Monday, 4 July 2011

Jump or Die in Yellowstone

Yellowstone in winter is recognized by most photographers as the most exciting time to visit the great park. This has been even more true since the reintroduction of wolves to the park in 1995.  I had visited in winter on several occasions when I used to live in Wyoming, getting around by snow machine and skis. I was eager to return.

So a few years ago I contacted a photographer buddy, David McChesney,  and we traveled to the north part of the park in early February of 2007.  This was two years after I had made the transition to digital photography, so thankfully I would no longer have to be changing film after every 36 shots in the brutal cold that is so typical of Yellowstone   I brought with me a Nikon D300 camera body plus the only two lenses that I use these days, both zooms:  a Nikon 80-400 and 18-200.  Both are VR stabilized lenses. Since they are stabilized I rarely use a tripod but for extremely cold weather, in which my fingers will not tolerate holding a camera up and steady for prolonged periods, I relent and bring one along. Such was the case on this trip. I also brought a Nikon D200 as a backup camera.

David and I based out of a riverside motel in Gardiner, Montana, on the northern border of the park.  The east-west road through the park in the north is kept plowed and open to regular cars all winter from Mammoth  to Cooke City. It is the only Yellowstone road open to conventional traffic in the winter months. All other routes within the park require the use of snow machines, skis, or snow coaches to get around.

In February the bull elk still retain their antlers, which makes for some spectacular imagery as they negotiate through deep now.  One morning David and I climbed a hillside and spent time with one particularly handsome bull. David steadied his monopod a legal and comfortable distance away from the elk and began shooting. I walked back behind David to get him as well as the elk in the photo, for an interesting perspective. As I was shooting, for some unkown reason, the elk started coming towards David, providing me with this shot which I captioned for my stock agencies "Panicked Photographer in Yellowstone in Winter".

The following day it was my turn to experience an adrenaline rush.  We left our Gardiner motel at dawn and drove east through the park. Past Tower Junction, before reaching Lamar Valley, we came upon a herd of about forty bison loosely scattered across a small meadow.  A few were close to the road and we set up our tripods and began photographing. Another photographer drove up and joined us.  David and the other photographer stayed to one side of the bison and I back way off so as to be able to photograph the animal with the photographers in the background.  I often like to add a human element to my wildlife images when possible.   After about ten minutes of shooting the bull started to walk down the edge of the road towards me.

At this point I was not concerned.  The bison was simply changing his location and not being aggressive. I began backing off and walking down the road, always keeping a generous distance between us.  The bison kept walking and of necessity, so did I.  There were at least fifty yards between us. The road made a bend toward the right and when I rounded the bend I could no longer see the bison behind me because of the curve in the road. I kept walking and soon came upon a tramped down path in the snow leading up a thirty degree slope off to the right of the road.  I walked up to the top of the low hill figuring the bison could then pass below me and keep going down the road.  The hilltop was about twenty-five above the roadway.  I stood on the edge and waited for the bison to walk below. 

A minute passed and then a very agitated looking bison came running around the curve in the road.  But instead of continuing on his merry way he decided to charge right up the path that I had just taken.

Initially I doubt he even knew that I was standing at the top of the slope. There was this one path through deep snow and he just happened to choose it.  He came right at me at a full run.  Other than to accept death gracefully, I had only one option.  At the instant before impact, holding the tripod and camera high with my left hand, I leapt off the hilltop and tumbled and fell back to the road below.  I hit mostly snow rather than asphalt and sustained a tear to the elbow of my down coat.  The camera and tripod survived unscathed, as did I. 

As I lay there on the road a car came slowly around the bend and stopped. I got up, brushing myself off, and explained to the driver what had happened.  "Oh, I didn't know there was anyone up ahead," he said. 
He then apologized profusely for having inadvertently caused the incident. I told him no harm done and I walked back up the road to my friend.

Later, in a gift shop at Mammoth Hot Springs, I bought a yellow clothing patch which I sewed on my coat to cover the tear at the elbow. To this day, in winter,  I still wear that coat with the patch. It says "Buffalo Crossing."

Mark Newman

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