Flying over Yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring

"Kodiak to control, are you in the tower?"
"Negative, I'm at home in my recliner."
"Are we clear for takeoff?"
"One minute, Kodiak, let me look out the window...Yep, air is clear for takeoff."
"Kodiak to control, we are ready for soon as we can taxi a herd of elk off your runway."

With this exchange, we rolled down the Gardiner, Montana airstrip and lifted into the skies above Yellowstone.

Flight path for our maiden voyage

After lots of finagling over insurance policies, consultations with pilots, and doubts about the reliability of weather conditions in March in the Northern Rockies, we pulled the trigger and included a couple of scenic flyovers into our March Natural Habitat Adventures/World Wildlife Fund programs.

Full disclosure: Many a time I've sat on the benches watching Old Faithful erupt while being thoroughly annoyed by the little private single-props buzzing and circling high above the geyser. People come to the park to experience wildness and wilderness and solitude. Old Faithful is not the place to find peace and quiet in the summer, but a swarm of small aircraft overhead is my nail in the coffin. I hate those things.

Typically, scenic flights are not allowed over the parks, precisely because of the visual and aural upset they cause to those on the ground. A couple years ago, someone figured out that there is a legal loophole allowing private flights to operate as long as photography is the goal. If someone on board has a camera, the whole flight can be green-lit as a photography mission. I imagine this is a loophole that will be closed in coming years.

Fortunately for us, we were actually on a 8-day photography expedition in northern Yellowstone, so there was no denying that our goal was to take pretty pictures. And fortunately for my conscience, the interior of the park is closed to all visitors in mid-March, so our plane would not disturb a single person once we left the northern range.

The flight was spectacular. We traveled from Gardiner all the way to Jackson Hole, admiring the Tetons, the Gros Ventre Valley, the remote Thorofare region of Yellowstone, the Pelican Valley, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and more. We saw bison eking out a cold, snowy life along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. We saw wolf-killed carcasses behind knolls that had blocked our view from the roads all week. It was an opportunity to really appreciate the size and scale of the wild lands out here. I hope you enjoy these photographs of the highlights.

Taking off in Gardiner, MT

We came across many remote geyser basins in areas inaccessible without a multi-day backpacking trip

Grand Teton
U-shaped valleys, cirques, glacial lakes, and a terminal moraine! TSS' Field Ed team would probably love this image :-)
The Red Hills in the Gros Ventre river valley

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

Yellowstone River meandering through the Hayden Valley

Burn mosaic from the 1988 forest fires. Light green are areas that burned.

Grand Prismatic and Excelsior Geyser

The guinea pigs pioneers of our first flyover program! Thanks guys!

Encounters in Yellowstone

I never enjoy hearing that alarm go off at 4 AM in Cooke City, but I have learned to treasure this morning. It is the moment when our group is finally tied together-- in the way many groups are united-- by a common uncomfortable experience. My travelers have to finally ante up. Up to this point, they have just had to climb into the vehicles and let us whisk them away to amazing places in (generally) total comfort. But this morning is when folks face the facts that wolf watching is never easy. No matter how fresh the fruit, how experienced the guides, or how nice the equipment, there is no way to get around the reality that the best experiences in this ecosystem happen at first light, if they happen at all. Discomfort is required.

I like getting to breakfast early to watch the group arrive over a cup of tea. Many folks stumble into the dim café, sit down next to the fireplace, and quietly look down at their cup of coffee, groggily sipping away. Others come in with their guns drawn, hollering about the snowmobilers ripping down main street at 3 in the morning. Others arrive in a bewildered and disheveled haze, clearly not having woken up this early in years. The most straitlaced traveler lets his guard down a bit, arriving in purple sweatpants and eating his bacon with his hands. Everything smells like coffee and blueberry pancakes. There is a blizzard outside that has to be navigated in the darkness to get to the restaurant from the hotel a hundred yards away.

As we rounded the corner, I looked to the right to respond to a traveler sitting in my passenger seat, and noticed sheep feet whiz by on the cliff edge just out the window. I screeched to a halt and reversed, and we were able to spend half an hour enjoying this big ram enjoying some dead grasses growing between rocky outcrops. The deep cut bands in the horn indicate the age of the sheep. The horns grow year-round, but much more slowly in the winter because of the poor forage quality. Each of the prominent bands represents one winter that this sheep has survived.

Our naturalist friend Dan Hartman has these inquisitive pine martens living around his cozy log cabin. A world-class naturalist of an endangered breed, Dan invites us into his home to share stories and cookies with us. Occasionally, one of these beautiful martens appears just outside the living room window to listen in on Dan's tales.

When the temperature drops, steam explodes from Yellowstone's thermal features. A frosty morning along the Firehole River. Many of Yellowstone's largest hot springs and geysers drain into this river, keeping it open all winter long. Bison congregate along the riverbank to forage on exposed vegetation right along the shore. Every winter morning in Yellowstone feels like the first time that humans have witnessed this magic place.

In the summer, as many as 5,000 people might congregate along the boardwalks to watch each eruption of Old Faithful. This night, there were four of us. All alone, we could hear the water gurgling inside the geyser cone and feel the water blasting into the sky. The steam froze instantly and geyser snow fell on our noses.

After a cold, misty morning, every branch is coated in ice, turning this burned skeleton forest into a crystal chandelier. It is often after the most unbearable weather that we are rewarded with nature's most beautiful shows.

Alpenglow on the Tetons reminds me to appreciate this view each time I pass by. The burst of color lasts only a minute. This show precedes every clear sunrise, making sure that I never regret waking up in the dark in this valley.

Trumpeter Swans fly north to Yellowstone to access the rivers and streams kept open by the influx of geothermal waters. After a long bath and preening session, this swan extends his wings to ensure that his feathers are aligned just so. This bird, once threatened with extinction due to feather trade overharvest, was rediscovered and recovered in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. This region is now one of the best places in the country to see this magnificent bird.

I go outside and shovel a foot of snow off the roof of the vehicle. Then I figure out which of the four gas pumps in town will turn on that morning. I need four-wheel drive just to make a turn around the pump without sliding into the dozen snowmobiles lined up next to the service garage. The only lights in town are coming from the Sinclair gas sign, the inside of our cozy restaurant, and a streetlight down the road illuminating a dog and nothing else of importance.

My anxiety builds alongside the group’s. You can be in the right place (Yellowstone’s northern reaches), at the right time (before first light), with every possible controllable variable under control. Then all you can do is hope. You’ve flown in from New York or New Zealand, paid a thousand dollars or a million, been motivated by mere curiosity or by a lifetime dream to see a wolf in the wild, but the animals are the great equalizers. They will show up or they won’t. At some point, between bites of muffin or sips of coffee, this realization gradually materializes in every traveler, and we roll out of Cooke City, unified, into the first glow of dawn.