Wednesday September 20, 2023

One of the best ways to experience the majesty of the Teton Range is to fly into and land at the Jackson Hole Airport (JAC). Never have I felt so small as being on a descending plane, glancing out the window at the looming Tetons, and seemingly endless periods of time passing by until we reach and land on the valley floor. 

Looking out the windows, I can see many recognizable locations and natural features that I know I’ll be spending countless hours at over the coming days. I know that in my field of vision, at that moment, are all of the fauna I hope to see. Hopefully I’ll be able to get closer vantage points soon, and preferably with fantastic sunlight. 

Over the course of our first few hours in Jackson Hole, we experienced drastic changes in weather. We saw sunshine transition to thunderstorms, with hail even falling in town. Hail isn’t exactly the weather we left Florida for, but thankfully it was short-lived and the setting sun was eventually able to peek through before the day ended. 

When the system had passed, the Tetons, Sleeping Indian, and the surrounding mountains had their first dusting of snow of the season visible from the valley floor (the peaks had no snow prior to the afternoon storm). Unfortunately, the trend of rain would continue for the majority of our days in Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, but considering the fantastic luck we’ve had with weather during our recent trips, we are in no position to complain. 

Our first day ended without much in the way of wildlife. We did see some mule deer in the rain, but they weren’t photographable. The highlight of the afternoon was an incredibly bright and vivid rainbow that seemingly ended right in the middle of the Gros Ventre River. 

Gold was found at the end of this rainbow, but in the form of a few remaining cottonwood leaves—not the precious metal variety. There is noticeably less color for this time of year than I can recall seeing over recent years. Most areas of the valley are beyond their peak color, with many aspens and cottonwoods completely bare.

After enjoying the rainbow, we headed back to town to get groceries for the next few days, eat dinner, and get to bed early. 


Thursday September 21, 2023

Staying in town, I have close to an hour long drive to the northern reaches of Grand Teton National Park, which is where I wanted to be before sunrise. So, I had an early morning, leaving town at approximately 5:30am. It is important to not just “get to” an area you hope to photograph before sunrise, but to actually be there and be embedded before the sun rises. Otherwise, you’re going to possibly disturb the wildlife you’re hoping to see. 

The first morning was a slow one. A grizzly, likely 1063, had been spotted, but she was a bit too far off for decent photographs. I spent some time catching up with friends from Utah while we waited and hoped she would wander closer, but she didn’t cooperate. At least not while I was there; I get impatient easily and I was off to search for something to photograph. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t really find anything. I went to some of my regular spots along Pilgrim and Pacific creeks, and I even checked out a few new spots that I have had on my list for a few years. They were all beautiful, but quiet. 

While most areas of the park and valley were past their fall peak color, a few patches along Pacific Creek were beautiful.

As for wildlife, aside from a few ducks, there just wasn’t much to see this morning. 

My friends were all reporting similar struggles, so I began heading back to town for lunch with Ashley.

By afternoon, it was raining again, but I know that many animals prefer the cooler temps during rainstorms, so we headed into the park to see what we could find. 

Unfortunately, the slow start to the trip continued. I did find some mule deer casually feeding in the rain, and I got some decent shots. It was a fun encounter, even if the larger bucks kept themselves hidden among the pines.

I’ve spent enough time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to understand that not every day is going to be great in terms of wildlife. There are going to be some slow days, even some painfully slow ones. That is just how it goes sometimes, and I’ve gotten better about just accepting it and not attempting to force the issue. We have over two weeks of this trip remaining, and I know that just as there are some slow days, there will be some fantastic days. With this in mind, we head back to town at sunset for dinner and to prepare to do it all again tomorrow.


Friday September 22, 2023

On these sorts of trips, Ashley and I have developed a system that works quite well for us. She isn’t quite as excited as I am to be on the road two hours before sunrise, so she alternates the days that she joins me for morning jaunts. Today was the day for her to join me, and we had planned ahead to make a day of it. We got sandwiches at Persephone Bakery in town the day before, and we would enjoy a nice picnic somewhere in the park later that day.

However, at this point, I still haven’t had a solid wildlife encounter since we arrived, and my shutter finger is getting very antsy. Fortunately, just as I knew it eventually would, the trend began turning in the opposite direction, with us enjoying wildlife sightings instead of strike-outs.

We began our morning with a hike along the Snake River, and well before sunrise (hence the dark photo) we saw an osprey dive-bomb a bald eagle. If you’ve ever seen an osprey beside a bald eagle, you know that an eagle is much larger. This isn’t a fight that an osprey is likely to win. The only times I’ve ever seen an osprey go on the offensive against a bald eagle is when the eagle got too close to the osprey’s nest. The nearest osprey nest that I’m aware of from this skirmish is a few miles, so I’m not sure if this osprey is from that nest. Regardless, the osprey made a dive at the eagle, which stood its ground, even if it chirped back and made a defensive stance in the process.

