatic Spring. Every morning we looked for wildlife in Lamar Valley. At one point our neighbors Jill and Greg invited us on a hike to the remains of the Rose Creek wolf pen, where in 1995 some of the first wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone were acclimated before being released.
Throughout my mom’s visit the weather remained pleasantly mild. Right after she left, however, temperatures plunged and snow fell. Being forced to resume my snow shoveling duties was a long-dreaded gut punch, but winter’s arrival tends to come with a silver lining – a bump in wildlife sightings. Soon after the weather turned I found two bull moose at lower Barronette and spent hours watching them alternate between grazing and play-fighting.
In addition to damaging Yellowstone’s northeast entrance road, the June flood also washed away big sections of the north entrance road between Mammoth and Gardiner. Instead of repairing that road, the park built a brand new road along an old stagecoach trail, and at the end of October the replacement road opened to regular traffic. Days later most of Yellowstone’s other roads closed for the winter. Only the road that runs from the north entrance by Gardiner to the northeast entrance by Silver Gate is open year-round.
As temperatures continued dropping I settled back into my normal routine. At first light I drive into the park looking for wildlife. The caffeine rush from my first cup of coffee usually coincides with my first view of Lamar Valley. As I pass Soda Butte a whiff of sulfur floats through the car, and on clear mornings the sun covers the peaks of Specimen Ridge in a golden glow. A thin layer of snow muffles the sound of my tires on the pavement. Yellowstone is always beautiful and every day is different.
One morning in mid-November the temperature in the park dropped to -18F. Hoarfrost coated the cottonwood trees and an icy mist blanketed Lamar Valley.
Jill and Greg had been mentioning that flying squirrels sometimes visit their bird feeder at night, and they were kind enough to let us come over to take a look. It was the first flying squirrel we’d ever seen.
I’d been hoping that the cold weather would increase the chances of my first otter sighting of the season, and sure enough – on one particularly frigid morning (-25F in places) I saw three dark shapes darting in and out of the Lamar River. I spent almost two hours watching the otters swim, fish, and play on the icy riverbank. Losing all feeling in my frozen toes was a small price to pay for such an entertaining show.
The very next morning I noticed the empty cars of two fellow photographers – Jort and Todd – parked at the Picnic pullout, not far from where I’d seen the otters the day before. Figuring they’d spotted the otters in a section of the river not visible from the road, I bundled up and followed in their footsteps (literally). Huffing and puffing through the snow, I finally caught up to Jort and Todd, who up to that point had the three otters all to themselves but as usual were good sports about sharing. Temperatures that morning were in the negative double-digits yet again, and vapor rising from the river cloaked the otters in swirls of icy fog. Almost all of my shots turned out blurry and desaturated.
Back home that afternoon as I gradually thawed out from otter-watching, Marie reported that a fox was under our deck eating bird seed that had fallen from our feeder. I know that some photographers eschew shooting wildlife in “unnatural” situations, but we hadn’t intentionally baited the fox and – for now at least – my photography ethics aren’t quite so stringent.
With extreme cold already hitting in November, we can’t help but wonder what might be in store for us once winter really gets rolling. I have to admit, though, that the snow-covered landscape here is so beautiful it sometimes seems unreal. And if bad weather keeps increasing wildlife activity, it’s a tradeoff I’ll happily make.