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Rocky Mountain National Park Photo Excursion
May 9-11, 2017Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,
Written May 11+
On this trip to Colorado, I opted for something I had never done before, a guided photography lesson. It was a bit of a splurge, but worth every penny. Here's the illustrated story.
Jared Gricoskie runs Yellow Wood Guiding in Estes Park, Colorado. "Wildlife, Nature, and Photography Tours". I am not sure how I ran across his service, but I am glad I did. I reserved a full day of photo guidance to learn and take pictures in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), less than an hour from Brian's house in Longmont. I added on half days before and after to make the most use of the time.
As the time approached, the weather forecast looked worse and worse; rain, clouds, and chill. As my appointed day approached, Jared offered to postpone to a better day, but my window was fixed, so we agreed to proceed and see what we could do. I made the short drive up to Estes Park, not knowing what might show up in the camera view finder.
I will try tell the story in the order it happened, since that is the pattern for diaries.
I arrived on Tuesday, and stopped by my hotel, the Maxwell Inn. Dana Maxwell greeted me and suggested I go into town for lunch since my room was not ready yet. This sounded fine with me.
The walk into town was along the Fall River, a quick-flowing stream right now, but one that has been known to cause serious downstream flooding. In fact, one of the two roads to the east was still blocked by reconstruction efforts from a flood two years ago. Meanwhile, in Estes, it is a picturesque setting to practice taking pictures. (I snapped a shot of "public art" to suggest to Brian to bring his Ingress tracker up here.)
Estes Park is filled with tourist establishments: restaurants; gift, t-shirt, and candy shops; and several outdoor-specific stores as well. On my cool, early May day, there were no crowds, but I could imagine the sidewalks, streets, and parking spaces being filled with the approaching tourist season. Lunch was elk bratwurst at Whapati Pub, good enough to warrant a mention. (I do not give names of places that I don't like. Diary policy.)
Estes Park was also filled with elk. Standing in open yards or munching on parking area lawns, they did not seem particularly majestic, but that may have just been because they were shedding winter coats and looked pretty rough. More like abandoned street pets than elegant wildlife. Oh well, they were easy enough to qualify for my first "wildlife" photographs.
From downtown, I headed up into Rocky Mountain National Park, four-hundred square miles of meadows and high mountains along the Rockies of the Continental Divide. My first stop was the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired building that sits into a hillside overlooking Beaver Meadows. Reportedly, Long's Peak towers over the far side of the valley, but on my visit it was just another cloud bank, so I went inside for the overview film.
The films are always done in good weather, but Tuesday afternoon started gray and cloudy. Nevertheless, I chose to drive the Trail Ridge Road up to the end of the road before the winter snows are cleared. Near the top, a bright red sign promised that weather could change. Sounded good to me.
On the way up, the skies did change from cloudy to not-quite-so-cloudy. I may need to try displaying some of these shots in black and white to accentuate the dreariness. Even the cross-country skiers looked like they were working, not having fun.
With this as a start, I headed back to my hotel room and prepared my gear for Wednesday's guided tour. My self-guided excursion had primed me.
Wednesday started early (4:30 wake-up), cool (40s), and drizzly. At 5:20, Jared arrived for our pre-dawn start. Cloud cover made it look like sunrise would be a bust, and Jared was very cautious about saying what animals we might see, noting that's really up to the animals themselves after all. Oh well, my major goal for the day was to improve my photography and any decent pictures would just be a bonus.
We started on the Old Fall River Road and no sooner reached the Endo Valley than a brother-sister pair of moose appeared just above the road. Jared judged them to be two-year-olds, still immature enough to be hanging around as siblings, before maturity would send them on their separate ways. This would be the first of dozens of wildlife biology insights I would receive from the biologist-trained guide.
Just around the corner from the moose pair, we stopped to look up at the cliffs leading to well-named Bighorn Mountain. Unaided, the sheep looked like little white spots, but with my longest lens (600 mm for the technically inclined), the group was very impressive. We would return to this spot later in the day for even better shots.
We drove slowly back to the Sheep Lakes area, to see what animals might show up, although having already seen moose and sheep, I could not imagine better luck. On the way, Jared stopped the car to show me an aspen tree bearing marks of a climbing bear. Interesting. Something I will look for in any future walks. I think Jared knows every tree in his RMNP hunting ground.
