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A Snow Coach for the day. Yes, No, Maybe...

March 09, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Decisions, decisions, decisions…


Oh boy what happens when you put three heads together that at any given moment couldn’t make a decision to save their lives..? Well that was the case in November, December, January and part of February when planning this Montana trip. I had signed up along with my two photographer friends to take a helicopter ride to the top of the Bridger Mountains in Montana  That was the easy part; the decision that needed to be made was what to do after those two days in Montana.


First thought was a snowmobile trip in Yellowstone with 1 or 2 days in the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful, snowmobiling each of those two days. Well that was a good idea if we were ordinary tourists but this trio of photographers would want to stop at every mountain, valley, bison, elk or other breathing critter along the way and we would not be the only people on this trek in the woods, bad idea.


On to plan B, well, how about renting a snow coach and driver for a day or two out of Mammoth and see Yellowstone via a comfortable coach, Vinny take a look into that for us and when the results were in, the trip sounded decent but the cost was high and then those nasty stories that Yellowstone was not getting heavy snow fall. Ok scratch the snow coach from Mammoth idea.


Next up what about those Montana ghost towns we had read about? What about going to Cody for Big Horns, this was slowly going from bad to worse. Talk about a slippery slope, we were on the giant slalom at Bridger Bowl without ski poles.


We emailed our friend Don in Wapati, Wyoming and found that the Big Horns could be found and photographed but the rut was over and therefore no head butting. The Jackson Hole Elk refuge was out of the question it was a 4 hour ride in good weather one way. Then the break we needed. A week before our departure an email from buddy Don suggested a West Yellowstone firm (Yellowstone Alpen Guides) for a snow coach charter so Vinny was off doing his great fact finding for us again.


It was a great lead, decent price, all day charter and we could go where we could safely want to go in the park. What about the weather, was there good snow cover? We made some calls, visited the NWS National Snow Analyses site, and checked the weather forecast and 3 days before our departure made the decision. One phone call was made to charter the snow coach and a decision was made to photograph in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone by vehicle for one or 2 other days.


Up bright and early for the ride down US 191 the Gallatin Road...

I was not ready for the early morning ride from Bozeman to West Yellowstone at all. The US 191 had some snow and ice on it and the winding nature of it makes for a wild ride in the darkness. No wonder there are so many white crosses on the side of the road. The road smoothed out when it entered the western most part of Yellowstone National Park and we started to get some early morning light.  Good looks were available of some nice 6x6 bull elk in this area. Light was not yet conducive to to good photography so we didn't attempt to find an area to safety pull over, maybe this is an area to check the next time we travel to Yellowstone area.

We arrived in West Yellowstone and easily found the snow coach company. Waiting for us was our driver and a vintage 1979 Bombardier snow coach. I was expecting a tight fit for the three of us and our gear but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of room in the antique sled.  The sled driver you have can be the difference between a so-so and a great tour. Not only are you hoping he has a good knowledge of Yellowstone but also can bring you to areas that he or his fellow drivers have seen animals in the recent past. Drew was just what we wanted, a knowledgeable guide on all subjects of the park from its geological history to recent sightings.

The weather was stunning along the Madison River as we entered the park. Drew stopped numerous times to allow us to take in the great early morning views.






 We took a break at Old Faithful snow lodge then had lunch at Gibon falls and a walk through the snow covered trees and walkways of Norris Geyser area. At Norris we had a Raven croaking upon arrival. The sun was just perfect to photograph the frost laden trees. As the steam rises from the hot springs and pools it condenses and freezes like heavy snow sometimes bending them to make a huge snow ball.

 Drew gave us a great history lesson on the last major eruption of the Yellowstone Volcano and explained how the two lava flows stopped facing each other to form Firehole Falls.

The Early afternoon brought us back to the Madison river area hoping for coyote or bobcat. We did manage a beautiful coyote before returning to West Yellowstone but no Bobcat.

All in all a great ride with the best of friends and a beautiful snow covered Yellowstone National Park.  Next up day Two in the Lamar Valley and the Elk on the side of Route 89.


Trip out, the arrival in Bozeman and first day in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park

February 27, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Arrival in Bozeman

The flight to Bozeman was great thanks to an upgrade to Economy plus that was arranged by Debbie. An Airbus 319 from Albany to Chicago and no room for carry-on after section 4. Give me a break, United (maybe all airlines) need to stop charging for checked luggage and start charging for carry-on. That would stop the oversized carry-on luggage that fills the overhead compartments. I need to have that expensive camera gear in the overhead with me. Trust ground employees at an airline with my cameras, NOT. Enough time on the soap box with my traveling pet peeve.

Pizza and salad at O'hare International on to Bozeman. not sure what Mr. Vinny ate.

We arrive at 10:45 PM and after securing the SUV we headed to the motel. In this day and age a modern motel without an elevator? What is with that? Strike that Motel of list for future trips.

Checking the forecast for Wednesday we decided the planned early morning drive to Gardiner Montana and an all day ride in the Lamar Valley was on for the next morning.
Can you say Whiteout?

We woke with light snow on the ground but as we drove down I-90 then Rt 89 for the 90 minute trip to Gardiner the snow became heavy and almost a whiteout at times. You really have to love Montana and Wyoming to live here. I do and wish I did live there. :)
About 20 miles from Gardiner on Rt 89 the early morning light started to illuminate the world for us, the snow stopped and our first wildlife was seen. A recent elk kill (probably car or truck) was being visited by 2 Bald Eagles and a group of ravens and magpies. What a way to start the day, we pulled over and the 2 passengers managed a grab shot or two before the eagles retreated to a nearby hill waiting for us to leave. In the last 20 miles from Livingston to Gardiner we counted 10 Bald Eagles, 8 adult and 2 juveniles.
In the Park
At the Roosevelt Arch north entrance to Yellowstone the sun was shining and we entered the park to immediately find bull elk that had yet to shed antlers and then beautiful bison feeding on the Gardiner River before the climb to Mammoth Hot Springs. 

Elk (Wapiti)

American Bison
The elk looked in great condition and the windswept ground allowed for good feeding considering the time of year. The herd of about 20 bison was feeding along the ice free river with one occasionally took a drink. Lighting was perfect for great images, close-ups and environmental landscapes. After 20 minutes of shooting we drove up the hill to Mammoth Hot Springs and took advantage of the great light to get a few winter images of the travertine terraces. 
Winter allows for a steamier view of the terraces and also the sun angle offers some interesting silhouettes of standing dead trees in the travertine area. I'm usually not one to shoot this kind of images but they are different and I have shot them the last few times I have visited Yellowstone. I also tried to capture a few macro shots of the travertine flows to show the miniatures waves of the rock formations, amazing what nature can do given a little geothermal activity and a few eons.  Winter is also a better time to get shots of the area with fewer visitors than fall or spring, although it did seem a little busier this winter than in the past.
The drive from Mammoth to Tower was a little boring with just a few Bison at a distance and a nice Bison road jam or two. We did get a chance for a nice landscape or two along the way. The road from Mammoth to Cooke city is the only road open to vehicle traffic in the winter allowing the residents of Silver Gate and Cooke City the only way they have to get to civilization until spring. 
Driving in the Lamar it is always a good sign to see a group of spotting scopes out on a hillside. This can only mean that a wolf or pack of wolves has been spotted by a group of Yellowstone's ever diligent wolf watchers. As I have learned a chance for a great close-up of the elusive North American Grey wolf can be almost impossible to get. It takes spending a great amount of time in the park and a ton of luck. That being said seeing this magnificent creature at a distance is a highlight to any trip to Yellowstone.
This year members of the Canyon pack has been spotted within a few miles of Mammoth Hot Springs, not the usual place to see these animals but with the large population of bison and elk around Mammoth it is the source of food that is drawing them to this area.
A group of photographers gathered at a recent elk kill at the beginning of the Lamar Valley. The kill was a bull elk that was pretty much picked over. There was a report that coyote and red fox had been feeding on the carcass as a facebook post by a photographer did show a nice red fox on the kill.
After a discussion with my fellow travelers it was decided that the lack of meat on the elk carcass and the large group of photographers present would make the chance of a coyote of fox returning very slim so we moved on.
The decision paid off as we came across a group of ten big horn sheep rams feeding just before the trail horse tie up at Soda Butte Creek. These rams gave up an hour of great images as they fed along the hillside oblivious to the group of photographers below.  
Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep
Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep
All in all a great day in the Lamar valley, actually I must say the best winter day I have ever experienced in the Mammoth-Lamar area of Yellowstone. 
Next up a snow coach ride in Yellowstone...

Montana, Wyoming, AOM, and Yellowstone

February 13, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Let the trip begin...


Well this afternoon I'm off to Bozeman Montana for 6 days with fellow photographers Debbie and Vinny. Weather is looking good and will report back daily if I have the time and internet connection.

Trip includes Helicopter ride to the Bridger mountains for Animal Actor photo shoot, a day in the Lamar Valley, and a one day snow coach ride in Yellowstone.


The Microsoft Surface Pro

February 08, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Replace my laptop and iPad with one device?


When I travel I have a camera bag stuffed with 2 pro bodies, batteries, charger, 3 -4 lens one being the huge 500mm and other necessary items for a successful safari or workshop. Along with that one piece of carryon I need to have a laptop bag that has my phone, laptop, charger, iPad, iPod, chargers, and all the electronic items necessary for the trip. This bag gets pretty heavy and bloated by the time it travel time.  For playing movies on long flights and music I can rely on the iPod or IPad for this chore but for basic computer needs I still need a good laptop capable of running software to copy photos from my CF cards each night organize them make a copy for safe keeping. The iPad is pretty much useless for doing any kind of work with RAW images and has limited storage and connections for adding additional outside storage.

A few years ago I purchased one of the first touch screen laptops running windows 7. This laptop allows me to download all my images for the day to one external 1TB hard drive and using software make a mirrored copy of those images to a second hard drive. Overkill, well when you spend thousands of dollars to travel around the world one needs to take every precaution not to lose a single image and at the same time act as a touch screen with no need to open the cover while on an airplane. But notebooks come with a price a heavy price. That laptop with its power supply weighs a little over 5 ½ lbs., weight that could easily be used for camera equipment and accessories. Well my dream device is right around the corner; in fact it will be available on February 9th.

The device I am speaking about is the new Microsoft Surface Pro. This tablet/laptop/desktop/iPad has no real category to fit into. It looks and feels like an iPad but weighs about 8 ounces more. It has REAL connectors and has a slot for adding Micro SDHC cards. True it may not be as powerful as a desktop or a top of the line Ultra book but it does run a REAL OS Windows 8 Pro vs. an toy OS like android or iOS.

I have listened and read most of the detractors and maybe I am wishing for more than I will really get but only time will tell and my field testing on the road will prove if this was a dream or this device is the real road warrior I have searched for a long time. I hope to have one on Saturday Feb. 9th so check back and see what I really think of this device.


UPDATE February 13, 2013


Well it looks like Microsoft really blew this launch. Most stores got one unit or none and the Microsoft Online store never has had them in stock. Can you say VAPORWARE!



UPDATE February 27, 2013


It is on it's way! I received an email this morning that the Surface Pro is shipping from Microsoft today. I will have my first report early next week.



Already, a trip down memory lane, well actually a real short trip down memory lane

January 25, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Spotted by a local Bird Watcher

On January 7th  a local bird watcher reported on the HMbirds list that he had seen a pair of Sandhill Cranes on the frozen Mohawk River near the I-87 Bridge. What Sandhill Cranes??? Wow this was unusual to say the least; what are Sandhill Cranes doing so far north in the winter and in New York State?

Holy wing span batman! Not only are they off course by a few time zones, although some do use the central flyway to migrate but to be here in the dead of winter is something else. I don’t remember if I have ever heard reports of them in this area and time frame before. For those who have never seen one, a sandhill crane is a large birds similar in looks to a Great Blue Heron but taller and with wing spans of up to 77 inches. These birds normally winter in the southwestern US and Mexico, although there is now a non-migratory population in parts of Florida.

The chase is on


The following morning with camera and lens in tow I left the house before dawn and headed north to see if I could photograph them but no luck the sand hill cranes were gone, for the next three days the same results as the pair seemed to fly off before sunrise and return just before sunset. “The cranes were here, you just missed them”, was getting to be the common answer when I asked if anyone had seen them. Not to mention that the clouds were making any attempt at capturing some good images almost impossible.


On January 10th the forecast was for cold clear skies and sun, maybe this would be my lucky day. I left the house an hour before sunrise arriving in the dark to find the sand hill cranes standing on the ice drinking from a small open space in the ice. The pair of cranes was accompanied by a Great Blue Heron, a few ducks, and a pair of gulls.  

I was joined by a pair of bird watchers and another local photographer. Ken the local photographer had been there on the previous day and had photographed them that evening just before dusk. We hoped the cranes would stay until the sun cleared the trees and good morning light fell on them. Well our luck held and by 8:45 the two cranes were bathed in morning light. 

It was a good distance between the photographers who stood in a taverns parking lot and the birds that were near the shore of the river. The birds gave us a good 2 hours of photography before moving off to rest for the day. All in all a great opportunity to photograph birds out of their normal area and in winter conditions.











Picture on the right shows the two cranes with a Great Blue Heron giving an idea of the size difference between the two species. The last reports of anyone seeing the two cranes was around the 18th of January. I must assume the cranes continued their trip south to wintering grounds after giving us a nice show.

Camera and lens used that day: Canon 1Dx with 500 MM and 1.4 Tele-convertor. 

Info on the Sandhill Crane http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandhill_Crane

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