Trip reports Yellowstone 2011

by Claudia and PJ Potgieser



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March 2011, USA
21 - 26 March, Yellowstone National Park
Two days of driving north through Arizona and Utah brought us to Plain City, where we picked up our warm clothes at Claudia's cousin and left our flip-flops and shorts in their basement. We left on Sunday morning and six hours later we were in West-Yellowstone. The amount of snow here was amazing. It is hard to believe this will all melt away this summer.


Normally we can take the west entrance of Yellowstone park, but this one is still closed, so we had to drive to Bozeman, Livingston and Gardiner for the north entrance. That made our trip 4 1/2 hours longer!

There was still a lot of snow in the park and we saw white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, coyote, bison, bighorn sheep and pronghorn.

This might seem a lot of wildlife, but we have visit this park so many times, that we would rather see some wolves. We cruised the park, but just could not find them at close range.
The winter scenery is gorgeous, especially after it started to snow on the second day. We took pictures of the bison covered in snow, something we always wanted to do. The next day the sun was shining and the temperature dropped to a nippy 14F.



After more days of seeing hardly anything we were getting pretty desperate and bored. Are we losing touch? Normally we are always lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Had camping life in Mexico made us too lazy, having the boa constrictors hanging in the tree above the trailer, hummingbirds flying around our head and whales jumping in the ocean seen from our camp site...
We have two more days left, where could we go? We started searching the Internet and maps, but there is more snow everywhere. We decide to give the park another try.

On Friday morning we cruised the Mammoth area again and continued to the Lamar Valley. At 10am we saw a single wolf walking 30 yards from the road! That was promising! She was not wearing a collar and looked pretty. We parked at a turnout and saw that two coyotes spotted her and took off.


Right in our view the wolf ran into a lone cow elk. The wolf tried to scare the elk, but the elk stood her ground. The wolf kept approaching her, even trying to ‘play’ with her (of course thinking about brunch), rolling around in the snow, but the smart elk did not move. They were sometimes nose to nose. It started snowing again and the 600mm was shaking in the wind. Hard for PJ to make pictures, but neat to watch the interaction between the animals. We wondered what was going through their minds.


After 50(!) minutes the wolf finally gave up and continued east. We were the first ones to pass her and drove to the next pull out. We had noticed a lone elk grazing here every day. She was doomed to become a meal. We could see the dot wolf getting bigger and coming closer to our pull out. The wolf saw the elk, ran toward her and grabbed her by the throat. They rolled down the hill and within 30 seconds the elk was dead! This was more like the African way of killing an animal; quick, almost painless and the elk probably did not realize what happened to her. I was hand holding the 600mm through the window and of course the pictures I took were not in focus, because I was exclaiming WOW too much, but what a thing to witness.


The carcass started to slide down the hill and we could not see them from the truck anymore, so we walked the road to get a better point of view. The wolf had just begun her brunch, but it started snowing again.
Suddenly we heard hooves clicking on the asphalt. Six bison were galloping along the turnout towards us. Shit, we were halfway the road, without cover of the cars! Staying put was not an option, with the bison coming closer. Getting off the road was also not possible; the snow next to the road was waist deep…so we walked away from them to a car that had stopped on the road to look at the wolf. We were now too close to the wolf, 90 yards, (that is what she thought, not us) and the wolf left the carcass and went up the hill. We took cover behind the car and waited for the bison to pass us. Then we walked back to the truck and waited for the wolf to return to the carcass. She did that after 15 minutes.

It started snowing and during one of the storms, with no visibility the wolf sneaked out on us and never came back. Three coyotes took turns on the carcass and picked it clean quick.
We left late afternoon. The ‘first’ elk was still by herself, trying to find food in the thick layer of snow.

Because yesterday was a reasonable good day (still not photography wise) we gave the park one more try. We drove all the way to the east, but nothing was happening. The carcass was clean and a pack of wolves were sleeping dots on a hill. On our way back to the entrance we suddenly saw a heap of ravens, right where the ‘first’ elk was. No elk around. Did the wolf brought her pack and killed the elk last night to have her revenge? We will never know.

We left the park at 11am and drove to West Yellowstone to spend the night at Claudia's aunt and uncle’s house. They had left for a week in Mexico, but left their front door unlocked for us! PJ first had to clean the driveway a bit before we could enter. We both took a long hot shower. The next morning more snow was falling. It will be long summer before my relatives can see their lawn again!


After three weeks in Holland we are back in the USA and head north to Yellowstone.

May 2011, USA
29 April 2011 - 10 May 2011 Yellowstone National Park
First impression in the park: lots of snow, cold and sunny. Besides snowy bison we do not see much wildlife.



We found fresh bear tracks in the snow, the front paw measured 29 cm
(11 1/2 inch!!). Try to measure that with your hands, it is enormous. We are sorry we missed this sasquatch.
'Cause we cannot find bears we walk the board walk around Old Faithful, where some of the geysers are where Yellowstone is famous for.


For a week we hunt together with Jackie and Dave, who flew in from Oklahoma. We know Jackie for years from Hyder, Alaska, were she would spent her summer holiday with the kids. Dave never liked watching fishing grizzlies for hours/days at the time. He would rather go fishing. But last year Jackie finally persuaded him to join her into a trip to Yellowstone. He enjoyed it; cruising around, drinking coffee/beer in our camper and some BS-ing about nothing. So this spring he joined her again.
The next person who added up to our little group is the Englishman Tony
( We also know him from Hyder and we enjoy his dry British humor and his colorful stories about his world travels. Tony is a gifted landscape photographer, but also pictures of cowboys, Indians and horses fill his repertoire. 


Unfortunately, to us he will be known as 'that bloke who forgot to put his camper in park and saw it disappearing in a glacier lake!!!'. We still tease him with it.


When also Dave and Jenny, our friends from Colorado with whom we have to been to South Africa, join our group the party can start. We all squeeze into our camper for a cup of home made soup.


Enormous snowdrifts along the road
(Hayden Valley)

The atmosphere in the park is not always fun. We see a newborn bison calf glide into the freezing river during his first minutes alive. For hours he tried to keep his head above water, while mother bison watches helplessly from the shore. When we drove by the next day, there is just a bunch of bones and skin left on the shore. Probably a wolf or bear fished him out and has eaten it.


This harsh winter seems to be never ending and fresh snow is still falling. The snow drifts along the roads are sometimes over 16 feet high!
PJ drives into a snow bank while turning and bents the bumper and crushes the step. A bit difficult to get in and out of the camper now...

                                                        The snow plow is busy every day

The late spring is taking its toll from the animals. A bison walking on his last legs, drops into the sage. Slowly we watch him die, occasionally convulsing with its legs. The next morning a coyote wanders by and begins to gnaw at the carcass. The bears and wolves finish him off, but by then the rangers have moved the carcass much further into the field and it is not interesting for us anymore.


After a week we finally find a grizzly bear. And it is a good one; a beautiful creature who his busy with the carcass of a moose. Most times the bear has four legs in the air! What a comical bear.
Click here for a YouTube movie of this bear:


                                                                                                              who called me comical?

A gorgeous red fox comes along, but takes off when the bear gets to close.


But the funniest moments are when the bear rolls around in the fur of the moose and we sometimes see only moose hair and bear paws. This bear makes up for the bear less week.

The next day we see more grizzlies, but far out.

Without a lot of bears and wolves, we expand our focus and photograph the beautiful birds of prey and a colorful flicker.

The Golden Eagle has a wing span of 78''. Here is he nibbling on a duck.

          Red-shafted Race Flicker                                      Osprey                                     Bald Eagle on a bison carcass

But also cuddly animals like the marmot and an otter.


In the meantime we also have spent a day at the Ford garage in Bozeman to have two new fuel injectors installed.

May 2011, USA
11 May 2011 Yellowstone National Park
We drove a long stretch through the park, but could not find anything. So we decided to go through the East Entrance to Cody to stock up with supplies. This town is about one hour outside the park. When we returned to the park, the East gate was closed! Three snow avalanches had totally blocked the Sylvan pass. A park ranger narrowly escaped the snow heap by jumping out of his truck, but his pick-up was partly buried under the avalanche. One of the avalanches was 70 yards wide and 20-30 feet high. It could have been us driving there...

Pictures from National Park Service

It is going to take days before the pass is passable, so the East Entrance will be closed indefinitely. With the Cooke City entrance (northeast gate) also closed this meant we had to drive 250 miles (!!) around the park to be able to get back into Yellowstone! Six hours later we were back in the park at the Gardiner entrance.



12 May 2011 Yellowstone National Park
PJ had promised uncle Bill to help him planting trees in his yard. As fast as we could we drove through the park to West Yellowstone, ignoring a foraging grizzly bear along the way. Bill has started yesterday, so most of the hard labor had been done. The warmer weather has almost melted all the snow in their yard. It is 62F and good time to linger outside. At around 3pm they are finished and we decided to go back to the park to see if that grizz is still around. He had not waited for us, so we had dinner at Mammoth outside at a pick nick table, while Tony entertained us.



13 May 2011 Yellowstone National Park
Again we could not find any wildlife, so we drove to the heart of the park (Fishing Bridge). Fellow photographers had just seen a grizzly bear with a spring cub. Great! We had to wait for another four hours before the bear and coy showed up again.


What a cutie! A befriended photographer told us that yesterday he had seen a big grizzly bear on a bison carcass in the river. He showed us the carcass and we decided to wait for action. To get closer to the carcass, we had to walk 50 yards through a forest. But the snow was still five feet thick and slowly melting, so very porous. When we checked out the path a few times we now and then dropped to our knees into snow. I decided to wear my insulated winter boots instead of my hiking boots, which are stored between the camper and the bed of the truck. I had wear then last week for the first time this year.
The bear suddenly appeared, so I quickly slide into my snow boots. In one of the boots the inner felt lining felt weird, but I had no time to look at it, we wanted to be at a spot along the river as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, several photographers had taken all the best places and we had to settle with shooting through the trees. I tried to create a kind of platform for PJ and I carefully stamped the snow with my boots, with minimal noise. However it was annoying that one inner boot was still crooked. I made room for PJ and stepped aside and dropped to my crotch into the snow! PJ was too busy photographing the bear, which was very nervous of noises and the clicking of the cameras. I could not move and if I tried to push myself up I even sank further into the snow. My legs became very cold and my crotch wet. The bear decided to call it a day and finally PJ could save me from my critical situation.


We walked back to the camper and immediately I took off my snow boots and tried to push the inner boot back into shape. I stuck my hand into the boot and felt something cold! Gross, what was that? I  held the boot upside down an three dead mice fell on the laminated floor!!!
I screamed to PJ that he should come and see this. I held the boot upside down again and there were two more dead mice. With some paper towel around my hand I stuck my hand into boot and pulled out two more mice, but these ones were all squashed and bloody. I immediately began to retch. The idea that I had been pounding through the snow with SEVEN dead mice in my boot, brought up the bile. PJ helped me to clean out the vermin, but even one hour later I still  started to gag when I thought of it. When had these mice come in? We wondered, we have been  constantly in snow. Fortunately the mice were already frozen to death before I stepped into my boots.

The next day we went to the same spot and did not see wildlife the whole day!

19 May 2011
Meanwhile, Bill and Donna went to Utah for three weeks, PJ reinforced the camper and I worked at the website. Bill had asked us to try to keep the bison out of the yard. Yellowstone is almost 5000 square miles and has no fences. If the snow is too high in the park, the bison migrate out of it in search of food. We saw them regularly. But now Bill has just planted 14 new trees and he obviously does not want the bison to damage them. Not that bison eat pine, but they love to rub their big head through the branches or to get rid of their old winter coat against the trunk. The new trees will never survive the scratch.
I was just going to take a shower and I was waiting for the water to heat up. When I looked out of the window I saw a big bull bison grazing on the lawn! I did not hesitate one second, slide into a sweater and run in my bare behind to the kitchen to grab a cookie sheet and a spoon. I opened the the door and started banging the spoon on the sheet. The bison ran off. I am not sure what scared him: the noise or seeing my half naked body...
At night again we had to chase away some bison off the property, this time I kept my clothes on.
A few days later it happened again. PJ threw rocks at the bison and the bull was so annoyed that he almost pushed down on the new trees. Oops!



Meanwhile we could borrow Bill's Lexus and we visit the park now and then. The bears are getting active and we even saw a wolf a couple of times. A black wolf tried to grab a bison calf, but mum stood her ground. And we saw a boxing match between marmots.







29 May 2011 Yellowstone National Park.
A grizzly boar at Steamboat Point hill is slowly coming closer. We can clearly photograph his long white nails. We are surprised that bear management is not showing up, but they were just around the corner monitoring a sow bear.



When both bears come together it is quite exciting: are they afraid of each other? Or will they start fighting? Neither: they like each other! It all happened in a snowstorm.




A sow grizzly in Hayden Valley is sleeping on a hill. When she wakes up, she nurses her two yearling cubs.




