Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A River Runs Through It

After the elk wandered off we continued our drive up toward Lamar Valley. At Norris Junction Norris-Canyon Road bisects the Grand Loop, crossing the Solfatara Plateau and meeting up with the loop road again at Canyon Village. Just south of this junction is the place where the Yellowstone River, the longest un-damed river in the lower 48 states, plunges off the plateau and into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

The canyon, according to one guide, is 1,200 feet deep at its deepest point and 4,000 feet across at its widest, and runs for 24 miles through the park. The canyon walls are awash with color, inspiring John Muir to write, "All the hearabouts seems to be paint." The image above looks to the northeast--notice the spires in the fore to mid-ground. Some call these hoodoos, but hoodoos are generally found in desert lands and have a varied thickness from top to bottom, giving them a totem pole look (think Bryce Canyon). These spires are more uniform, thicker at the bottom and tapering at the top.

The North Rim Road offers spectacular views of the canyon and falls. In the photo below, looking upriver, you can just see the Lower Falls in the distance, the white vertical stripe below the horizon line.

As is the norm, you can see cool stuff from your car but if you want the best views you've gotta get out and walk. So we did. I don't recall how long the path was, but it wound down and down into the valley. Notice the boardwalk at the bottom left corner of the next shot.

Down and down we walked along the switch-back path until we came to another viewing platform. What a sight. The Lower Falls towers 308 feet above the canyon floor, and the spray from the falls supports a micro-habitat along the rock walls at the base of the falls. There were only six or seven people here, so we lingered awhile, soaking in the sights and sounds and catching our breath for the hike back UP the path.

After viewing the falls we continued north toward Tower-Roosevelt. Just south of the junction with Northeast Entrance Road, the river and road meet again near Tower Creek. Here, along the far bank, are more cliffs like the basalt formations along the Gardiner River.

More cliffs, spires, and the Yellowstone, passing through The Narrows.

Along this stretch of road I felt like I was in the middle of a western movie, with sweeping panoramas, the river rapids, buttes and clear blue sky. In fact, much of Robert Redford's film A River Runs Through It was shot along the Montana portion of this river.

We would soon be leaving off the Yellowstone to make our way into the Lamar Valley and a hike along the Slough (pronounced slew) Creek. This area is home to the famed Druid and Slough Creek wolf packs, and we were hoping against hope to see one of those magnificent animals. As for the Yellowstone River, it continues north into Montana, takes a turn to the northeast and continues on until it empties into the mighty Missouri River.

Next: The Slough Creek and some exciting finds.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Artwork--Blue Heron FINISHED!

Well, that sure took a long time! Not a good time of year, around the holidays, to be trying to get work done, but it's finally finished. Still had to fight with it some but I'm very happy with it. This is just a quick shot of the original--as soon as I get the file set up for prints it will be up on my website and available to purchase. Oh, right, need to get a frame done too...details!

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has supported me in my writing of this blog. How thrilling it has been to read the comments of people I have never met, people who have just found my blog, and know that my thoughts, ideas, words and art are "getting out there." I've been having fun turning this into something of a photo-journal, having an outlet for my photography, which gets superseded by my artwork when I do shows. So thank you, all of you.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the Solstice or some combination of the three, or you simply rejoice at the lengthening of the days, enjoy this time. As we pass through mid-winter, let us remember that there are warmer days ahead, but let us also take time in this the dying season to rest, regroup, and contemplate.

From my studio to your home, I wish you peace.

"Our greatest experiences are our quiet moments." Nietzsche

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

14 Points

The fourth full day of our trip out west, our second full day in Yellowstone, dawned clear and cool. We were up before it was light, grabbed a quick breakfast at a wildly overpriced McDonald's (we were out the door before the continental breakfast at the hotel was served) and on the road. Our plan for the day was to explore the northeast part of the park, primarily the Lamar Valley.

Past Madison Junction we came once again upon a small group of people on the shoulder, cameras in hand, staring down towards the Gibbon River. We jumped out to discover the same, 14 point bull elk we'd seen the night before, grazing along the riverbank.

And once again, there were a few foolhardy folks right down there with him, tempting fate and this animal's patience. I had to maneuver so as not to get any of them in the shots.

From what I came to learn, a balanced rack on an elk is a fairly rare thing. They often have more points on one side than on the other, and they tend to not grow in the same place or at the same rate on both sides. This handsome fellow garnered many oohs and ahhs.

He walked along the bank, nibbling grass. I wanted to get closer but behaved myself, sticking to the roadside. The river was maybe 8 to 10 feet below, accounting for the perspective of these shots.

After only a few minutes, he turned and stepped over a log,

and carefully entered the river.

Having just recently walked in a river with a rocky bottom like this (the Snake River, on the way to Yellowstone) I understood how treacherous the footing was. The smooth river stones were slippery, liked to slide and shift when you stepped on them. I knew right away that as soon as he was halfway across the river I was headed down the bank. There would be no way, without risking a broken leg, that the elk could come after me quickly enough that I couldn't get out of the way. I waited, took one more shot through the trees,

then scurried down the bank to see him emerge on the other side.

