Have you ever left somewhere you were visiting and felt like you were leaving home and it was the last time you would ever see it? When I had to leave Yellowstone in May 2010 it was like I was moving to another country, saying good-bye to my friends nearly ripped my heart out. During this trip I learned so much about myself and I couldn’t comprehend it all. When I had left to come to Yellowstone I was asked a question, “What is it that makes YOU happy?” Seems like an easy question to answer doesn’t it? Can you answer it? Every time I started to answer that question it was pointed out to me that my happiness was based on making somebody else happy. I searched for weeks for what made me happy, where I was content; excited to be, wanted to be ~ I thought I was a happy person. One night after dinner my photography friend who had convinced me to come back to Yellowstone said that I “had come back to heal.”
I can’t tell you how many times I nearly turned back around on the 1,600 mile long journey home. The morning after the night I left Yellowstone the 3 bison carcasses that went untouched had 6 grizzlies and 12 of the Blacktail Plateau Pack wolves on them. The action was shared with me blow by blow as I was driving. I drove in tears a quarter of the way back. If it weren’t for the horses waiting for me at home I’m pretty sure I would have turned around that day and gone back; I’d have left my gorgeous home and everything behind. Before I had left the park my friends and I had already made plans to return in October; I had never been in October, they knew I loved fall and the colors and the Tetons was the place to be. At the time it didn’t seem very comforting but I counted every day from the day I got home in May until the day I returned in October. I still had a lot of soul searching to do and I wondered what it was about Yellowstone that was healing to me.
The first week after I returned home I felt paralyzed and lost. I was really wondering why I came home. I went through all my images from the trip more than once and it was the only thing that made me feel connected. I continued to receive daily updates on the activity in the park until my friends returned home as well and with each report I wanted to be back in Yellowstone even more. October seemed so far away at the time.
I contacted the woman I had met at the reining horse show before I left. It turned out she was the owner of the largest horse magazine in the state and she liked my images so much so that she felt I would do really well photographing equine events and she would help me. There is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time however the saying that nothing worth having is ever easy is also something I hold near and dear to me. I have stood for many days in a row in 108 degree heat, in the freezing cold with the wind blowing and anywhere in between. Anywhere that is but when and where it is perfectly comfortable. I believe in order to get unique and special shots you have to work for them and you’re not going to find them sitting in a chair on the rail; I am always on my feet, moving around looking for better angles. Some weekends I fought with myself over letting go of the “traditional” horse show images and not being afraid to try new angles and ideas. I have lost hundreds of hours of sleep editing photos after working a more than full time job, riding two horses, doing chores and running almost every night. When I felt like saying forget it another door would open.
October finally rolled around and with my bear spray packed I flew into Jackson Hole, why waste 2 good days on the road when I could be in the parks within a few hours if I flew? When my flight landed and I got my rental car I still had 3 good hours of daylight left in the Tetons, no time to waste. I quickly found a black bear, a gorgeous bull moose, a cow and a calf and burned up what little light I had left. The next morning I planned to head to Yellowstone after hiking a couple of trails in the Tetons. It would be a couple of days before some of my friends arrived and I was really looking forward to some nice quiet hikes and practicing some of the photography techniques my friends had taught me.
The morning light was gorgeous so I spent some time photographing the fall colors, aspen trees are my favorite ~ they were right, the Tetons is the place to be in October. My first hike wasn’t a disappointment; I no sooner closed my car door and saw a black bear on the hillside searching for goodies. A reminder not to forget my bear spray and once I had my camera I went the opposite direction and up the hill to some waterfalls and a lake. When your alone you have a lot of time to think about things and see things you might miss otherwise. The next hike was full of fall colors, lakes and more wildlife. I started to wonder if I should wait to head into Yellowstone so soon and decided to take another road before I left the Tetons, it was the right choice as here I found a cow moose in a pond enjoying the late afternoon. You tend to lose track of time when you have a great animal to photograph and before I realized it the sun was heading down, the moose had made my choice for me and I would be spending another night in Jackson Hole.
