Saturday, March 12, 2011

Purple Mountain Majesty

The Grand Tetons at first light on a cold winter morning in late February.

One of my bucket lists is to visit all 50 United States. I also visited Grand Teton National Park for the first time in my life last fall and fell in love with the scenery. Add those things to me being in Bozeman, MT the last weekend of February, 2011 and you may understand a little more of why I went out of my way to drive southwest from Bozeman into Idaho and back through the west side of the Teton range. It was a long detour but worth every mile as I was able to reach the Grand Teton National Park as the sun sank behind the range creating amazing light. Plus I added Idaho to the list of states I've visited and am now up to 31.

I stayed just outside of Jackson, WY for the evening and beat the sun up to get in place for the first light to hit the mountains the following morning. It was cold, it was windy, but I'm so glad I did as it was also magical. The Grand Tetons are definitely on my short list for favorite places on planet earth! It is a testimony to me of God's creative genius. That said, I would guess that even one who does not believe as I would still stand in awe of the Tetons at first light. Click any image for a larger file to view and thanks for stopping by.

The view from atop Teton Pass looking in a northeasterly direction. I think the elevation was around 8,400 feet.

Evening shots of the Teton range with the sun setting behind them.

The Grand Teton capped with wispy clouds.

The next morning was overcast and I was initially disappointed as I thought I wouldn't get a chance to see sun light up the mountains. Much to my delight there was a window of light when the sun was at the horizon and before it got lost behind the higher clouds. The band of light first struck Mount Moran and the northerly part of the mountain range. The photos don't do the scene justice at all. It was amazing.

The Snake River reflects the light from the tall peaks. Now I know what lyric in "America the Beautiful" about purple mountain majesty looks like as I've seen it in person.

A young moose on my way out of the parks.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Coyote Tale

The winter of 2010-11 has become the “winter of the coyote” for me. Starting in October until recently I have seen more coyotes in the wild than any other time of my life all added together. I know the numbers in upper Midwest are up as the mange sickness that has been affecting the populations has tapered off. I know there is an abundance of food for the coyote to eat as the game bird numbers have increased throughout the state with CRP land, hunting reserves and other conservation programs. But knowing all this doesn’t stop me from being amazed every time I see one. You see, I heard a lot of coyotes growing up in Western South Dakota, but I never saw one until I was in college. A live one anyway… It is sheep and ranch country where I grew up and I heard a lot about ranchers killing coyotes especially around lambing time. I even saw a few dead ones during the winter season when trapping and fur trade was still a viable way to make a quick buck. Actually seeing one alive, however, was hard to do. At least for me… and I spent a lot of time outdoors - fencing, farming, prairie dogging and exploring.

The land west of our home turns to rough river breaks about a mile or so out and my family referred to the area as “out west.” Picture a vast, majestic space of untamed South Dakota, add a vision of a gathering thunderstorm, big antlered mule deer, then add the lonely calls of the coyote at dusk. Now you have an idea of the imagery that the phrase “out west” brings to my mind. So even though coyotes were pretty much a hated animal where I’m from, they still interested me greatly. Maybe it was Wile E. Coyote from Looney Tunes or maybe it was the fact that I heard so much about them but never really saw one that caused this. I really don’t know. Regardless, I still think the coyote is a fine and interesting animal even if they are a disliked pest to many in this state.

OK, let’s get to the story of a recent coyote encounter. The scene is set in Badlands National Park, on a bitter cold morning in late February with a recent heavy snowfall.

Bleary eyed, I leave my hotel from Kadoka in the dark. Half an hour later I’m a little more awake but disappointed in the flat, gray morning. This isn’t good for majestic scenic photo taking.

Oh well, maybe I will see some wildlife, I think as I put on my telephoto lens near the abandoned gates of the park. It looks like a snowplow has been recently through as there is one lane plowed on the park road. I drive on. The first thing I see are a couple of deer off to my left. They are burying their head in the snow, scrounging for grass and breakfast. When they look up at me, their faces are comically framed in snow. Too far away for a decent photo though, so I move on.

What appears to be a golden eagle is circling high above Cedar Pass. Again too far away for a photo… I enjoy the graceful sight though. I make my way through the Bigfoot Pass area and spot a lone coyote to my right. He is moving parallel to me in the deep snow, he sees me but doesn’t appear to be too concerned. There has been no traffic in the park that I’ve seen up to this point, so I stop behind a small hill to conceal myself behind a bit of cover. I get out quietly and hunch over with my camera at the ready to get a better shot of the coyote.

Dang it! I think to myself as the coyote spots my head pop up from behind the little hill. He takes off in a hurry as I snap a few more photos. It doesn’t take long and he’s lost from sight. I hop back into my vehicle and proceed to drive on. I’m happy to see him and get a couple reasonable shots. The morning is looking better and better.

Thirty seconds later, something happens that I still can’t hardly believe.

The road here is slightly up and down with multiple twists and turns. My heart skips a beat as suddenly a gray-brown shape appears not 30 yards in front of me on the road. It is the coyote and he’s running down the road like his tail is on fire. Like an excited school girl hearing the name Justin Bieber, I giggle out loud. It is then that I realize that he’s not getting off the road! He continues to run on ahead of me. After 15 seconds I audibly say, “No way.” and continue to drive. This coyote seems to want to race me! My mind is a state of unsure and competing thoughts… My inner dialogue went something like this:

- Holy crap, should I be chasing him?

- You shouldn’t be chasing him, you might get fined for harassing the wildlife.

- Harassing wildlife?!? What law is that? I should speed up to see how fast he’ll go.

- Are you crazy, do you WANT a fine? (my foot presses down on the accelerator)

- Shut up, there is no one out here but you. If I had a gun, I wonder if I could hit him.

- What is the matter with you?

- I know plenty of ranchers that would love for me to run him over.

- You couldn’t catch him and if you tried you would end up in the ditch or dead yourself.

- True, I wouldn’t want to kill him anyway, but I do have a camera…

- Hello?!?! You are driving here. Both hands on the wheel, please! (my hand reaches for the camera)

- No one is going to believe this, I need to get proof.

- What would your mom say? What kind of example would this be to your nephews?

- I’d be the cool uncle who races coyotes, duh! (snap goes the camera)

- How fast am I going anyway?

- I don’t know because your stupid camera is in my face. I can’t see the speedometer!

- He’s looking back at me like Usain Boldt winning the 100 meters at the Olympics… he’s enjoying this!

- Here comes a curve!

- Whoa, I better slow down… just a couple more pics though (click, click goes the camera)

- You idiot, you now have proof that you were chasing a coyote in the Badlands.

- Whatever… He ran out in front of me. It’s like this is his morning exercise, I’m just giving him a little fun. It’s all good.

- This better not make your photo blog.

- I gotta post this to show off for my work buddies! (click, click)

- Dang, he’s off the road now.

- Amazing, he just ran a half-mile in –9 temperatures and is not even breathing hard. He stopped and is gloating at me. (click, click)

- Cool.

- Yeah, that was very cool… Did that just happen?!? Good thing I had my camera.

- Yeah, good thing!

So there you have it. Mr. Coyote shattered the human half mile world record time with ease and let me follow him while doing it. Amazing! I hope I didn’t break any laws or offend any ranchers or coyote lovers with this story… I just want you all to remember that he was enjoying the morning run just as much as I was. All’s well that ends well, right? And Mr. Wile E. Coyote, he’s still cool… even though I might be a little loony tunes!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Winter's Grip

Sub-zero temperatures couldn't stop this coyote from hunting in the deep snow late February morning in Badlands National Park.

The last weekend in February, 2011 I traveled to Bozeman, MT to see some good friends and attend a missions conference. I decided to take an extra day off from work so I could make extended detours through the Badlands, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park on my way to Montana. I hit the Badlands in the morning gloom as the rising sun was hidden behind gray clouds with the air temperature at -7. There had been quite a bit of recent snow and I wasn't expecting to see much wildlife. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundant display of South Dakota's hearty creatures out and about acting like the freezing cold was not a problem. Tough hombres, these animals... it was great day of hanging out with them. Here are some of my best shots of the day. The coyote above will get his own post as he wasn't content with just letting me take his portrait from afar... Look for that soon. In the meantime, click on each image for a larger file to view and thanks for stopping by!

A group of deer were bedded down at the Buffalo Jump lookout area of the Badlands.

A lone snowplow makes it easier for me to drive through the park on this bitter cold morning.

Custer State Park deer.

This Pronghorn was digging through the snow on the hillside of Custer State Park to find and eat cactus. I had no idea they did that. Makes my lean pocket for lunch look really good!

A young deer at the southern end of Custer State Park. I imagine this one was a newborn last spring.
Chewing on the branch for sustenance.

Wind Cave National Park

Buffalo cow at Wind Cave National Park hanging out by the highway.

Elk on the hills above the Wind Cave Park entrance.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The North Star and Balancing Rock

Just a quick post to share two photos from an rare cloudless night in mid-February out at Palisades State Park, near Garretson, SD. It was an incredible night of star watching by myself in the silent, windless space between the cliffs. I was working on learning star photography as well as star time lapses. Below are a couple of my favorite shots from the night (click on the image for a larger file to view and thanks for looking):

The starry hosts above.

This is a long exposure of the North Star (Polaris) above the Balancing Rock Formation. The light bleeding in is from lights of Garretson, just a few miles to the northeast.