Pilot Knobs and Teewinots

They were once called the Pilot Knobs because fur trappers from a hundred miles around oriented themselves using these shark-tooth mountains. Long before that, an unknown tribe built the 'Enclosure,' a radiating dish of monolithic slabs impossibly arranged on a spire just shy of the tallest peak, where warriors or medicine men would climb to and meditate or seek spiritual orientation.

All of us here still orient to these mountains like the trappers, and like the Indians before them. I lamented that I would eventually get used to the Tetons. Surely they would fade into the doldrums of everyday life. Not so. Every time it's like seeing these mountains for the first time
Some days the top of the Grand is a stone's throw away. It's the way the light catches every fleck of mica. Its because i'm feeling invincible and euphoric. Other days its seems to be in a faraway dimension. It's the way the light shrouds the highest reaches. Its because i'm feeling humble and conquered. Every experience out here happens in the attention of the Tetons. Everything is mapped and cataloged onto the mountains such that every view is an orientation and reorientation. 

This particular view is the punctuation mark of many of my seasons. Trucking up to this rounded hilltop with a picnic and a bottle of wine, looking down at wolves rolling around in the meadows below. Barking Sandhill Cranes echo off the hills over a mirror-still ranch reservoir, cutting through a thick silence dusted with singing cicadas and whistling sagebrush.

My first grizzly is out in that meadow somewhere. Mom was foraging on gopher caches, trying to provide for her two cubs as summer was running out of steam. The two cubs stood on their hind legs to inspect and harass a pair of cranes that towered over them. The next year I canoed to that island with a friend shortly before she moved away. Many people here are as ephemeral as these short seasons. 

Photographers come here every hour of every day. I took this in October 2011, and this shot hasn't been possible since. In October 2012, wildfires throughout the Rockies rudely dumped smoke into the valley all Autumn, obscuring visibility of the mountains entirely. In October 2013, the aspens never turned this bright,and the rain clouds never lifted off the peaks. Outdoor photography is 90% about showing up. Again and again and again. 

Here, elk and horses, bison and cattle share pastures, bridging the gap between wildlife and livestock management. One summer day, we photographed pronghorn here all morning then walked up to the fence and hand-fed grass to the horses. One winter day, we went on a beautiful cross-country ski to a secluded lake where a coyote howled and howled from shore. We were awarded with this view on the return trip.

On the shortest days of the year, its best to just accept the long nights. The full moon illuminates the frost on grandfather cottonwoods before setting behind Buck Mountain. This is near the most popular summer destination in the park in the summer. I had never photographed here for that reason. I came here alone early one morning last week. The moon was blinding, and the snowy grass sparkled.

Seen Through the Looking Glass

If you had to run into a burning building to retrieve one of your possessions, what would it be? There are very few items I own that are imbued with enough significance to be irreplaceable, like the spotting scope left to me by my late mentor, Jeanne Fossani. This little post is a tribute to Jeanne and her continuing legacy of environmental advocacy around the world.

All the following photos in this entry were taken through the eyepiece of her scope.

Resplendent Quetzal
Elegant Trogan

Jeanne was the leader of a teen naturalist trip to Costa Rica through the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, VT. I was interested in nature, but not to the extent that I wanted to build my career around protecting it. She encouraged me to wake up at 4AM that first morning in the rainforest to experience the dawn chorus. As I understood it, no teenager had ever seen 4AM unless they hadn’t yet gone to sleep from the night before. Begrudgingly, I got myself up and walked out of the bungalow. Birds were dripping from the trees, and the cacophony of their calls seemed deafening. She pointed her old Swarovski spotting scope on a high canopy. Little blue and yellow and red gems were flitting through the acacias like a scene out of Fern Gully. I saw a Resplendent Quetzal, South America’s most beautiful bird. I realized that the landscape is full of hidden treasures that are only really apparent if you already know what to look for and have the right tools for the job. I was hooked.

Arctic hare

754M of Lamar Canyon Pack

Phantom Springs pack

I returned to Vermont and kept up the same attitude to birdwatching. Jeanne taught me everything she knew. She was fighting cancer and needed some help, so I would come over and water her plants and fill her bird feeders. She took me birding along Lake Champlain, and we saw rare gulls and ducks through that scope.

Jeanne died in 2007 and I had her scope in my car when I first heard the news. Her friends and colleagues encouraged me to keep the scope because they thought she'd want me to have it, and I didn’t know how to get in touch with her family anyway.

Lamar Canyon Pack

Grizzly at the edge of the woods
Black bear cubs

So for the last 6 years I’ve used the scope the same way she did: to excite people about our world’s most amazing creatures. I treated it not as my scope, but as a tool for paying forward what Jeanne was all about. I think about all the things that scope has been trained on. Photons have actually bounced off a snowy owl, funneled through the lens, and hit people in the eye.

Bighorn sheep

Northern Hawk Owl

Polar bear mom and cub

Trumpeter Swan  and ducks

I upgraded my equipment after the polar bear season, but I wanted Jeanne’s scope to continue being used to show more people amazing things. Natural Habitat guide Brad Josephs over at is now responsible for Jeanne’s scope. Provided that a coastal Katmai grizzly doesn’t literally eat it, it will be in great hands in an incredible place. 

Big Griz

Mountain goats

Ruddy Duck

If you want to know more about Jeanne, go here: