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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Lessons From Yellowstone

I recently returned from an eight-day photography trip to my favorite place in the United States, Yellowstone National Park.

While being driven back to Bozeman, MT, for my flight home, I was thinking about what I had learned during that winter trip to America's first national park. I believe there is always something to be learned, even from places we have visited several times before. 

This is what I learned from this beautiful, amazing wild place.

  • I realized all over again how much I love Yellowstone. It isn't just the wildlife -- wolves, bison, bighorn sheep, elk, bobcats, red foxes, cougars and more -- although the animals are amazing and the reason I go there so often. It's also the wildness of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres, and its thousands of thermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots and more). It's also the mountains, the valleys, the many rivers and waterfalls, and the harshness of the place. And it's the lack of cell phone service inside the park.
  • I realized how passionate I am about wildlife and landscape photography.  Why else would I get up long before dawn to go into the park and stand outside in sub-zero temperatures, howling winds, sleet and snow to photograph bison? Why would I spend hours staring at a bobcat across the river, waiting for it to make a brief appearance?
  • I realized anew how being in Yellowstone makes my heart sing. It restores a long-lost connection to the natural world and it connects me to a world where humans are decidedly not the top species.
  • Yellowstone is one of those places that gets into the blood of many of its 4.25 million annual visitors. People take a temporary job in the park and end up never leaving. Others return again and again. This was my seventh trip to Yellowstone in just three  years. A German couple on the same trip was on its sixth trip as well. The woman told me that she cries every time she has to leave Yellowstone. I understand her sentiment. Yellowstone is just that kind of place.
  • Visiting the park in winter gave me an entirely new perspective from my previous visits. Even familiar places looked new and different. 
  • I saw the daily struggle for survival, particularly by the prey animals such as bison, elk and deer. Watching a 1-ton bison use its massive head to sweep away deep snow to uncover the dry, brown grass below was a sobering sight. So, too, is the knowledge that some 10 percent of adult bison will not survive the winter. For bison born less than a year ago, the mortality rate can reach 20 percent to 40 percent. The wolves, on the other hand, thrive during the winter, their prey weakened by hunger. 
  • I realized that millions of people love Yellowstone and want to protect it, yet we as Americans seem powerless to stop the relentless attacks by Republicans who want to open this treasure to mining or to sell these public lands to private companies for exploitation.
  • This trip also confirmed what I already knew -- that I am physically unable to handle a lens bigger than my 120-400mm telephoto zoom. After several hours of standing in the cold waiting for a seldom-seen bobcat to leave the safety of a log, my arthritic hands and the wrist I broke a year ago were hurting. I have had my eye on a 150-500mm or even a 150-600mm lens for quite a while, but this trip finally made me realize that bigger lenses are simply too heavy for me to comfortably handle.
  • Finally, after downloading my trip photos, I realize that my 120-400mm lens does a good job of capturing smaller subjects from a distance. With a bit of cropping, my photos of the bobcat and a red fox are fairly impressive. 

So thank you, Yellowstone, for teaching me valuable lessons. Thank you for your wildness and for you uniqueness. May you always remain wild and free.