He strode off into the woods without a look back. The whole episode took six minutes.

I was thrilled and amazed and struck again by the pure beauty of this place and its inhabitants, so tolerant of us (there's no hunting in the park), so oblivious of us. I longed for more time, time to be in the presence of these creatures, without gaggles of annoying, clapping, whistling people around me. To not feel rushed and compelled to take as many pictures possible, to come out from behind the camera and actually experience them, face to face.

This was not our last encounter with this elk, but that is for another post. Next, we visit the Yellowstone River and the falls.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Moonrise Over Yellowstone

We arrived at the Sheepeater Cliffs picnic area around 6pm, hungry and tired. The cliffs get their name from the Shoshone Indains who used to live in the area, who ate bighorn sheep. The geologic formations are volcanic, basalt columns formed as the lava cooled, somewhere between 320,000 and 640,000 years ago. This spot, like the swimming area, is on the Gardiner River. I was not in blog mode, remember, so I didn't get a particularly good shot of the cliffs. This one I found online.

Photo by S.R. Brantly

We hung out here for about an hour, enjoying the quiet and the scenery. Oh, cold mountain streams, rocky and lined with spruce and fir!

We were watched closely by a raven as we ate our supper. Sorry, friend, no scraps for you.

Back on the road and nearing sunset, we came across this bison laying near the roadside, chewing cud after a dust bath. I didn't take a lot of bison pics as I had just shot a whole bunch of a herd that is on a ranch near Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wish now I'd taken more of photos of these magnificent animals, not realizing then that most ranch bison are bison/cow crosses--beefalo, some call them--while the Yellowstone bison are 100% pure.

Past Norris Junction the road heads more southwest and picks up the Gibbon River again. We came upon another crowd along the road so we pulled over to take a look. A huge bull elk was grazing along the river bank, a stunning 14 pointer.

I wish I had taken pictures of all the dimwits who were only 10 to 15 feet from this powerful animal, wistling and clapping trying to get it to look up at them for a better picture. I laughed and told a fellow next to me that I'd be happy to get the shot of this elk gorging one of these people. Folks seem to think that because these animals toloerate us that they are tame. WRONG! It's a good thing for all those clowns that this was July, still a long way off from the time of raging hormones and raging tempers that the rut brings. Lordy! Happily, this was not the last time we'd see this gorgeous creature.

By 9:30 pm we were on the West Entrance Road, heading back to West Yellowstone, driving along the Madison River. The sun had set and the soft sky reflected off the calm surface of the river.

The moon was near half full, shining above the tree-topped cliffs of Mount Haynes. It was a magical ending to a magical day.

Next: Day 4 of the trip, day 2 in Yellowstone--bull elk, Yellowstone Falls, Slough Creek, Lamar Valley.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Travertine Terraces

After our uneventful hike along Indian Creek (where I would sing a Carpenters' song every time we came over a rise, just to scare off any bears who might be on the other side) we drove farther north, up to the Montana/Wyoming border and the 45th Parallel. Lisa's boss had told us of a place on the Gardiner River where a flow of steaming hot water called Boiling River empties into the Gardiner. There's a swimming hole there, and a changing room near the parking area, but otherwise it's not well marked.

This photo was downloaded from Wikipedia.

The Gardiner River is very, very cold, starting up at an elevation of 10,000 feet on Joseph Peak. Both the Indian and Obsidian creeks, among others, empty into it, and it is apparently a good trout stream. It ultimately joins the Yellowstone River to the north. Where the Boiling River empties into it people are allowed to bathe and swim. It's an amazing experience--one moment you're in hot tub water, the next in the cold flow of the Gardiner, then back to the hot tub. The current of the Gardiner is quite strong and you have to brace yourself against the rocks on the river bottom to avoid being swept away. The half mile walk to the pools keeps a lot of people away, but still there were probably 40 or 50 folks there.

By the time we walked back to the changing rooms and got to the car we were hot and sticky again. It was early evening by then and time to start making the drive back to West Yellowstone. On the way we planned to stop to see the Terraces.

Oh my God.

As I've said, Yellowstone never ceased to amaze me. The Terraces are a geologic feature created by groundwater. The groundwater has been heated to around 170 degrees. At that temperature the water absorbs large quantities of carbon dioxide, forming carbonic acid, which dissolves the limestone and makes travertine (I'm getting all of this from the National Geographic Road Guide, by the way). About 2 tons of of this stuff is deposited daily--as the water cools the travertine is released. The fresh travertine is white, the older stuff turns grey.

Travertine, bathed in warm water, can support many different kinds of bacteria and algae, which give the terraces their color.

Here again was a place I could have spent days exploring. We stayed for about an hour. I can't possibly say more than these photos can, so I'll be quiet and just let you soak it in.

