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
Now I’m not complaining but I rarely get to go on a proper holiday. I don’t mean a pseudo photo tour or an extension to some business conference or other, I mean a holiday where I can take time off and relax.
Last New Year’s Eve in a slightly inebriated state I was telling my friend my tales of holiday woe when Pete walked in also slightly worse for wear (he’d just jumped in the River Feshie which is never a good idea in the middle of winter). I think the cold water had fuddled his brain because before I knew it, Old Grumpychops had promised me not only a holiday, but a holiday in Yellowstone in autumn! And not only for me but for our friends too! As insurance I announced this bizarre yet welcome generosity to the assembled throng. There would be no going back now.
Our friends are non-photographers and although I’ll be going armed with my Baby G (aka Canon G10), regular readers of this blog will understand that this hardly qualifies me as a ‘photographer’ (having not even managed to download one picture since it arrived in 2009). So to all intents and purposes, we are traveling bereft of cameras. And begrudgingly (read after several protracted arguments), Pete has agreed to leave his gear at home too.
I can see it now. Hiking, horseback riding, white-water rafting, skydiving. We’ll be doing it all with not a picture being taken. Not a custom function mentioned, not a megabyte to download, not a chimping session to be seen (Yes I do know what chimping means!).
But what if he misses a winning shot? What if he suffers a mental breakdown without his camera? What if he becomes so depressed he offers himself up to the nearest grizzly bear? What if…? What if I don’t give a damn?
Could I be that cruel? Oh yes, just watch me!
I’ve got to be honest, I don’t do holidays. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. But no. If I’m not taking pictures there’s a good chance I shouldn’t be there in the first place. And so off to Iceland on holiday with my (tolerant) wife Amanda and my (not so tolerant) son Sam. And my camera.
Initially austere, even foreboding, Iceland quickly gets under your skin and casts its almost mythical spell. Forget any media hype about volcanoes going off (I’m proud to say that I can in fact pronounce the “E” word!), this is a big place with big skies and big potential.
Being a holiday we decided to restrict our travel to the south of the island taking in the geological icons of Reynisdrangar and the suite of waterfalls including Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss with its conveniently located fulmar colony. Further east Jokulsarlon lagoon is a must-see and is incongruous amidst the flat featureless coastal plains which skirt the Vatnajokull Glacier, Europe’s largest chunk of glacial ice.
OK my pictures are no better than what has been done before (a few more on the Northshots facebook page by the way) but for once, I’m not that bothered. Iceland is an experience. I can’t wait to return next year.
And just to prove I can almost do holidays, here’s Amanda at Iceland’s hottest tourist spot, The Blue Lagoon. In fairness it was a lot less touristy than I imagined and the ice creams are something else. I didn’t think it quite fair to inflict the locals with the sight of my ageing flesh but Amanda was less altruistic!