Now don’t get me wrong, most Americans I’ve met are generally very nice people. The trouble with America is that it’s full of Americanisms. That’s ‘isms’. Yes I know the bit about ‘when in Rome’ but some things just drive me nuts. Billboards! How much information can you actually absorb at 50mph? Cars that consider you incapable of making even the most basic decisions (like closing the boot without intervention from a too-clever-for-its-own-good automated system); carbohydrate-laden meals that could feed a country for a week; a gratuity system that defies all logic and that’s before we get stuck into the right to bear arms, and as was demonstrated recently, the propensity to discharge them. I could go on (and on) but my soapbox is giving way (primarily as a result of afore-mentioned carbohydrate overload). Suffice it to say that despite a common language, America and some of its ‘isms’ are hard for me to fathom (to be fair it could be as much to do with middle age as anything – mine not America’s).
Despite all of the ‘isms’ there is no doubt that America is a land of superlatives. It’s unique, as are its inhabitants – human and non-human alike. Moreover, despite the usual cultural and political divides that preside over any public asset, the US National Park system is one of America’s better ideas and none more so than Yellowstone. The thing with Yellowstone is its story. It’s one of historical foresight, pioneering thinking, a few ill-informed predator management decisions along the way and more recently, ecological restoration; that’s not to mention the geological processes that continue to drive and change the Yellowstone narrative. This place has it all. Outside of winter it also has lots of visitors and so it was we set off in January.
‘We’ in this case was two groups of hardy (and not so hardy – you know who you are!) tour guests. As ever the Northshots formula of serious photography and not-so serious downtime prevailed and seemingly, a good time was had by all (no doubt our feedback forms will reveal if I’ve read this incorrectly).
The northern part of Yellowstone is driveable in winter and is usually a safe bet for wolf sightings. Alas, this year it was not to be and both groups returned home wolfless. Photographic opportunities of this top predator are rare indeed but just a glimpse is enough to set the pulse racing. Wolves aside, we were treated to some wonderful photo opportunities. Bison, red fox, elk and moose all paid dividends, as did the surreal landscape cloaked in a mantel of white.
Lugging one’s carbohydrate-laden body around this mountain landscape is hard work – the air at 7,000ft. deprives you of oxygen – so its fortunate that most photo-opportunities are close to the road making Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks almost perfect photographic locations.
The story of Yellowstone in many ways mirrors the story of America itself and its many ‘isms’ are as apparent here as they are in the heart of New York. Much of what is great about America manifests in the northern Rockies, as do many of the country’s challenges. Differing ecological, cultural and economic perspectives drive debate over land use priorities in this area as they do elsewhere – in this respect Yellowstone is no different to the Scottish Highlands. The uniqueness of Yellowstone however, is that in recent decades, it has become a living laboratory. Ecologists and scientists from all over the world peer in on what many describe as the last remaining fully intact temperate ecosystem in the northern hemisphere. To that end what happens in Yellowstone is important to all of us interested in nature elsewhere. Already, ecological thinking about predator-prey relationships, founded in the Rockies, is emerging in Europe. We’re all part of a story in the making and it was a privilege for me, after an absence of several years, to spend some time with the story’s author despite the ‘isms’.
My thanks as ever to co-guide, top photographer (although I’d never say this to his face) and best buddie Mark Hamblin and to our 20 intrepid guests, most of who will now be on a diet (or at least should be!)
Regular blog readers might remember two postings from Svalbard guest John Cumberland. Well John is blogging again so keep an eye out for his Yellowstone musings in the next week or so.
Our tour for 2014 is already full but if you’d like to be infected by Yellowstoneism in 2015, do drop us a line to register your interest.
I recently scratched a lifelong itch: to visit Yellowstone National Park in the American west. Ever since Yogi first appeared on my TV, it’s been high on my “must do” list. And contrary to some itches that take years to scratch, it lived up to expectations and then some. I’m not going to bore you with endless holiday tales – this is after all a photography blog and I am after all, a photographer (of sorts).
I’m told I was an hour late for this shot – that’s because I was in bed of course!
A few days into our holiday I decided I really should improve my picture taking. Announcing that I would embark on some formal tuition once back home, Pete nearly choked on his maple syrup pancakes and immediately offered a (money-saving) crash course. He started talking about aperture and something to do with light but in all honesty, I had no idea what he was prattling on about and after 5 minutes the lesson (along with my photographic career), came to an abrupt end.