I didn't want to leave, but we had a fairly long drive ahead, and still needed to stop for dinner. For all that we had already experienced that day, we weren't done. Yellowstone still had a few things to show us before darkness fell.

Next: Evening in Yellowstone

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Everything But the Moose

After leaving the Paint Pots we travelled farther along the Grand Loop Road toward Indian Creek. We had picked a trail there to hike in the afternoon. But on the way we were waylaid again when we came upon several cars pulled off to the side of the road. In what became a routine over the next several days I grabbed my camera and we jumped out of the car. There, not more than 30 feet off the road, was a young bull elk, moving calmly among the pines.

Oh I was so excited! This was my first bull elk, and although young, quite a beautiful specimen.

He moved past the small cluster of people standing and staring. I made sure to keep my distance, shooting with a 200mm lens. It was just about 9 am, and the heat was beginning to build.

He nonchalantly crossed the road and moved up into the hills.

The elk was cool, but we were still on our quest for a bull moose. We stopped one more time before getting to Indian Creek at a little turnout along the Obsidian River at the trailhead for the Grizzly Lake trail. This was marshy, willowy habitat, what seemed like a good place for moose.

Lisa surveys our surroundings.

We hiked part of the trail but all we saw were some HUGE piles of moose scat. In the summer when they're eating more wet vegetation--like algae--their scat loses that rabbit pellet look and takes on the appearance of elephant poo. Lisa's hand, so dangerously close, is for scale.

Now, in 2007 I was only just starting to learn about animal signs--tracks, scat and other markings. When I took the photo below, which was not too far from the scat, I assumed it was a moose or elk rub. But now, as I look back at these images two years later, I realize that all of the antlered animals were still in velvet, and a long way off from making rubs. Probably, then, the marks on this tree were made by a bear.

I'm not sure how I would have felt about that if I'd realized it at the time....

We gave up our search for moose here and started back towards the car. Suddenly, out of the young pines, a mule deer erupted,

followed closely by a second young buck.

They trotted across the clearing,

and down toward the river.

Yee haw! Elk and deer in less than two hours! Yellowstone was shaping up to be everything we'd hoped it would.

We finally made it to Indian Creek and changed into our hiking gear, loaded a pack, donned our bear bells and hit the trail. There was absolutely nothing to see. The creek was rarely visible from the trail, it was fairly wide open terrain with little cover at mid-day, and the only thing moving was a pine marten that I did manage to get a picture of but then unknowingly deleted it. There wasn't another soul on the trail, we ate lunch on the top of a rise in a copse of trees, and after a few hours were back in the car, hot and tired but so damned excited to be alive.

Next: The Terraces

Monday, December 14, 2009

Artist Paint Pots

There are some places in this world where it is impossible to NOT take a gorgeous photograph. Yellowstone may well top the list of these places. There's so much going on, the wildlife, the unusual landscape, the varied terrain. It helps a little if you know something about your equipment, and if you're shooting at an interesting time of the day or year.

Our first planned stop of the day was the Artist Paint Pots. Since our time was so limited we were forced to a certain extent to stay close to the road, but we planned our more "touristy" stops early if we could to avoid the crowds.

The NPS website has this to say about the Paint Pots:

"Artist Paint Pots is a small but lovely thermal area just south of Norris Junction. A one-mile round trip trail takes visitors to colorful hot springs, two large mudpots, and through a section of forest burned in 1988"

I just learned that the area was closed in 2008 when a woman fell through thin crust at the edge of a trail into a previously unknown thermal area and received burns on her ankle and leg. Yikes!

Anyway, we arrived in the area around 8 am (another wonderful thing about digital photography, every file is time and date stamped!) It was early enough and still cool enough that the steam rising from the vents was clearly visible, and as a bonus, backlit by the sun along parts of the trail. I can't get enough of these skeletal trees!

The trail climbs up towards Paintpot Hill and allows for an awesome view of the fissures below. Oh all the colors and textures! I believe the peaks in the background are are Mount Holmes and Trilobite Point.

Life in an area like this is tenuous at best. Animals like bison are known to sometimes fall through thin soils into these thermal features, especially in winter when they're trying warm themselves. Plant life doesn't fair much better, sometimes becoming overwhelmed by advancing mud and waters. The Parks Service tested the water the woman mentioned above fell into and it had the acidity of vinegar. Not too much will grow in that!

I can't get enough of the views of the area. Looks like the end of the world.

This muddy vent looks a little dried up.

So here I imagine is where the place gets its name. I was fascinated by the blorping and belching of these muddy bubbles. The smell was a bit offensive, very sulfury. I felt like I was staring into the lab of some giant mad scientist.


Oh the scenery here! I could have spent days in this place, so unusual and otherworldly. The trees and grass and lichen growing so daringly close to these vents, tempting fate.

Unfortunately we were on a schedule, and only stayed here for about an hour. I would love to see this place in winter, or on a chilly, frosty fall morning.

One last shot.

Next: an elk up close, and the search for moose continues.