When opportunity knocks, I don’t only answer but I invite it in for coffee and possibly a sleepover. Six months ago, a friend and I were having a conversation about upcoming photography trips and he mentioned how he had been traveling to Wyoming for several years and photographing grizzly bears. After utilizing a guide service, he began to know the area quite well, including the specific bears that tend to favor certain spots, and by the end of our conversation, I had booked my airline tickets to spend Memorial Weekend in the Grand Teton National Park!
As I do for any trip, usually international, I spend months learning about the location: climate, people, popular sites to become familiar with, customs, food, and the travelers “dos and don’ts.” Although in the US, I had not been to Wyoming for at least three decades, so I dedicated time to conduct quite a bit of research, particularly since the area I would be visiting was described to me as a “photographer feeding frenzy.” I wanted to ensure I had the appropriate equipment, mentality and imagined experience to maximize my trip. To minimize travel time, I chose to stay at The Hatchet Inn, just 7 miles from the park entrance, and was sure to reserve a Jeep Wrangler (it’s Wyoming, I had to!).
Now that I knew where I’d stay and how I would get around, I turned my preparation to learning all I could about the grizzly bear population in the park, including sites, schedules and best locations for sightings. I learned that the grizzlies are designated by numbers and #399, #610, #793 were a few that seem to return with their cubs each spring after hibernation. After more research, I found a few have be given names: #793, aka Blondie, and #610, aka Felicia. As my friend and I spoke more, we laughed a bit at our “secret agent-like” conversations that referenced these bears by number. The more I researched, the more excited I became and then remembered, I have at least five more months! The excitement grew as the date neared.
While my family made holiday weekend plans to officially kick off summer at our nearby lake, I packed my light winter clothes, all-weather jacket, hooded sweatshirts and beanie and headed off to Jackson Hole, WY from my homet in Dallas. My outbound flight was overbooked and we were not going anywhere until nine passengers, either voluntarily or involuntarily, made alternate plans. To incentivize the deal, bidding started at $800, which quickly escalated to $1200. Despite my excitement to get to start my grizzly adventure, I thought this is an opportunity I should answer and threw my name in the ring to get bumped. After eight others reluctantly came to the same decision, we each walked away from the gate with $2800 in future flights and a seat on the same flight the following day. My hotel was kind to adjust my reservation without penalty, and I flew out the next morning, but not until I ate my $31 in food voucher by starting the day with steak and eggs!
Arriving a day later than anticipated only increased my excitement to get my baggage (of course I carry-on my equipment), grab the Jeep and hit the wet road from a full day of rain. Wyoming is breathtaking and far more beautiful than I recall from my childhood summer vacations. Meeting up with my friend, who had been on the ground for a few days already, was a little delayed because I could not hold back from pulling over and capturing the beauty around every passing curve. Little did I know that this was a good idea because the rain kept the bears tucked in for the day.
Day two far exceeded my expectations. Not only did I capture #793 and her 2 cubs, within yards was #399 and her nursing cubs. What started off as a few observing passerby’s turned into miles-long of onlookers, photographers and some very sweet park rangers. The day was filled with #399 leading the way for #793, mimicking the motherly teachings of what I imagine my wife doing for our young children as they become parents. I spent the next couple of days capturing the sweetest moments between the pair of sows and cubs, never growing tired of patiently waiting for the playful bursts of the cubs chasing birds in the tall prairie grass or chewing on the orange parking cones. My trip could have ended here and I would go home a happy man, more importantly a happy photographer. How could this get any better?
My morning routine was pretty well set by now, so early the next day, I grabbed my coffee and drove through the park, looking for the next opportunistic shot of other beautiful creatures of the park: moose, elk, and the occasional black or cinnamon black bear. As I settled on an area, I caught a familiar face mixing about the crowd – Tom Mangelsen – arguably one of the most celebrated wildlife photographers today, who happens to in the Tetons in search of the same stunning moments I was in search of. Stepping in the front of the camera for a moment, I grabbed a photo of Tom and me, as well as a pop-up interview regarding the proposed reversal of national park hunting practices. His lovingly admiration for #399 and others was so personal, and I look forward to sharing his thoughts in a future article.
Photography trips are more than just capturing images of the local community, human and bears, alike. Photographing wildlife brings hours of idle time to meet other professionals, share stories of past or future adventures or other on-site photographic material or subjects. This proved very helpful for my next morning as I set out to get a sunrise shot of one of my favorite birds that had been nesting nearby, the osprey or aka sea hawk (for those Seattle NFL fans out there).
As I waited patiently for one of the nesting pair to take flight, one of the other photographers I had befriended joined up with me and we received a tip that a great grey owl was nearby. Rumor has it other wildlife photographers have spent years, 10+, to photograph this evasive creature and here I am on day 5 of my trip. Thank you to Wendy and Jeff!
My bucket list and soul are fulfilled. My inbound flight ended up being overbooked, too, so guess what I did! After receiving a $2000 voucher, I went back to rent the same Jeep, and set out to gather more shots. Blondie (#793 and I are on first-name basis by now) was the first bear I spotted from the main road passed Colter Bay and after she retired into the woods after about 4.5 hours, I found myself alone with a wolf for about 6-minutes before two park rangers arrived. When I shared my good luck, they confirmed stating that neither of them have seen a wolf in years. My days were catching up to me so I slowly made my way to Snow King resort, compliments of American Airlines, had dinner and packed yet once again before calling it a night.
The final day was short, but I made the most of it and caught the great grey owl hunting for breakfast along the bank of the water at Moose Overlook. Only photographers quietly trace the path of a hungry owl, hoping she looks our way or into the sunlight. My journey ended here. I was ready to go home, but a part of me would welcome a financially-incentivized reason to delay my flight, but opportunity did not knock and in a way I was okay with that because I’m already planning my next trip. Thank you, Wyoming.