Friday, September 08, 2006

Western States Photography Tour: Yellowstone Geyser Basins

I didn’t know it when I went to sleep, but I wake up to find myself parked almost on top of the Idaho-Utah border. The highway patrolmen from both states use this turnout to turn around.. I awake to see one coming at me, and as I crawl into the driver’s seat, I’m relieved to see him make a U-turn and go back the way he came.

Today I’ll explore Yellowstone. This will be my fourth time in the park, but my first time visiting alone.

I stop in West Yellowstone for the essentials… food, fishing license, and to check whether or not I can get a wi-fi connection. Everywhere I check seems to be dominated by a local service provider that asks for an exorbitant rate. West Yellowstone is a quirky little tourist town. It has what you’d expect… lots of tourist gift shops, a selection of motels, all mostly in older buildings. There’s also an Imax theater, some large and somewhat garish hotels, and a wolf and grizzly “discovery center”.

Eager to get into my first real shooting day, I leave town as fast as I can complete my errands and enter the park. With a low speed limit (to minimize collisions with animals, which still occur frequently) getting around the park is never fast, but the drivers are even slower so you just ahve to enjoy the scenery along with them. A few miles into the park we hit the first traffic jam. These are frequent in the park, and they`re a useful way to find wildlife. You just have to find a safe place to pull over along htese narrow roads, and watch for cars swerving to get around the ones that don`t get far enough off of the narrow road. It`s a circus, albeit a dangerous one. Yellowstone`s roads are extremely narrow, so you have to hope that the RVs have taken the advice to fold in their large trailer-towing mirrors so you wonn`t get knocked off your feet!

This "wildlife jam" is caused by a herd of elk. Most people are marvelling at the herd of cows, and don`t even notice the massive bull lying down a few dozen yards away. One tourist does, and creeps forward with his camera to get a shot, testing the 25 yard limit that the park sets for wildlife encounters. There`s a longer minimum distance required for bears, for those of us who really need more common sense I suppose. The rest of us are watching this guy, who`s wearing a bright red "charge at me" jacket on, and we`re wondering just how good at judging 25 yards the 1000 pound bull elk might be. We`re also curious about how many more yards the guy would get before the elk caught up with him if he got annoyed by this tiny, bright red carnivore who appeared to be stalking him. Poorly. The tourist survived his unwittingly death-defying stunt, and I got back on the road with a few decent shots.

The light isn`t great, it`s a bright, hazy overcast, but the forecast doesn`t call for much change and there are a ton of places I want to co see over the coming weeks, so I decide to hit the geyser basins today and see what I can get.

The geyser basins have boardwalks to enable people to get around across the hot, wet muddy soil, so it`s best to shoot in the early morning before you have tons of people in your shots and while you can use a tripod before the boadwalks start shuddering from the passing onlookers. I`m not quite early enough. Some of the geysers look more blue or green under a blue sky, but I don`t have that luxury either. I take quick laps of the boardwalks, snapping shots as I go.

The day is nearly over by the time I reach Old Faithful. I`m hoping for a nice sunset, but the skies stay mostly gray. Then it erupts early and un-faithfully while I`m checking the day`s shots in the car, so I have to wait another hour to show up very early for the next expected eruption. By the time I catch it, light gray spray against gray skies, it`s time to go find a campsite. I set my sights on the the campground near Norris Geyser Basin, which should be a good spot for dawn shots.