That night a friend who had already been in Yellowstone for a few days called and was really disappointed, so far he hadn’t seen much as far as wildlife and had been doing mostly landscape photography. I was torn between staying another day in the Tetons and heading into Yellowstone; I decided the next morning I would just see where I ended up. It was quiet that morning and after a nice two hour hike I decided I needed to head home, home to Yellowstone. I spotted deer and elk along the way but I really wanted to get into Lamar Valley by late afternoon so I continued on.
I took a short hike out of the campground in Slough Creek looking for otters and that evening on the way back to Gardiner when there was nearly no light left I found another black bear. I watched it eat berries until I could barely see it in the darkness, it was peaceful. I watched from my car as it carefully selected which berries it wanted and used its tongue avoiding the thorns and would pull off each one. These berries are tiny and I thought of how many berries it would take to fill this bear before winter came and how many hours it had to spend each day doing this. The bear’s eyes were dark black and brown, large and protected which allows for more light to enter them and enables them to travel in the dark. I wondered if it would continue eating throughout the night. I sat there in my car for a couple hours that night and nobody else ever came by. Photos were out of the question by then and when I finally decided to head to town I didn’t really want to leave.
Early the next morning I headed back to the spot where I had seen the black bear the night before not sure what the chances were that it would still be in the area and when I didn’t see it I went about another half a mile and parked my car. It was so quiet here, I had a view overlooking a huge valley below and you could see for miles. A few low clouds were moving in and out of the trees below and made for some interesting landscape images. As I was standing by my car photographing the clouds I heard a noise in the brush on the other side of my car but I couldn’t see anything. These are the moments when you wonder if you really heard something. Even though it sounded like an elephant was running through the brush it will turn out to be a small bird. About the time I figured it was just a bird I heard the noise again and a second later out bounces a black bear cub. I know that the next noise I hear is definitely not going to be a bird because behind every little adorable black bear cub is one protective black bear mom. I had the perfect spot where I was as I could rest my camera on the top of my car and take photos of them up on the hill and just when I didn’t think it could get any better out bounces another cub! The sow and the first cub had already traveled further up the hill and didn’t seem concerned that this little one was taking its time investigating the berries and fallen trees along the way. I sat in my car’s door jamb over two hours that morning, eventually forgot about taking photos and watched as the cubs climbed over logs, dug into them, imitated they’re mom, rolled and chased each other and I smiled and laughed quietly the whole time.
I started to wonder if it were safe for them to be so close to the bear I had seen last night, was it possible that they were related? Would there be a problem if they crossed paths? Had they already seen each other? My list of questions for myself grew and grew as I watched them. I felt so blessed to be able to see them and spend so much time enjoying them, there was nobody else around, no bear paparazzi and no distractions; I got to see bears being bears. When the sow finally took the cubs and disappeared over the hill I whispered a quiet thank you for allowing me to observe her life for a short time. And I wondered if I would ever see them again.
This whole trip turned out to be about black bears. Yes, of course there are still bison and elk in Yellowstone but when I finally got on a plane to return home again I had counted 21 black bears in less than two weeks. I took a few more hikes and did some landscape photography. I spent time with great friends and met many new ones. Flying home was worse than driving home in May. I felt like I was once again leaving a part of me behind. I thought about all the bears I had seen and the other wildlife like the lone young big horn sheep and wondered if they would make it through winter. Mostly I wondered if I would see the two cubs again.
When I got home and looked through my images over the next week I became sick with ‘lensitis,’ it attacks most wildlife photographers out of nowhere. One day your perfectly fine and the next you start spending hours on researching it online and you go from drooling to foaming at the mouth. Some start looking around for things to sale and even consider auctioning off the children. We have all been there and we will be there again the following year. I needed a bigger lens!! My 300mm was just not getting me close enough. When I returned to Yellowstone next May I wanted a 500mm lens.
Once again I heard the question “what makes you happy?” I love my horses more than life itself. When I’m with them even if it’s cleaning pens I feel great and I’m happy. I can spend hours sitting and just watching them run and play or grazing. I feel peace when I’m with them. I am also happy when I’m in Yellowstone spending time with the different animals I encounter and learning all I can about them. There is peace there, serenity. The animals do not judge you, they do not care what size you wear or what you do for a living, and they simply wish to be allowed to live in peace as well, like us. Being able to enjoy wildlife peacefully doing what they do every day makes me happy. It was good to finally know the answer to the question but now what was I suppose to do with it?