Let's Do It Again

“If I repeat myself, I repeat myself” — Unknown

September and October are arguably the loveliest months here in western Montana and throughout much of the Rocky Mountain West. Summer's heat quickly fades into cooler days and chilly nights. Rain damps the dust of brutal summer droughts, snow covers peaks and high mountain valleys, and of course there's color; trees and shrubs in reds and yellows, golden grasses, brilliant yellow larches. Even the wildlife changes as summer birds leave, winter birds arrive, deer grow in their heavier, dusky coats. The days grow shorter, but seem to make up for their brevity with impressive skies and spectacular light and color.

I am, of course, ignoring areas blasted by the record-setting wildfires of 2017, the blackened snags and deadfall, the thick, gray moondust of ash. I cover some of that in my “Lost Summer” article (September, 2017); I won't belabor it here and poil the mood. I ended that article by saying we were about to escape for a few days in Yellowstone National Park. We did.

Send In the Crowds

Being more than a little crowd-averse, we don't go to Yellowstone during the peak vacationer traffic days in summer. We rarely go to our “local” national park, Glacier, leaving it to the vast ocean of people who will clog the roads during the peak months, resulting in “FULL” signs at parking lots and campgrounds. But we always make fall visits, hoping for good color and wildlife viewing, and fewer people. Twenty years ago one could count on that, but today the parks' roads and facilities seem as busy in September as they are in July. Things taper off in mid- to late-October, but by then weather can be iffy, especially over the mountain passes we must cross to get to Yellowstone or to Glacier's east side. Not that September guarantees great weather; I wrote about some difficult days in Yellowstone in “Fire and Ice”, my September, 2016 article. During that trip we suffered from traffic-choked roads and full campgrounds, not to mention really crappy weather that closed much of the park's Grand Loop Road. So naturally we went again in September this year, just to prove that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a good definition of stupidity.

No Snow, but Cold!

We delayed our trip a week from the originally-planned date because of rain at lower elevations and snow higher in the mountains. West Yellowstone would be our point of entry; the town and surrounding areas are nearly 7000 feet (2350 m) high and expected plenty of snow. Mountain passes might have snow or ice; not a fun drive, especially when pulling a camper. A week later we had clear weather, a beautiful fall day for the 350 mile (563 km) drive, but as we got views of the Gallatin Range we were glad we'd delayed a week. Driving south on US Highway 287 we could see new snow in the Bighorn Mountains to the west (see the photo at the top of the page). Peaks in and around the park also had heavy snow. Fortunately, at lower elevations, clear and dry conditions prevailed, unlike the previous year when we set up camp in nearly a foot of snow.

Our days in the park could not have been nicer: dry, sunny and warm, with high temperatures approaching 70°F (21 C). And very little breeze, which is always a bonus; I don't much care what the weather throws at us, but strong, gusty wind is rarely a photographer's friend.

Nights, however, were really cold. We stayed in a National Forest Service campground a few miles north of the park. Our little camper is heated only by the bodies sleeping inside, and while that's more effective than you might think, when the outside temperature dips into the low 20s (let's call it -6C), staying warm in the camper requires a little creativity. We slept under the weight of sheets, a blanket, a quilt, a heavy afghan, and even piled our sleeping bags on top of all that. We got up an hour before dawn and found the temperature inside the camper at 40° (4 C). We've been colder in our tent, but not much!

Misty Madison

A backlit bull elk in the mist on the Madison River at Sunrise, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

A backlit bull elk in the mist at Sunrise.

I had a specific location and photo in mind for this trip. As much as I dislike the term, it is the “iconic” photo of mist rising from a bend in the Madison River, backlit by the rising sun. Everyone makes this photo (hence the “iconic”); what I'd hoped to capture within that scene is a bull elk, with a monster rack (antlers) herding his harem of cows, ghost-like in the mist. You've seen this photo, also one of Yellowstone's many icons. As we entered the park I knew, given the cold air, that mist rising from the warmer water would be plentiful. Elk in that area are quite common, but never certain. “F8 and be there”, and hope for the best, which is exactly what we did. Although still quite dark at 40 minutes before sunrise, half a dozen vehicles occupied the large turn-out (parking area) immediately west of the park's Madison campground. The river makes a nice bend there, surrounded by large grassy areas and backed up by scree slopes and trees. It's beautiful any time, but pre-dawn light in the mist makes it something truly special.

Fantastic Light, Frozen Fingers

On this morning the elk cooperated, until they didn't. A number of cows wandered along the far bank of the river. An enormous bull kept watch. This could be really nice! I had half an hour before the sun would clear the hills and backlight the elk. Time to get to work.

Mist on the Madison River at Sunrise, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

A backlit snag in the mist on the Madison River at Sunrise.

Stepping out of the warm car into sub-freezing crystalized air is always a shock. I wear light, thin gloves when photographing in these conditions. They're better than nothing, but not much. After walking a short distance along the river and setting up my gear, I wished for hand warmers, which I'd left in the car. I'd have to wait to warm my hands, as I wanted to keep an eye on the elk rather than return to the car. Ignoring my numbing fingers I made a number of exposures of the river bend and mist, as the elk moved west along the far shore, and then up into the trees. The bull stayed in the trees, in deep shadow, and remained there when the sun broke the horizon and backlit some of the females. By now the turn-out had filled and cars overflowed into the road. Dozens of people lined the river, most holding up smartphones. Another twenty tripods (including mine), most supporting cameras with long lenses, filled any gaps.

A fallen tree on the river's near shore looked to be an interesting foreground object. Since nobody else seemed to notice I took advantage of the available shooting location, and the lull in elk activity, to play with compositions including the snag. With the sun just above the horizon the air seemed to glow, the light in the mist tinting everything yellow-orange. I moved on along the river to the west, following the elk. For a moment it appeared the bull would drop down out of the trees and into the good light, which brightly lit the grasses along the river. The elk just stepped out of the shadows, the sun backlighting him long enough for a bellow, and he then retreated into the trees. That ended the photographic opportunity. Hungry and wanting to thaw my numb hands, I returned to the car. We drove back to West Yellowstone and a small cafe for a warm spot near the wood-burning stove, coffee, and breakfast. We spent the rest of the day driving in the park, watching wildlife, enjoying the fall color, and as much as possible avoiding traffic. A couple of major road closings, one due to construction, another to winter weather conditions, limited access to northern areas of the park from our more central location. These kinds of things tend to concentrate traffic, but overall the parts of the park through which we traveled seemed less crowded than those same areas a year earlier. Under bright sun and cloudless sky the camera went unused. After our dinner at the campsite, with the sky remaining clear, the temperature dropped rapidly. With no plans for an evening shoot I made a fire, which helped us stay warm until time to climb under the mountain of covers on the camper's bed.

Mist on the Madison River at Sunrise, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

Mist on the Madison River at Sunrise on a frigid September morning.

The next morning we returned to the same area along the Madison, finding nearly the same conditions but no elk. The wildlife draw the large crowds; without the elk (or any bison or other critters), the turn-out didn't fill, and we had the scene largely to ourselves. I once again photographed the river, mist, and sunrise. With no animals to chase, no long idle periods of vigilant frustration and hoping they'd move out of the shadows, I felt more relaxed and comfortable. I could slow down, take the time to look carefully for good compositions, to wait for the light and shadow in the mist to move into nice patterns. Photographing wildlife is often a challenge and great fun, but for me, the real pleasure of photography is taking it slow, studying all the elements of a scene, working to capture an enduring image. On this morning I did exactly that and, oddly, stayed a lot warmer.

October, 2017