Monday, May 12, 2014

YELLOWSTONE IN WINTER: Part 1, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Yellowstone Falls illuminated by moonlight
Last January, our friend Owen Floody went on a photo tour of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken several trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is a short reflection on his Yellowstone trip and a few of his excellent photographs. (Part 2 will post next week.)

On the basis of images in books (especially those by Tom Murphy) and related TV shows, I have long wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park during the winter.  I finally realized this ambition during a 2-week vacation in January, 2014.  I can only describe the environment and resulting experience as magical. 

During the first half of my trip, I participated in a photo tour offered by Yellowstone Expeditions ( at their "yurt camp," near Canyon Village.  This is a family business that specializes in cross-country skiing, but also offers occasional photo tours emphasizing Yellowstone's winter wildlife.  Their camp is basic.  Guests stay in heated wood and plastic cabins. Meals are prepared and eaten in the two yurts, while shared port-a-potties and showers are a short walk from the cabins.  The staff is as accommodating as can be.  Typically, we would rise early, grab a quick cup of coffee or tea, and jump into a snow coach for a short drive to a potential sunrise view point.  

One of the many bison we encountered on our drives.
That mission completed, we would return to camp, have a hearty breakfast, make box lunches, and then return to the snow coaches for extended drives in search of wildlife, thermal features, and other attractions. As we cruised the roads, we shared these with the wildlife, many of which conserve valuable energy in this way.  
Sunset at Alum Creek with bison herd in distance
Late in the afternoon, we would head back toward camp, often stopping along the way to view the sunset. Once at "home," we would relax, possibly shower, and compare notes with our hosts and fellow guests in the course of a pleasant dinner. Thereafter, I'm sure that the standard routine is to relax, socialize and turn in early.  But my visit coincided with a full moon and clear skies, so that we twice returned to the snow coaches yet again for a quick visit to the nearby Yellowstone Canyon, for the privilege of viewing it and Yellowstone Falls illuminated by moonlight.
Sun Pillar in Yellowstone Canyon
I should add our good fortune of observing "sun pillars" in Yellowstone Canyon on several mornings. These are associated with the canyon, though not unique to it.  They require a combination of a source of water vapor (the falls), cold temperatures (about -10 to +10°F), clear skies, and a sun elevation such as occurs in the early or mid-morning.  Given these, ice crystals will be backlit to create sparkling columns or "pillars" of light.  If you're lucky enough to see pillars, you can play with them by moving yourself so as to superimpose the beam on a tree or other feature, casting a natural spotlight on that element.
Yurt village with snow coaches on left
Note:  Obviously, I enjoyed this part of my Yellowstone visit very much.  But someone thinking of duplicating it should bear several things in mind.  First, Yellowstone can be cold in the winter!  As long as one is properly prepared, the conditions are tolerable.  Second, I've already mentioned that the Yellowstone Expeditions yurt camp provides basic accommodations and would not satisfy someone who must have a toilet or stand-up shower a few steps from his or her bed.  Third, I've also already suggested that my photo tour was a bit atypical: During most weeks in their short season, Yellowstone Expeditions emphasizes cross-country skiing on the many wonderful trails available in this part of the park.  I intended to ski but got caught up in the photography, an omission that I plan to correct on a future visit.  But all of this may depend on the decision that the park service makes soon in their routine review of the license that permits Yellowstone Expeditions to operate their camp.  Though the renewal of this license seems like a no-brainer to me, any plans to visit the yurt camp will require one to first confirm that it's still in operation.  I certainly hope so.


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