Mad Dash For Yellowstone
By Daryl L. Hunter

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Santa Claus was good to me this year, and a Canon 400mm 5/6L telephoto lens dropped down the chimney and this little boy couldn’t wait to put that hunk of glass to work. I had a long weekend for the New Year’s holiday, and the kids were out of school so a trip to Yellowstone was nearly possible if Murphy’s Law didn’t rear his ugly head.

Winter in Yellowstone is truly a wonderful thing to experience. Its deep snows, bitter cold, abundant wildlife and stark beauty can imprint memories that can last a lifetime, and I have been anxious to share it with my boys. Access to Yellowstone in winter has become problematic since it has become illegal to take a private snowmobile into Yellowstone. So instead of accessing Yellowstone from the south entrance, outside Jackson Hole close to my home, the trip mandated a mad dash for north Yellowstone’s winter road, an eight-hour drive away. I had a hunch that this might be a good time for serendipity to dish me up some wolves for my photo portfolio.

I arranged to work a half-day so I could jump-start the trip. I hurried the fifty miles from Jackson Hole Wyoming to my home in Irwin, Idaho as a severe winter storm was wrecking havoc throughout the area. Storms often shut down the roads between my home and highway 20 to Yellowstone so time was of the essence.

I momentarily gave pause to think of what a bad dad I was for suspending common to endeavor a nonessential photo excursion when the weatherman and the Department of Transportation, both were telling everyone to stay home. I really had no time to fret over it much, or the roads would close, and my long weekend would be spent at home.

Upon arriving home my wife, Sharon and I hastily loaded the luggage and our boys, Cody and Scott, in the car, we then set off for the dog sitter. After dropping off the dog we had to return home for the omni-not-present forgotten thing, then we expeditiously set off from home only to find a fresh road block on highway 26, the shortest route to hwy 20 to Yellowstone. Dangit, the road closed two minutes ago. Upon a quick consultation with my friend, the DOT road blocker, Rick, I was informed that they hadn't gotten around to closing hwy 33 from Tetonia to Rexburg yet. Fortuitously, I hadn’t run out of chances to risk the safety of my family for the slim chance of photographing wolves in Yellowstone.

I had already rushed over Teton Pass and Rainy Creek Pass to get home, now I had to hurry back over Rainy Creek Pass, and the windy flats south of Victor hoping to reach the frigid hell that was the long wind tunnel flats between Tetonia and Rexburg before hwy 33 closed also. Had the omni-not-present forgotten thing made us backtrack home we could have made the tough but reasonably expedient 20-mile blinding passage across Antelope Flats of hwy 26, in short order, compared to our newly modified itinerary ahead.

Entering the wind tunnel west of Tetonia we were met with fearsome winds out of the southwest that positively made us wonder, what the heck are we thinking? But, our excitement of the opportunity for a Yellowstone getaway filled our optimism glass back up to the half-full mark and it was, steady as she goes, down through the tunnel of wind.

Soon, the wind shifted 180 degrees and started coming at us from the opposite direction. As Sharon and I pondered about this weirdness, a patch of blue appeared above us, DOT closed highway 33 right behind us; Serendipity was beginning to smile upon us.

We made West Yellowstone, under clearing skies at dusk and upon short deliberation we decided West Yellowstone was far enough. In the morning we could continue into Bozeman, Livingston, and to our base in Gardiner Montana. Arriving in Gardiner around eleven, we still had time to do a reconnaissance through north Yellowstone so I could scout and see where I needed to be at first light in the morning.

The north Yellowstone winter road, US-212, is truly a treat for those who go the trouble too experience it. The northeast gateway communities of Cooke City and Silver Gate Montana regularly need groceries to keep its citizens alive, and the only maintainable access is through Gardiner MT. Yellowstone Park maintains winter access to these communities, the road is well maintained provided a heavy winter storm doesn't get ahead of the plows. Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley seems to provide prodigious amounts of wind so drifting snow can be a problem, but the snow removal team does a stellar job of keeping the drifting snow at bay. These efforts provide Yellowstone visitors the chance to access this smidgen of Yellowstone’s treasures in winter by car.

This special 56-mile section of road provides the last vestiges for Yellowstone’s independent motorized winter travel and is a treasured microcosm of what we used to be able to experience throughout Yellowstone’s developed road system, in winter, by snowmobile.

The grandeur of Yellowstone’s landscape provides many scenic photo opportunities. The peaks of the of the Gallatin Range and the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains add majestic interest to the skyline; Yellowstone Park has provided ample scenic turnouts along the route enabling abundant opportunities to safely get off the road to capture grand scenics and special moments with Yellowstone Park's wildlife.

Wildlife is more active in the morning and evening so I start early and stay late for the best candid photos of the Park’s mega fauna. The first and last light of day provides the best light but the magnificent terrain can provide good photos any time of day. Those hoping to view or photograph wolves greatly increase their chances by being in the Lamar Valley a half hour before sunrise. By working the roadsides in the park, I have found, winter wildlife photography can be done with relative ease and comfort but when fortunate enough to encounter wolves, at close proximity. Be prepared with every warm thing you own because rangers don’t allow parking within a half-mile of where wolves have a kill, so some hiking may be in order followed by extended periods of stationary observation or photography in adverse weather conditions.

If I expected to photograph wolves it mandated a five AM wakeup time as I needed to be forty miles up the road in time for first light in the Lamar Valley, my wife and boys weren’t on board with any such a wakeup schedule so I agreed to return and pick them up at eleven.

Having awakened early I was on the road by five AM which was earlier than I needed, so I poked along the deserted north road, stopping often to look at the tracks in the new dusting of snow that had fallen overnight. There was plenty of canine tracks but none big enough to be a wolf. About six thirty I reached a promising turnout to park, wait, and watch. Another photographer soon stopped, mistakenly thinking, I had knowledge of wolves out there in the darkness. Disappointed by my ignorance, he let me know where the Druid wolf pack had been seen the previous day. I decided to mosey up the road a little farther.------------------------------------> continued

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