Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, Montana
My wife and I spent our honeymoon at the winter lodge in Yellowstone National Park. After a week of cross-country skiing to photograph the geysers, waterfalls and wildlife, we spent a few days in West Yellowstone, Montana. I had heard of the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, an Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited wildlife park, and was excited to photograph their animals in realistic habitats. The center had one large bear enclosure where the staff rotated a combination of grizzlies for exhibition and enrichment throughout the day and two wolf enclosures housing separate packs.
The day I visited the center, a storm with heavy snow was forecasted. With the weather in mind, my goal was to photograph the bears and wolves in the harsh winter environment. As the snowstorm picked up, the other visitors started leaving. Since the bears weren’t on display, I concentrated my photography on the wolves in the larger enclosure. Soon, I found myself alone in the park. Even the staff had disappeared.
The storm seemed to give the wolves energy. They began running and playfully interacting. Just when I thought the encounter couldn’t get any better, they started howling. First, one of the lower-ranked wolves started to sing, but not one individual joined him. Then, the alpha howled, and the whole pack started to serenade me. It was absolutely amazing, and I was in a great position to photograph these behaviors. As the storm intensified into near-blizzard conditions, the wolves took shelter in the trees at the back of their habitat. The blowing snow reduced the visibility to almost zero.
Even with my heavy winter clothing, I was feeling the effects of the cold. My hands were freezing since I had to take my gloves off repeatedly to manipulate my camera and change the battery. To capture the wolves in their environment, I used my 70-200mm lens. This gave me more flexibility than my heavy 400mm lens, and I didn’t have to carry a tripod around. I used my older Nikon D7200 camera body and a clear plastic camera cover to protect it from the snow.
About the time I’d had enough of the cold, one lone wolf began moving in and out of the trees for a few fleeting moments at a time, then disappearing. Finally, he just stood right in front of me, facing into the storm. I quickly fired off a series of photos before the wolf disappeared into the trees again. I knew immediately I had obtained the photograph I came for, which made standing in a howling snowstorm all afternoon well worth the effort.
As I was packing up my gear to leave, I was thinking what a tough, hard-core nature photographer I am. Then I saw the exit sign and turnstiles and realized I wasn’t deep in the backcountry of Yellowstone but in a first-rate nature center. Nevertheless, for a few hours, it felt like a true wilderness experience and, more importantly, I achieved my photography goal. This turned out to be one of my favorite wildlife encounters.
Nikon D7200, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens at 200mm. Exposure: 1/320 sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 125.