In spite of that I think I produced some first-rate pictures. Perhaps not fine art but decent enough for a beginner. During an evening critique session Pete scrolled through my portfolio wearing an expressionless face (not what I’m used to). After several silent minutes he announced that the only decent shot was of a pair of discarded knickers we found on the front steps of Old Faithful Inn. I think that says more about him than the standard of my photography. I would add by the way, that the knickers in question didn’t belong to me!
A moose kissing a statue of the largest member of the deer family (caption by Peter Cairns)
Kevin Costner he ain’t!!
All’s well that ends well!
What is a holiday? A chance to do what you like doing? Yes, exactly. And I like taking photos which means I take my camera on holiday. No ifs, no buts and no amount of protestation from my good wife.
And so it was I agreed to a holiday in Yellowstone. I say “agreed”, it’s hardly a hardship to spend time in one of the most exciting places on earth. If you’ve never been to this part of the world, it is above all else, exciting. The scenery is gobsmacking, the wildlife abundant but that’s not the attraction for me: Yellowstone is damned exciting. It’s exciting because it’s effectively a volcano spewing and spluttering its intentions ceaselessly; it’s exciting because it was America’s first National Park signalling a new era in land custodianship; it’s exciting because it now attracts 3 million visitors a year; it’s exciting because with the return of wolves in 1995, it is claimed to be one of the last true wilderness areas of the northern Hemisphere. Now, we could debate the definition of ‘wilderness’ all day but anywhere that creeps close to it (especially a place with wild wolves) that also accommodates 3 million people, is VERY exciting to me.
Ian taking some time out…with a friend.
Swan Lake at dawn
Amanda my wife, and our close friends Eileen and Ian, had never been to Yellowstone whereas I had the knowledge built up over many visits with tour groups. This inevitably resulted in me becoming the (unpaid) tour guide, a role that was remunerated only through the occasional opportunity to take pictures – I did less than 1gb in two weeks so please don’t give me a hard time!
Initially based in Mammoth, we took in the famous Lamar Valley where one early start rewarded us with roadside wolf howling, the like of which I’d never experienced. Thick forest prevented a view but we knew…we felt…those wolves were close. From West Yellowstone we saw grizzly and cubs, black bear up close (a bit too close for Eileen), beaver and river otters. One morning we witnessed a young wolf swimming the Yellowstone River and bumped into the same animal close to the road the following day. Moving south we immersed ourselves in the rustic delights of Old Faithful Inn for two nights before leaving Yellowstone for Grand Teton where moose were abundant but the fall colour was regrettably past its best.
These River Otters can really shift – I just managed to grab this shot as a family swam upstream one evening at sunset.
Bison herd at Firehole River
It’s been several years since my last visit to Yellowstone and there was a noticeable change in the profile of visitors with many more nationalities represented – surely a sign of emerging economic wealth and perhaps in tandem with an increasingly urbanised lifestyle, a latent yearning to flirt with nature? I’m not sure, but it seems that the wilderness is no longer the preserve of wealthy Westerners and although I have concerns about the impact of ever-growing visitor numbers, that is surely no bad thing?
Burnt Lodgepoles at dusk.
Our final day was spent on horseback high above Jackson Hole and in full view of the National Elk Refuge, the controversial wintering grounds for beleaguered elk and not a million miles different from the practice of feeding red deer in Scotland – like I say, for anyone with an interest in the human-wildlife dynamic, this is an exciting place.
The Good, the Bad and the very, very Ugly.
If you scratch beneath the surface of the Yellowstone story – and it’s one helluva of a story – it will draw you in and sink its metaphorical teeth into your heart and mind. Over the years, this place has taught me more about wildness and how different people perceive and relate to that wildness, than anywhere else I’ve been.
The food is crap if you’re vegetarian; the French Vanilla cappuccinos are delicious but too sweet and the monster-sized trucks that pass as family cars get right up my nose (as do photographers that never reduce their tripods below head height) but if you can put up with these minor encumbrances, Yellowstone (and Grand Teton) is a delight.
Amanda after an early start and a lack of caffeine.
The mind-boggling lobby at Old Faithful Inn.
Against the context of the emerging ecological ethos of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, you might be interested in these web sites.
Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative