Saturday, September 09, 2006

Western States Photography Tour: Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Springs, Dunraven Pass

I’m sound asleep in the Norris campground when the alarm signals that it’s time to get up. It’s pitch black outside, which is good since I want to catch sunrise among the steaming thermal features at Norris Geyser Basin. It’s also a positive sign regarding my commitment to photography. There aren’t a lot of things that will rouse me from a perfectly good sleep!

I arrive at the parking lot just as a gray pre-dawn light has arrived. The parking lot is immense, but no one’s there, which isn’t really surprising for dawn in mid September. By the time I reach the first steaming geysers, there’s enough light for some dingy gray shots. A few geysers later, and the sun appears as an orange ball behind the cloudy haze, struggling to clear a nearby ridge and it’s trees. The angle and lighting is awkward, and I snap a couple of shots but they’re not destined to be among the trip’s highlights. I continued around the loop catching a variety of grayish shots, and head back for the parking lot.

There I decide to try the other loop around Black Basin, and I reach it just as the sun is starting to break through a little stronger. Here at least I can offset the fog with the black sand of the basin. People are starting to arrive now, so I can use them as subjects in silhouette. Overall the Norris Geyser basin has some interesting and active features and I’ve started the day with a very pleasant dawn hike, but photographically speaking the sunrise was a non-starter and my second day in Yellowstone is not off to the best of starts. Norris Geyser Basin is simply another area of Yellowstone I’ll have to return to under different conditions.

In the parking lot I comb through maps and photography guides to decide whether I’ll head up towards Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner at the North Entrance, or east to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Mammoth area seems very promising and on the map it appears that partway there is a picnic area near Beaver Lake that could be quite productive as well. The entire back and front cover of the Yellowstone park map consists of a panoramic photo of Minerva Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs. I decide to head north.

I find a nice reflecting pond along the way and some bison are trotting down the road, but Beaver Lake turns out to be dry. So it’s on to Mammoth. I’m really looking forward to the Mammoth Hot Springs, since I’ve seen some very nice pictures of the bright white and intricately terraced and cascading pools. If the orientation is right, perhaps I can get some nice sunset and sunrise shots there.

When I arrive I see a couple of busses, and I immediately notice a group of passengers wearing clothes that looked like they had been made in the late 1800s. I wondered if perhaps I had stumbled onto a historical reenactment, but as I scanned the other passengers I realized that the ones in handmade clothes were people who simply chose a traditional way of life… like the Amish people that I saw as a child when visiting Pennsylvania, with the possible difference that these folks don’t seem to have any qualms with riding on a bus.

I continued into the Upper Terraces loop road, stopping to hike down and explore the Lower Terrace trails as well. I checked overlook after overlook, walked a lot of boardwalks and climbed a lot of stairs. Most of the lower terrace pools were dry, and bison and elk had trampled many of the delicate travertine structures. I later learned that there had been a drought underway for many years, and that pictures I had seen were most likely from decades earlier when there was far more groundwater coming to the surface. Talk about false advertising! I wondered how many tens of thousands of visitors had driven hours to get to that basin, lured by the colorful post cards and the photo on the Park’s own map, only to be surprised at how few springs and thermal features were actually active there when they arrived.

I ventured briefly out of the park’s north entrance to the rustic town of Gardiner for lunch and to browse for gifts, then returned to the Mammoth Hot Springs Junction to continue my loop towards Tower-Roosevelt Junction and Canyon Village. Shortly after making the turn, slow traffic signals the presence of a herd of elk on the lawns of the church and nearby cabins of this former army post. I find good angles to catch the bull elk in front of the chapel, as if waiting for it to open, and a zoomed shot that compresses him with a camera-wielding tourist behind and a sign that reads “Do Not Approach Wildlife.”.

Continuing on towards Tower-Roosevelt Junction I reach Blacktail ponds, which appear to have good potential for sunrise and sunset reflection shots, but aside from a few coots and ducks paddling around aren’t offering much at the moment. Shortly after the junction I come to 132 foot Tower Falls. It faces east and I’m too late for the morning light, so I decide to press on to reach the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone before sunset.

There’s one wildlife jam along the way that turns out to be for a cow moose and her calf, but the traffic jams get heavy over Dunraven pass. It turns out that in the fall bears climb the pine trees in search of pine nuts. Most of the bears are high in the trees and obscured by branches, but I find one bear in a smaller, isolated tree, knocking pine cones and entire branches to the ground so he can chew on the pine cones to get at the nuts. He’s only about 50 yards from the road, so it’s easy to set up the tripods and catch him on the ground when he lifts his head above the grass that surrounds the tree. The sun is already behind this ridge and at full zoom my 28-300mm lense opens to only f/5.6, and even boosting the camera's sensitivity to ISO 800 I’m left with a fairly slow 1/50th of a second shutter speed. I’m discovering how much of photography depends upon timing, and how much of timing depends upon luck. While expensive equipment isn’t required to take great pictures and certainly won’t guarantee them, when you come across a bear foraging in low light, it sure would be handy to have a lense with a couple of stops more aperture and light available.

I press on to Canyon Village, and find another cow moose and her calf, feeding in a marshy pond near the road. I find a parking spot in the long line of cars pulled over to the shoulder and add to my new collection of moose shots. The light is fading, and brightest behind the moose. Again low light and low contrast are going to be issues. My family will love the snapshots, but they won’t appear in National Geographic any time soon.

By this time I’ve stopped at enough wildlife jams that the sun has gone down. There’s enough color in the sky that I race to the Artist Point overlook, which appears to have the best orientation for sunset shots at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. By the time I complete the shot hike to the overlook the sunset is gone and I’m left with long exposures of the canyon by the light of the twilight glow.

Getting around Yellowstone has turned out to take longer than expected, even in the off season, thanks to the wildlife and my tendency to get out and photograph it. The weather isn’t expected to improve much over the next few days, so I decide to camp at Lewis Lake and move on to Grand Teton National Park in the morning. I’ll need to return to Yellowstone and hopefully hit more favorable weather, and to allocate more time to cover even short distances while in the park.