My wife and I live in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.  We had not been in snow since 2008…on purpose…we do not like being cold.  We are both professional landscape and wildlife photographers.  We wanted to expand our horizons a bit and photograph Yellowstone in the winter.  The opportunity arose and off we went.

I am 76 years old, skinny and own no warm clothing.  Linda had some pieces of appropriate gear, but was missing the most important pieces.  So, we borrowed and bought our way into warm clothing.  We got both the clothing and some coaching on winter photography from our business partner, C.J.Kale.  C.J. is renowned for his aurora shots from Alaska and knows what he is doing.  We did not.

Oh, it was cold in Yellowstone.  We had tempertures of minus 35 in Bozeman, Montana, where we landed, minus 25 or so in West Yellowstone, where we stayed.  It was minus 15 to minus 25 in the National Park.  We also had one day of heavy snow and white out conditions.  Quite the winter experience.

It was fantastic.  Our tour guide, Mark Comon of Creative Photo Academy, got us in just the right spots at just the right time.  We had a wonderful snow coach for the ten of us on this trip, but we kept it very cold so that our lenses would not fog up as we got in and out of the vehicle.  We dressed warm and were ready for whatever we might find to photograph.  And…we found plenty.

Along the way, we had one blue sky day.  It was cold, but blue skies and some clouds.  Perfect for landscape photography.  We hiked and moved around the park to get in some great shots with geysers, rivers and woods…and lots of snow.

We had days where we encountered plenty of wild life…coyotes, eagles, geese, elk, bison and wolves.  We spent one whole day following a large pack of wolves as they stalked a bison herd.  We were a bit surprised that we did not see more wild life, but the weather dictates what is on the move and we were happy with what we found.

Although the wolves were a big highlight for us, we had no idea how lucky we were going to get.  Driving along the road on the way back from Old Faithful towards Madison, a herd of bison came out of the woods and quickly took over the road.  They were all around us.  Looked like over one hundred.  At one point, they moved to one side and we able to slowly, safely move ahead of them.  Once we did, our terrific driver, Brandon, moved well ahead of the herd, around a big curve and found a pull out area.  We were going to get that whole herd as they rounded the curve, walk toward us and passed us by on the other side of the road.  We hoped…

A park ranger was near us and made sure we followed park and sensible safety rules.  Mark had us stay near the coach in case we had to jump in it or hide behind it.  On one side of the road…our side of the road…was a drop off into the uninviting looking river.  On the other side of the road was a clear path we hoped the bison would follow.

Most of our group uses tripods for the long lenses.  Linda and I do not.  We prefer the freedom to move and adjust and we shoot at a high speed, like 1/1000th of a second, so blurry images will not be a problem.  Everyone lined up.  I was on the far right of the group, on the edge of the road…that edge that Mark had warned us about repeatedly.  Step off the edge and you are on possibly steep and uneven ground and you are likely to be in deep snow.

Now here is where things went quite wrong real quick…

I was shooting a Sony a1 with a Sony 600mm f/4 lens.  I knew that would be good for the beginning part of the bison pass, but maybe not so good as they got close.  The Sony 600mm is a big lens and I had the Sony lens hood on it, making it even bigger.  That lens hood is 7 inches across and maybe 6 inches long.

I took one look at the group and realized…we are all going to get the exact same shot.  I knew Linda would get a good shot…spoiler alert…she got a much better shot than mine.  She was using a Sony 400 f/2.8…exactly the right lens for the situation.

So, I came up with an idea.  I would shoot low…catch the stampede from ground level.  No one else would get that shot.  My lizard brain put that stupid plan into action pronto.

I flung myself to the ground…as about the first fifty bison rounded the corner.  I flung myself to the ground that was not on the road.  I was instantly completely buried in snow, trying my best to keep that 7 inch by 6 inch scoop at the end of my camera…the lens hood… from becoming a giant plug of snow packed into the glass of my lens.  I did this while trying to keep from sliding down into the river and also trying to get back on my feet.  At about that time, I could hear that the bison had decided to stop walking and begin running.  My face was covered in snow and I had no idea if they were going to pass by me or trample me.

No one in our group saw this pitiful performance.  They were all busy getting great shots.  I was busy getting on my feet, getting the snow off my freezing face and hands and checking to see if I had a snow cone on the end of my lens.  Thankfully, the lens barrel was dry and I starting getting my shots.

After just a few shots, I noticed that I was having a hard time focusing.  Reason…the bison were now at full stampede and quite close.  Thankfully, every single one of them passed by us on the other side of the road…in a blur.  And that was that.

The herd had broken into several groups…the first one by far the largest.  We then had another 20 or so come by in a similar manner about a minute later.  A group of stragglers followed that second group…maybe a half dozen more.  Behind the last group, the vehicles that had patiently followed the herd down the road.

The whole thing was over in a few minutes.  It was just plain fantastic and exhilarating and maybe a once in a life experience.  I am so thankful that I managed to keep my wits about me, protect the lens and get at least some of the shots.  And I did get some of the shots…I am very pleased at what I managed to capture.

If you ever get a chance to go to Yellowstone in the winter, take it. Dress warmly, get a good guide, take a long lens (400mm or bigger…bigger is better) and a wide lens (maybe a 14 mm or a 15-35mm) and one in between…like a 70-200mm.  We did the trip with no tripod…up to you if you want to lug one around.  Bring your lens hoods.  The weakest part of prep was our choice of gloves…bring excellent gloves…you will need them.  I had forgotten how miserable it can get with cold fingers.

We loved it so much that we have now invested a fortune in extreme winter clothing…and can not wait to find another winter magic spot to photograph.

Big thanks to C.J. Kale, Mark Comon, our driver Brandon and those who were in our small group.  One of the great trips of a lifetime.


Don Hurzeler

February 2024