Weird stuff happens in Yellowstone National Park.
Unfortunately, unless you know a park ranger or someone happens to photograph or video the unusual happening and post it online, we have very little idea of just how much weird stuff occurs. It's certainly not something the park staff wants to talk about.
By BRETT FRENCH
There may be no better time of the year to get outside and exercise your photographic muscle than in the fall.
“Fall is my favorite time for sure,” said professional photographer John Reddy of Helena.
The days can be warm, yet not hot, so hiking around doesn't have to be searing or freezing cold. There are no, or very few, biting insects. Deciduous trees take on varying shades of color that provide excellent contrast while also expanding the visual palette.
Animals are more active at all times of the day because of the cooler weather and the closeness of winter. There's also a gauzy luminescence to fall light that makes it more moody and appealing.
“Elk are bugling and the leaves are changing, there's frost in the morning and fog, and the days are a lot more convenient length with the sun coming up later,” said Bozeman, Mont., photographer Thomas Lee.
With the advent of inexpensive and simple digital cameras and everyone carrying cell phones with cameras, photography seems to be more universal than ever before. Editing software and computers have also given people a chance to play with their images, adding artistic touches and dramatically cropping after the photo is taken. With the advent of Facebook and other online photo sharing sites, people can reveal their photographic talents to a larger audience.
As people take more photos, some shutterbugs begin to look at their surroundings and their photos with a more critical eye. With that in mind, here are some suggestions that may help fall photographers improve their snapshots.
Zoom in, back up
Lee said he likes to backlight fall leaves to make the colors glow. He also suggests varying the photograph's content from standing very close to the subject to backing up far away.
“I think the important thing is to try and find a clean, monochromatic background that your subject can stand out against,” Lee added, such as a yellow leaf framed against the blue of the sky or the dark green of pine trees to provide a nice contrast of colors.
“There's something poetic about the leaf that's fallen to the ground, as well,” he said.
No matter the subject, the light is always more dramatic in the early morning and evening when the sun is low and shadows are lengthened. Some people refer to these as the golden hours, since the light is often gold in hue.
Reddy said he likes to shoot fall colors under cloudy skies.
“The soft light really brings the colors out somehow,” he said. “The smoky skies really enhance the colors, too.”
Reddy will also look for the reflection of fall colors in ponds, lakes and rivers.
Yellowstone National Park photographer Jeff Henry said he likes to include animals in his photographs, even if they are small in the frame. Although he favors wildlife, domestic animals will work, as well.
“A real natural in Montana to add color is a river,” he added.
He also looks to calm backwaters for the patterns of dead leaves floating on the water. Looking closely can also reveal the detail of veins in a single leaf, Henry suggested.
Although the peak of color may have passed at higher altitudes, Henry recommends looking along river valleys and to the Pryor Mountains, Bighorn Canyon or areas like Zion National Park where the color of changing leaves can be contrasted with the red rocks native to the regions.
Eastern Montana's badlands would also provide an unusual contrast, as would the changing larch trees in northwestern Montana, he said.
“I'm still taken by the novelty of a coniferous tree changing color,” Henry said.
The nice thing about digital cameras is that there is no worry about the cost of developing a lot of photos, as there used to be with film. That means photographers should feel free to snap a lot of shots, varying the angle, zooming in and backing up, changing the exposure and the area of focus to find what is most pleasing.
In such instances photographer Merv Coleman, of Red Lodge, said he never deletes photos while they are still on his camera, just in case something from the shot appeals to him after he downloads it onto his computer. He's also a fan of the relatively new process of printing images to specially treated aluminum plates. The process removes the glare and diffusion of glass that is typical with framed photographic prints, and the colors appear incredibly vibrant. The surface of the print can range from a high gloss to a matte finish.
Even if your photos never make it onto your living room wall, the hobby is still a great excuse to get outside and look at nature with a curious mind and a critical eye.
A tour into Yellowstone National Park on Saturday to photograph the fall colors and with the hope of seeing some wildlife and hearing bull elk bugle presented a couple of odd moments for my wife and me that I will share with you. They may not rise to YouTube notoriety like the child being chased by a bison, but they still provide a glimpse into the oddities that occur in Yellowstone.
The most unusual incidents we witnessed occurred within only minutes of each other while driving along a short stretch of the road between Cooke City and Tower Junction.
The first oddity was a man rolled up in a blue plastic tarp alongside the road near the Lamar River's canyon section. He appeared to be sleeping on the ground, even though he was only a car's width from the road.
While discussing whether he could be ticketed for illegal napping – since you can only camp in designated sites -- we came to the Slough Creek Road turnoff and saw a man climbing to the top of the stone outhouse in the parking area.
At first, he was perched on his haunches on the wall that acts as a shield to the door. I thought maybe he was going to leap onto the outhouse's occupant when they exited, thereby scaring the crap out of them when it was safe to do so. But then he climbed stealthily atop the roof, glancing briefly toward the roadway as if to make sure we weren't park rangers. With that step, I had to assume he was looking for a better view of the surrounding landscape. That seemed odd, since he could have just walked up the hill behind the parking area to get the same view, albeit with many more steps.
As we rounded that corner and descended to the new bridge that's being built across the Lamar River, I swear we saw Santa Claus driving toward us in a bright red auto.
Sure, the fall colors were for the most part fantastic. The aspen were varied from green to yellow to orange in bursts of vibrant colors highlighted by the diffused light. The sky varied from brilliant blue to threateningly dark rain clouds. The golden color of the grasses made the expansive Lamar Valley seem like something out of the African savannah.
But like many trips, it was the unusual side occurrences that made for the most unique and humorous memories.
Yellowstone is no longer a quiet place in the fall. On Saturday, cars crowded Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo. – the park's headquarters – as if it were a summer day. People milled along the thermal feature walkways and crowded the grassy areas to watch grazing elk. A Speedo-clad swimmer strolled along the path from the nearby Boiling River as the temperature hovered around 72 degrees.
RVs crowded one park outside of Gardiner, lined up like an orderly child's white toys along the edge of a steep hill overlooking the Yellowstone River. Vehicle license plates were from as far away as Alabama and as near as Stillwater County.
My wife and I estimated there must have been a minimum of 20 different nationalities represented that we alone came in contact with, many of them young families with children. It's easy to forget that the park is such an international drawing card, even in the shoulder season of autumn. But there's some proof in the visitation numbers. Last year, more than 536,000 people toured the park in September, the fourth busiest month. (Statistics weren't available for this September yet.) That dropped considerably to 175,000 people by October. But consider that only a decade earlier, in 2001, September visitation was about 163,000 fewer people. That seems like a pretty good jump in a decade.
Here's what else we saw that was unusual, but which can't rival our minute of weirdness on the highway.
As cars slowed to pass next to a hulking bull bison as it wandered westward, one pick-up truck apparently got inside the bison's comfort zone. The bull made a hooking motion with his head, as if to gore the pickup, which narrowly scooted out of the way. Every car after that gave the bull a wide berth.
We saw our first bighorn sheep jam as we exited the park toward Gardiner. I've known that the high cliffs along the roadway where it pinches close to the Gardner River are bighorn habitat, but I've never seen one there. On Saturday, though, the sheep were right in the middle of the road, as well as on both sides. We didn't see any bruiser ram with heavy horns, but the deft-footed animals still attracted plenty of attention from the camera-toting tourists.
The unusual activities and odd occurrences were a reminder to drop the curtain that often shields the limited vision we employ in our daily urban lives. It also begs the question: What was Santa Claus doing in Yellowstone?