I have often said that I am not a wildlife photographer. I simply don't have the patience to stake out a location in the hopes a wild animal decides to show up there when I'm there. I'm more than happy to photograph animals that I come across by accident, while I'm out taking landscapes, but that's pretty much the extent of it. But last week's trip to Grand Teton National Park resulted in a lot of wildlife photo opportunities, so one could be forgiven for assuming that I make photographing wildlife a priority, especially if they looked at the images from that trip.
A Grizzly Encounter
The highlight of the trip was an encounter with a female grizzly bear, Grizzly 1063, also known to locals as "Fritter". Fritter is a 6 year old grizzly, the daughter of Blondie, Grizzly 793. She has not yet had any cubs, but is getting to the age where wildlife watchers expect her to begin having cubs, possibly emerging from hibernation in 2024 with a couple in tow.
We began the trip to the Tetons by hiring a wildlife guide from Teton Science Schools to take us around to hopefully find some wildlife (go figure, huh?). But the thing about finding wildlife is that even when you know where to look and when an animal will most likely be around, there's no guarantee that you'll actually see anything. True wildlife photographers will often sit in a blind for hours, waiting for just the moment when an animal makes an appearance. Other wildlife photographers set up camera traps, designed to be triggered by animal movement, to make their photos. Neither of those options really appeal to me, so I take what I can get when it appears. While we didn't see any grizzlies, elk, or moose while we were with our guide, we did see some pronghorns (below) and bison.
A few days later, we caught a break. The afternoon before, we were photographing at Snake River Overlook, which Ansel Adams made famous, when we ran into a photographer named Christopher Georgia. Chris and I knew of each other, as we had both worked at the same chain of camera stores several years earlier, though not at the same store. Also, the photographic community is fairly tight, so we often known of others without having met them. Well, Chris and I finally met at Snake River Overlook. The next day, I received a message from Chris that a grizzly had been sighted. We quickly made our way to the location, which was about a half hour away. We just had to hope the bear was still there.
Sure enough, when we pulled up, there were a couple dozen photographers, along with 3 park rangers, standing along the road and in a field, photographing a grizzly bear that was about 120 yards away. The rangers were able to tell us which bear it was, and kept an eye to ensure no one got too close. We watched Fritter meander about this meadow for about 2 hours in total. At one point, she came to around 70 yards away, at which point the rangers moved the group back to a distance of 100 yards. At that 70 yard distance, I felt I'd gotten about as good as I was going to get and went to get back in the car, along with two of the people I was with. However, because of where everyone had been moved to, I was unable to move the car at this point. So we sat in the car and waited.
As we waited, we noted that 1063 was coming closer and closer to where we were parked (and the group in general). At this point, the rangers once again backed everyone off, but because of the way people were parked, we couldn't move the car, so we stayed put. Fritter kept coming, and soon enough, she was within about 20 yards of the car. I quickly raised my camera through the window, which I had opened, and was able to get the first image in this post. She just ambled past, never even looking at me or the car. She crossed the road and made her way into the field on the other side. At this point the rangers asked everyone to move their cars, so we were able to move and I got out again, and at that point, I was able to capture the second image in this entry, of Fritter in the field. Soon after, Fritter entered the woods and the group dispersed. It was an incredible encounter and the closest I've ever been to a grizzly bear in the wild. Fritter was a massive animal and I'm thankful she was pretty passive and seemed more interested in the bushes in the field than in any of us.
After our brush with Grizzly 1063, we headed up to Yellowstone National Park for the night. The next morning, we headed into Hayden Valley, where we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of bison that had begun crossing the road. We kept our distance as best we could, and a park ranger stopped to make sure we did. We had a nice conversation with her, and she was surprised to find we were actually pretty close to the distance we were supposed to be (25 yards when in or next to your car). It was here I made the last photo in this entry, below, of the bison heading straight for me down a game trail.
So while I don't consider myself a wildlife photographer, I am a photographer of opportunity and that opportunity certainly presented itself last week in the Tetons and Yellowstone!