3 June 2011 - Grand Teton National Park
We arrived in Jackson Hole on Friday night and drove into the park early morning. We saw a new born elk and ran into friends. We got updated about the whereabouts of grizzly #610 and her two spring cubs. She had last been seen at Pothole Turnout two days ago. The whole day we are driving around putting 250 miles on the teller, chasing black bear jams which dissolve by the time we get there. Very frustrating! At the end of the afternoon we ran into friends again and start driving together. We saw a small jam and stopped. The first part of this story is hearsay: some tourist saw a cow elk running through the meadows and were wondering was was chasing it...No, she was not chased, the cow was chasing two grizzly spring cubs!! The cubs were running for their lives and ended up in a tree, about 130 yards from the road. That is when we arrived. The cubs were screaming their hearts out, no grizzly mum in sight. After about 10 minutes we could see the sow grizzly, about a mile or more out. We could clearly see her bloody nuzzle and she was running through the sage. Apparently she had taken down a elk calf and pissed off the cow elk, who started chasing her cubs. Why did she keep eating instead of protecting her cubs? Only a week ago she had lost her cubs for at least 24 hours, you would think that she would not let that happen again. We will never known what was going on in her head.
We can see the grizzly running through the meadow, nose on the ground, going in the wrong direction.
"Oh no, not again" I am thinking.
"Yes, yes" the tourists are cheering, "she is picking up their scent, that is exactly were the cubs went"
The grizzly makes a sharp curve and comes running towards the tree. We all hold our breath. The cubs are sensing that mum is coming and start to climb down. The reunion is out of sight, but the sow gives us a glimpse when she start nursing them on a snow bank. She looks relieved and when one of the cubs start to wander, she calls it back. After the nursing she starts walking away, but after a couple of steps she falls down again and cuddles her babies. She repeats this a couple of time. Then it is time to cross the meadow and while she climbs the steep snow hill we make some last pictures of her and the cubs. What a bear!






4 June 2011 Grand Teton National Park
The next morning we are looking for the grizzly with the two spring cub, but run into four grey wolves instead. Three of them are wearing a collar. They are looking intense at us, close to the road. Later we found out why, only 130 yards from the road (out of sight) they killed an adult elk. We cruise around looking for the grizzly which is still far out and start to wait at the carcass. But then we heard on the scanner that at Pelican Creek Road a grizzly with THREE springcubs is feeding on the shoulders!!









These bear pictures were taken just outside Grand Teton National Park in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
We have been photographing this bear family for three days and little Elvis is like a bouncing ball, running around, playing with his mum, climbing trees and being just a very happy cub. His Elvis' moves are unforgettable, shaking his hips while standing on his hind legs and moving his arms like Elvis. There is a lot of loving and kissing between the bears. It was such a joy to watch, film and photograph them with just a handful of photographers.






Unfortunately the bears were cracker shelled by Fish & Game when they came to close to the road. Little Elvis changed after that, he was not an unprejudiced cub after that.
The worse thing was when we were reported feeding the bears! I think you cannot make a more offensive accusation to wildlife photographers than that.


June 12 2011 - Grand Teton National Park
It was 7.30pm and we were driving the Teton Park Road south to Jackson Hole. It had been a rainy day and we had not seem much. The scanner started to crack up and we heard: "Wildlife patrol, on the northwest corner of Lake turnoff is a grizzly. Can you check it; it is #610 with her cubs". We could not believe our ears, hurray for the scanner and the person who was so specific. We made a u-turn as soon as possible and drove back. We still had an hour of daylight left. A big crowd had gathered and the sow was hiding with her cubs in the high willows. We parked our camper and started to walk along the road. Next thing we know the grizzly came out of the willows right where we were and made a sprint and started to pound the ground. In my innocence I thought she had a ground squirrel, but the 'squirrel' started to mewling and mama elk made an appearance. The grizzly had caught an elk calf! The rangers moved us to the other side of the road, which made it about 70-80 yards away. The calf kept crying for a while while the cow was running around. After the grizzly silenced the calf, the cow disappeared.
The sow had dragged the calf into a ditch and we could see the back of the grizzly and the cubs popped up their bloody faces. I was surprised that these cute four months old cubs already ate meat. The setting sun came through the mountain peaks and we could take gorgeous pictures (considering the circumstances). Right when it got to dark to take pictures, the bear left the scene.
The next morning she was back, although she might had caught another calf. PJ saw a cow acting nervous in the area. The family crossed the road and went north towards Christian Pond meadows. We heard the mewling of an elk calf and a couple of elk cows were moving around nervously. The killer machine strikes again.

p.s. I forgot to shop out her ugly yellow ear tags.






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