Winter in Yellowstone

by | March 1, 2008

© Tom VezoIt was still dark outside when we walked into the lobby of the Snow Lodge for a cup of coffee before breakfast. A few people were milling around discussing what the weather might be for the day. Weather is always the topic of discussion in the morning in Yellowstone National Park because it’s so unpredictable, and everyone has an agenda as to what his or her activity is for the day. As my friend, Joe, and I were sipping coffee I heard the woman behind the desk say something about 31 below zero. Thirty-one below?

But the good part was we had blue sunny skies predicted, which they hadn’t seen here in weeks. Things were looking up.

I’ve photographed on snow shoes in 17 below zero a couple of years ago in Idaho trying to get some Great Gray Owls. I never really felt the cold then except for my finger tips, because all I use is a pair of tight fitting fleece gloves so I can still work my camera. I remember being dressed with plenty of layers and I was real comfortable except for the restriction of movement as I hiked along like a robot. But this time, 31 below zero sounded pretty extreme to me and Joe and I looked at each other in anxious surprise.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t rent snowmobiles,” Joe said. The wind chill factor while riding could have been a disaster. Then we found out that the snowmobiles aren’t allowed out until the temperature rises to around 10 below and above.

Instead, we arranged to go on a snow coach with other photographers to photograph around the park that day; if it got too cold for us we could retreat to the coach to stay warm. The Snow Lodge is located by the Old Faithful Inn which is closed in winter; there are no vehicles allowed into this area of the park. You must enter by a snow coach and stay at the Snow Lodge and either cross country ski, snow shoe, hike, rent a snowmobile or take a coach to get around. I have to say Yellowstone is not one of my favorite parks to photograph in the spring, summer or fall because there are just too many people. But I could hardly recognize the park in the winter as it looked so different. With six feet of fresh new snow, it was a winter wonderland — some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever witnessed. But hey, I live in the desert now and snow is unique for me.

After breakfast we loaded into the coach and made our first stop with the temperature rising to a warm 28 below zero. The positive part about these temperatures is that the geysers create more steam when they hit the atmosphere, which makes for some dramatic photos. We shot trees covered with ice and snow; you could barely tell they were trees.

Trees covered in snow © Tom Vezo

They looked like ghostly snow monsters surrealistically rising out of the fog. We also shot lines of dead trees in different patterns that looked as if they were floating in infinity.

At the Firehole River where the Tundra swans hang out, we found a pair sleeping fairly close to the road with fresh snow on their backs and their heads tucked in. One of them started feeding and bathing. I told the group to get ready for a wing flap after the bath. Visualizing the wings of this beautiful bird back lit as it stretched all its elegant feathers, I moved from where the light was somewhat behind me to where it was in front of me. This was by far the longest bath I ever waited for and I thought this swan was going to make a liar out of me, but then it happened! I pressed my shutter; it smoked at 10 frames per second with my new Canon 1D Mark III and 100-400mm lens catching every graceful movement of this magnificent creature.

Swan © Tom Vezo

I had a hard time choosing a photo from the sequence because I only deleted three images. We all got back into the snow coach with smiles on our faces. Everyone shared their wing-flapped photos but for me, the backlit shots made it. Hey, ya’ gotta know your birds!

Later we drove to the Madison River where the Bald Eagles do their fishing. This is an area where they built a nest right off the side of the road that I shot many years ago, but it finally blew down. Finding the eagles is a chore in itself because every pine tree in the park had what looked like a white head of an eagle on it, but in actuality, it was a clump of snow. I knew I had to look for a black clump in the trees, not a white head, and I found two of them within 100 feet of one another. We got out quietly in back of a large tree so the eagles couldn’t see us and snuck up on them. Only one bird was out in the open to photograph and we all got close enough for some good shots. We looked for different angles to compose and the bird was very cooperative. I was frustrated looking for a better or different shot than just a bird on a stick. After about 30 minutes our driver gave us the two-minute warning. Photographers never seem to have enough time to do what they want. I would have stayed another hour or two waiting for something different to happen. When I finally saw the shot, I got down on my knees to include the snow bank and pine trees framing the eagle as a landscape.

Bald eagle © Tom Vezo

Of course, I had to wait for the eagle to turn its head because it had its back to me. I knew the driver was getting antsy, but I got off four nice frames. Although the photos of the eagle on the dead branch were a closer shot of the subject, the landscape with the bird smaller in the frame had much more impact. It told a story of where this bird lives with all the beauty of the winter in Yellowstone and the harsh conditions it must endure.

The next morning Joe and I hiked around the lodge where the famous Old Faithful Geyser spews its steam into the air about every hour. The hiking and cross country ski trails in and around the geysers were amazingly beautiful as they wound in and out of the forest for astonishing photographs. Again the skies were blue with some patches of clouds which are perfect conditions for landscape photography. The early morning light created long soft shadows in the glistening snow and the subtle clouds added dimension to our images. The temperature that morning was only 3 below zero and we stayed on the trails for over four hours shooting this wonderful scenery. And oh! We planned our trip to coincide with a full moon, and did exceptionally well with those photos. Shooting Old Faithful in the moonlight was really cool; no pun intended.

Our last two days were spent in Gardner where we drove the road in the park from Gardner to Cooke City . It’s the only road open in the winter because of access to the two towns. We photographed coyotes and wolves on elk kill, grazing Big Horn Sheep, bull elk with huge racks and, of course, bison covered with snow.

Coyote © Tom Vezo

But it wasn’t easy. For the days we were there, it snowed heavily and the roads were treacherous. The shooting was tough but we pulled out some stunning images that made choosing the best images even tougher. I would recommend this trip to anyone who is willing to brave the winter in Yellowstone. It’s magnificent, cold and not crowded.

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