As a photographer, whether professional or just a hobby enthusiast, we all strive to capture that perfectly composed idyllic scene. One that will preserve our special moments and make them last just a little bit longer. An image that helps all those who stumble across it feel like they’ve shared in the experience with us.
With that in mind, I always find it interesting to see what images draw the most attention; that viewers really seem to resonate with. Because for me, actually being present as the shutter clicks, gives me a different level of sentimental value and appreciation to certain photographs that aren’t always immediate favorites to people looking in from the outside.
I think more often than not, there’s a special story that unfolds during the making of a photograph that the image alone can’t fully express. It takes an added narrative, a friendly conversation, or blog like this to bring to light some of my own personal favorite images and tell the stories that make them hold their special meaning.
So this year, as a kind of New Year’s Resolution of sorts, I decided that it’s definitely past due for me to bring some of stories to life and share some of my favorite photography moments from over the years. It seems like a fun way of reliving some pretty great little moments and passing them along to everyone as I go.
The image I decided to start with is this one, taken in early June of 2011. Although I’ve been spending quality time in the Grand Tetons National Park for nearly 14 years now, fall has proved time and again to be my favorite season to visit. This particular year, I decided to try something different and give it a shot just as summer tried desperately to make an appearance and I couldn’t have picked a better year to do it.
There was record snowfall throughout the winter months, and the spring thaw proved to be significantly delayed. I remember driving into and through Yellowstone from the south and finding snow banks bordering the road up to 10 feet and higher obscuring the usually dramatic views. The lakes still were partially frozen, and green grass was clearly a new and welcome treat for the animals.
With all the heavy snowfall and below average temperatures late into the season, it also naturally lead to a correlation with the bear’s emergence from winter hibernation. They were not only late to rise, but were forced to feed very close to the roadways where the melting snow was more pronounced and grubs, roots, grasses and flowers were more easily accessible than in some of the higher elevations of the back country.
Being the bear lover that I am, this alone completely made my day pretty much each and every day I was there.
I was staying at a small group of cabins situated off Jackson Lake where I’ve stayed for years due to their central location within the Tetons, well-maintained lakeside trails, and proximity to Yellowstone if I want to spend a day exploring up that way. Also, it’s a mere hop, skip and a jump from an area called Pilgrim Flats, which is known to be a well-populated grizzly habitat, and frequented by some of the parks most well-known bears.
It was only the second evening of my trip and I was headed back to the cabin after a full day of exploring when I decided to take a last second detour down Pilgrim Flats road. The main park roads were empty with a thunderstorm looming and I hoped it might be a good time to see the wildlife coming out of the dense woods for an evening stroll. If you don’t know the area, this road is a fairly long dirt road, flanked by shallow meadows and sage, before turning into a dense forest maybe 150 yards away. Early in the evenings, just before dusk, it’s common to come across bull elk and their harem emerging from the woods to graze, or coyotes hunting voles in and out of the sage, and also it’s not uncommon to see bears foraging before bedding down for the night.
I had just barely turned onto the dirt road, when out of the corner of my eye I caught a bit of movement in the sage brush to my right out the passenger side window. I quickly pulled over and was completely thrilled to see that there was a rather small, really blonde grizzly at less than 50 yards, calm as could be just sitting there daintily munching the tops off dandelion blossoms and digging up roots. If you know me, you know that the bears are my very most favorite of all favorite animals and I just love them to bits. So to find this pretty little girl, and have her all to myself was just about the best thing ever.
Sitting there for over an hour, until the sun had completely set, I found I could no longer see her but instead hear her little munching sounds as she chomped on roots and grasses maybe 20 feet away from my car. During the same time, I had gotten a call from a dear friend overseas and as I snapped away I gave a play by play of what was going on. I was in my perfect place, with this perfect animal, with a very dear friend via cell phone and all of it together created one of those little fleeting moments in life where you literally have it all.
As luck would have it, every day after that, I was able to find this sweet little girl in the same general area both in the early morning, and pre-sunset hours just going about her business, trying to fatten up from winter hibernation and ignoring the continuously growing masses of people who would come to photograph her. The name Blondie has stuck and to this day, that’s what she is referred to around the park. Finally this past season, she even had little cubs of her own to introduce to her fans.
I’ll always be especially fond of her because of this first summer when I was so lucky to spend some quality alone time with her just watching her be a bear (before the bear paparazzi caught wind). No matter now obnoxious tourists became, or how much they encroached on her space, or how many times rangers tried to haze her away from the crowds, her demeanor never changed to aggressive at all. She was always very docile and patient and showed so much tolerance for any situation I saw her be subjected to.
To this day she’s been the perfect role model for her little bear kids and hopefully will be for many years to come.