pine creek header

Creek On Steroids, River Run Amok

The month of May in Montana is fickle.  Cold and wind and rain vie with warm sunshine and flowers for our attention.

paradise valleyAt elevation snow turns to water, and the runoff – well, let’s just say that water on the loose has a mind of its own.

pine creek

We were hiking in the Gallatin National Forest when we heard the unmistakable sound of rushing water. More like the roar of a locomotive than a whisper, a normally quiet stream bloated with snow-melt had turned into a lethal torrent.

Not far away the Yellowstone River, too, higher than it has been in many years, has washed out trails Tzuri and I frequent.  I quickly re-attach her leash whenever we get close to this angry river god.

🙂 🙂 🙂

Me & My Gal

Spitfire was chowing down on a bison that had tumbled over and died of natural causes.

spitfire

Big Gray, with a full belly, was not far away.

big gray

He is the new alpha male of this splintered pack.

[See the postscript below if you are interested in the evolving dynamics of the Lamar Canyon wolves in the wake of some recent tragic events.]

On a hunch I separated myself from the ‘feeding frenzy’ of the wolf paparazzi and drove down the road a ways to a spot I hoped Spitfire might wander by on her way back up to the den area.

Patience is a virtue, they say; sure enough, in due time she came trotting toward me.

spitfire

She was on an angle to skirt my presence by a reasonable distance. But I sensed a change in her demeanor as soon as she hopped up onto the road.

spitfire

Her eyes locked on my camera lens and would not let go.

spitfire

The angle between us shrunk a few degrees and Spitfire lowered her head. I was still under the impression that she was just slinking past me on her way up over the ridge.

spitfire

And then suddenly…

spitfire

“Oh my God!” a lady’s voice behind me exclaimed. “What should we do?”

spitfire“Don’t run,” I said, “wolves don’t attack people.”

I kept my eye glued to the viewfinder of my camera and continued firing away at 7-8 shots a second as she got closer and closer.

The irony did occur to me that I could have just uttered words that would be chiseled on my tombstone.

Ten yards in front of me Spitfire stopped beside a bush and in a universal language communicated loudly & clearly.

spitfire

In the wild, scent marking with a raised leg is reserved for alpha wolves. In the male that is called, appropriately enough, a “raised leg urination” (RLU). Sub-dominant males squat to urinate.

Similarly, only the alpha female usually raises her leg to urinate. In her case, like Spitfire’s above, it is called a “flexed leg urination” (FLU).

The importance of noting this posturing in wolves is that from a distance one can begin to discern pack structure. In this case, with the Lamar Canyons, there are two females who are still working out their dominance relationship, although it is generally thought that Spitfire’s sister, Middle Gray (who recently gave birth to pups), has the upper hand.

middle gray

At any rate, this is one feisty gal who has indeed captured my heart.  I think she was just happy to see me!

spitfire

I hate to leave my wolf friends here in Yellowstone but I am on my way to Miami to pick up my own little “wolf pup.” An 8-week old black & red German Shepherd with internationally titled WORLD-CLASS champions on both sides of her family tree.

Think I should name her ‘Spitfire’?

The Lamar Canyon Pack: A Brief Retrospective

The Lamar Canyon Pack was decimated last year by hunters.

Two male brothers, alpha 755M & beta 754M, dominated the pack along with the world-famous “rock star” female, alpha 832F (aka F-06).

alpha female 832 returning to den

754M, the 2nd-in-charge male, ventured outside the Park and was legally shot in Wyoming. Shortly thereafter, 832F, not known to wander but who may have been looking for the ‘lost’ 754M, was similarly gunned down in the same general area outside the Park.

Subsequently, alpha male 755 left the pack so as not to mate with his daughters. He has apparently hooked up with an unknown female and currently they travel in and out of the Park.

The deceased 832F’s two daughters, Middle Gray and The Black Lamar Female (aka, Spitfire) now form the nucleus of the once-thriving Lamar Canyon Pack. A male from outside the pack, known only as Big Gray, has taken over the alpha role. Middle Gray is pregnant but not by Big Gray.

Just recently another brother (859M) to the two Lamar females has returned to join the pack and seems to be tolerated by Big Gray. A few ‘dope slaps’ by his sisters and some intimidating looks from Big Gray, and the pecking order was instantly worked out, with 859 at the bottom.

Actually, it is never as simple as it sounds. First, this group of four does not rise to the level of a “Pack” anymore, since technically a wolf pack requires some of the members to be offspring of a breeding pair, and no one has seen the litter yet. Right now they are simply referred to by wolf biologists as the “Lamar Canyons.” That designation may change in short order.

No one even knows for sure who the sire is. Although, they know that it is not Big Gray. The location of the den – the same one used over and over again – is known from plane overflights, and many wolf watchers, including myself, have seen the sisters lugging chunks of food back to the den area.

UPDATE: two black wolf pups have just been sighted! It is still not clear who their sire is but we now know proof positive that it is not Big Gray, as two grays cannot produce black pups. The mystery continues…

🙂 🙂 🙂

lake Yellowstone header

Death In Yellowstone

In the wilderness you are never very far away from the edge, and if you take it for granted, it will come up and bite you!

Yellowstone National Park is untamed and unfenced. It is not Disneyland with moats and guardrails separating the wild from the domesticated.

You can die a thousand different ways in the Park, and over 300 (not counting car wrecks) have succumbed to accidents and foolhardiness since 1870.

bison

How?

The unsuspecting have been clawed & eaten by bears, and the careless have been gored by bison

warning sign Unsupervised kids have tumbled into thermal hot springs and been reduced to a bleached white skeleton in seconds

Yellowstone Falls Backing up without looking to take another picture and you can slip and fall hundreds of feet from a rocky ledge

Sampling one of the 6 types of poisonous mushrooms or 2 types of water hemlock can be deadly

Ski near the base of a steep slope and an avalanche could bury you until Spring

Venture out in a thunderstorm and you can get struck by lightning or crushed by falling trees

People have been trapped in forest fires and caught up in earthquakes

Meet up with the wrong guy and you can get murdered in the Park as readily as anywhere else

[I didn’t make any of this up, folks; it’s the gospel truth.]

And you can drown. More than 100 people have heard Shakespeare’s “dreadful noise of waters” in their ears while they sank down into murky depths or been tossed and carried for miles by raging rivers.

Yellowstone Lake

Most drownings, about 40, have occurred in Yellowstone Lake.  At a maximum depth of 410 feet and an average year-round temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit, it is perhaps the most potentially deadly body of water in the United States.

Frequent afternoon windstorms produce waves of five to six feet, which can easily capsize a small boat. It is said to be a Catch-22 situation whether to swim for shore or cling to your overturned vessel.

Did I mention that it was 20 miles across, north to south, and 14 miles east to west?

Either way, hypothermia is gonna get you in 20 minutes.

😦 😦 😦

Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown;

What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!

What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!

Shakespeare, King Richard III

PS – the “warning” in the header image above was actually posted for years at Bridge Bay, at the entrance to Yellowstone Lake.  I am unable to confirm but I think it has since been modified (slightly) to eliminate the last three words, “to 20 minutes.”

boat caution sign

Yellowstone hillside

The Quick & The Dead

248 fires started in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1988, twenty-eight of which erupted inside the National Park.

More than 25,000 firefighters fought the blazes, with as many as 9,000 on duty at any one time.

About 1.2 million acres were scorched. 793,000 (36%) of the Park’s 2,221,800 acres were burned.

Today, a quarter of a century later, dead lodgepole pines can be seen almost everywhere. Many, still standing, are just waiting to topple over.  Some visually interesting juxtapositions of new growth and old are common, too.

dead lodgepole pines in yellowstone

dead trees ynp

We now know of course that fires are beneficial to wilderness areas, as this four minute YouTube video demonstrates.

  🙂 🙂 🙂

cunningham cabin

Secrets & Strategies

There is a widespread notion that wildlife photographers must go traipsing through the brush and put themselves at risk to capture images of dangerous animals.

grizzly

Admittedly I am only an amateur, but that has not been my experience.

There are 92 trailheads in Yellowstone National Park leading to 1,000 miles of pristine backcountry excursions.  Hiking and exploring any one them can no doubt enlighten you with epiphanies galore.

As a landscape photographer, yes, you will stumble upon unimaginably splendid vistas, particularly if you catch the ‘golden moments’ at dawn and dusk – more so if you are willing to brave inclement weather. Angry skies add drama to an image.

grand tetons

But as to encountering bears and wolves – no. The chance of consistently getting close enough for an award-winning photo is slim-to-none.

Why?

Because these animals typically avoid the sight, sound, and smell of humans.

What’s the best strategy for a photographer, then?

Grizzly 610 with cubs

Very simple…

As any Park Ranger or professional photographer will tell you, just climb in your car and drive.  Critters use the roads, too; some will even try to hitch a ride. 🙂

In Yellowstone there are 466 miles of roads, 310 of them paved, covering 3472 square miles (larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined).

Vehicles are like a natural (albeit moving) blind, and most animals have learned to tolerate them.

Wolves are exceptions in that they are leery not only of people but cars and roads too; yearlings often sit and howl and stubbornly refuse to cross a road even when their elders have seemingly found a safe passage – but sometimes they have to bite the bullet to get back to their den or rendezvous site.

832 crossing road

If you are a first-timer out prowling Yellowstone for pictures, look for traffic jams, gawkers holding up their cell phone cameras. If you are a bit more discriminating, look for those with binoculars and spotting scopes and monster cameras on tripods.

grizzly paparazzi in the Tetons

🙂 photographing a grizzly from a platform on the roof of a car 🙂

It should go without saying that the serious photographer needs to get out & about early, stay late, and carry plenty of fresh batteries.

wolfers at sunrise in Lamar Valley

Bears & Cars & People

So now you know the secret to photographing wild animals in YNP: play your cards right & they will come to you!

That’s not to say that it doesn’t take patience and dedication.  And, of course, be sure to ‘airbrush’ the paved road out of the frame and let the world think you are an intrepid soul indeed!

That second black bear close to the road in the video above?  You zoom in close and make eye contact and the world will never suspect how easy it was to capture an image of this ‘dangerous’ beast.

black bear

There is probably now a fatwa on my head for ‘whistleblowing’ sacred secrets of successful wildlife photography on the streets of Yellowstone.

🙂 SEEKING Asylum, Please! 🙂