We continued hiking along the Snake to some spots where I’ve seen elk cross in the past, but no such luck on this particular morning. My friends that have been in the area prior to our arrival told me that only over the last day or two have elk begun to be seen in the valley. A warmer than average fall kept them up in the mountains, and only now with cooling temperatures are elk coming down to the valley floor. 

While we didn’t have any luck with river crossings, we would find two good-sized bull elk with their harems a short time later. 

These bulls were behaving as they are notoriously known for in Grand Teton National Park: heading away from people as the sun rises. Some of the lands around GTNP are open to elk hunting, so these elk are far warier of people than the elk of Yellowstone National Park, which do not typically walk on any land that has a hunting season. As a result, it is typically easier to get closer to elk in YNP than GTNP. 

Regardless, the foggy morning and some remaining fall color made for some nice backdrops. The elk didn’t fully cooperate as they were a bit far off, so I didn’t get the shots I was hoping for, but I was still able to capture some decent photographs. 

I was on a ridge overlooking the willow-covered flats, anticipating where I thought the elk would be heading. However, while waiting, far in the distance approximately half a mile away, I noticed a bull moose wandering out of the willows. 

I got some photographs that I’m very pleased with. I love capturing landscapes with animals being the subject, as opposed to made-for-Instagram tight crops with no context of the animal’s behavior or surroundings. I watched the moose, and he eventually became obstructed enough by willows that he was no longer visible. To be honest, I kind of forgot about him as my attention shifted back to the elk.

I spent the next several minutes watching the elk, and with the sun getting higher in the sky, my window of opportunity for getting good photographs was closing quickly. While contemplating my next move, I unexpectedly saw the moose reappear only a few hundred yards from me! He was not heading towards me, however, so I knew I had to quickly reposition. I ran to the car, and we raced to where I thought we could intercept the moose. 

We parked, and we saw some friends waiting for elk. I informed them that a moose was on the way, and right on cue, here he came trudging out of the willows and into a clearing no more than 100 yards from us. Aspens provided a fantastic backdrop. 

This moose had an odd tine on his right antler, that was perfectly positioned to block the viewing of his right eye. A few of my better compositions were affected by this. This photo shows his eye barely visible, and gives you an idea of how this tine affected visibility of his face and eye:

He is reminiscent of “Hoback,” the crowd-favorite bull moose of Grand Teton National Park, who is instantly recognizable thanks to his downward-curved tines. This moose’s tine is curved upward, not downward, but is positioned at the front-lower portion of his right antler. 

This was a thrilling encounter, both because of the moose’s surprise reappearance after I had seen him earlier at a great distance, and because of where he eventually came out into the open. In the 1990s, I saw moose in this part of the park quite often, but I haven’t seen one in this location in over 20 years. This made the encounter even more special. I heard similar thoughts from a few other people I saw, including another friend from Idaho.

Once the moose wandered back into the woods, we let him travel in peace and decided that it was time for lunch. We hiked into the backcountry along a tributary of the Snake River to one of my favorite settings for picnics or just an afternoon resting session. 

Along the way, we saw quite a few pink-sided dark-eyed juncos.

After lunch, we drove to research some areas I was hoping to visit the following morning, and watched a hawk hunt the open flats with a Teton backdrop.

We checked out a few more areas in search of moose, but with the higher temps of the midday, they were bedded down until it would cool off later. We mutually agreed to call it a day a bit earlier than usual, which would end up being a fortuitous decision.

Once back at our accommodation, I was unpacking the car, and the entire sole of my right Scarpa boot came off from the shoe. It was loose and flapping, and judging by the amount of dirt between the sole and shoe, it had been loose for quite some time and I had been completely oblivious to the fact. I must do a better job in the future of inspecting my gear prior to a trip!

I have had these boots for several years, so I suppose I got the good out of them. Regardless, the timing is terrible. We are set to leave for West Yellowstone, Montana in the morning, and even though Jackson has quite a few merchants specializing in outdoors gear, I have a difficult time finding and purchasing footwear as I am a size 15 AAAA. Thankfully, our early return to town allowed us to visit JD High Country Outfitters before they closed for the day. I viewed their “boot wall,” but simply requested for the service associate to bring me the largest Gore-Tex boot they had in stock. They had a pair of Crispi boots, EU size 48 (approximately a US 14), and thank goodness they just barely fit. They’re a tad stiff and tight, but I don’t really have a choice at this point. 

I do travel with a backup pair, but I wear them in town and when not in the field, while my “expedition boots” dry from my most recent jaunt. I didn’t want to have to resort to wearing my backups unless I had to. Plus, I need a clean and decent looking pair to wear into town and restaurants, and I have a few meetings and I need to appear somewhat presentable!

I think these boots will suffice at least for the remainder of the trip.

After my unexpected shopping excursion, we ate dinner and got to bed early, preparing for a long day tomorrow as we reposition to West Yellowstone, Montana, for 8 nights and 9 days of touring Yellowstone National Park. 

January 13, 2024 — Zach Jones