It was time to take some elk pictures. These guys are everywhere, it seemed, munching on the spring grasses. The reason we had started the day so early was that normal behavior for moose and elk is to graze early before they settle down to ruminate. Grass-munching animals may not be terribly exciting, but it's better than moose hiding in the willows or cud-chewing elk just laying in open fields. Another lesson learned.
The next targets would be wild turkeys and, we hoped, coyotes. We drove out through Moraine Park and, along the way, spotted a small blue bird. (Name??) This was a most-cooperative bird, who flitted from one perch to another, pausing just long enough for me to practice the focusing lessons Jared had been teaching me. These were just some of the technical lessons Yellow Wood Guiding provides and I swear Jared knew my Canon camera better than I did, even though his own cameras are Nikons.
We continued over to the Hollowell Park Trailhead, failing to spot anything interesting. Turkeys were hiding, as were coyotes. Although it was definitely not landscape photography weather, I asked about those techniques too. Jared pulled into the Trailhead parking lot, and we started walking through the proper camera settings for capturing both foreground detail and distant interest. We covered concepts only, since our foreground was asphalt, and the distant mountains were well-shrouded in clouds.
While going through those lessons, I learned another: be patient. The wild turkeys that we had failed to see earlier, popped out of the surrounding woods and paraded toward us. We watched an older male give obedience lessons to a younger guy, while the girls just hung around. These strange-looking birds were Benjamin Franklin's suggestion for the national bird, but somehow I am glad the eagle won. Old Ben wasn't ALWAYS right.
Patience, however, isn't always enough. Our last goal for the morning session was along Highway 34, the reconstruction-closed road from Estes Park over to Loveland. Jared knew of a herd of sheep that lived along the north slope of the canyon and he speculated that they might be down near the road, since that's where good food was growing currently.
No luck. The river was nice enough for a quick shot, but no road-hugging sheep.
Besides, the drizzle was becoming rain and, although we had rain coats for my camera and for us, we had covered most of the available roads, so it was time to call it quits. We agreed to try a late afternoon session, provided the weather improved a bit.
During the lunch break, I reviewed the morning's pictures - and enjoyed a pizza and salad. Frankly, my head was swimming from all the camera techniques and wildlife behavior I had been learning. The pictures were indeed a bonus, although I have to admit they are the best moose, elk, sheep, and wild turkey pictures I have ever taken. All in four hours. Maybe they weren't the action shots that wildlife photographers prize, but that just leaves future goals.
Still on my own, I set out to shoot an owl nest that Jared had told me about. The roosting cliff was conveniently located next to a parking lot, just behind city hall and the police station. Not exactly the wilds of the Rocky mountains, but the birds were spectacular nonetheless.
The family consisted of two fuzzy pre-flight chicks, a preening mother, and a proud father guarding from a nearby tree. Everyone was very cooperative. The birds looked down at the gaggle of photographers with complete indifference, changing poses just enough that it was difficult to stop clicking.
The weather did improve, slightly, for an afternoon session. No bright, blue skies, but the rains returned to drizzle and less. Our afternoon would be largely a repeat of the morning.
First, we tried some elk, since I was not impressed with my morning shots. These were only marginally better, but good practice.
Over near Bighorn Mountain, we tried another session of sheep photography. The herd had not descended at all, so it was still a long shot, but they had bunched in a nice array, all gazing out over the valley.
While I was concentrating, staring through my longest lens, Jared greeted a visitor: "Well, hello there.". The male moose from our morning shoot had moved up behind us and emerged from the willows less than 25 yards away. People are not allowed to approach wildlife closer than 25 yards, but the moose hadn't read the National Park rules.
Jared cautioned me to move very slowly, bit by bit, toward the car. It all seemed pretty benign, and my experienced guide kept looking for aggressive signs from our moose friend. No ears pinned back. No head raising and lowering. No movement toward us. No sister surprising us from another direction. (Jared did say: "Don't be concerned, but if I say 'Run!', run toward the car.") We did a sort of dance, where we moved east on our side of the road and our moose moved west on his side, until he had free space to proceed as he wished. And so he did.
At this point, we took a break from wildlife. We stopped at my guides favorite grove of aspen trees, or so he said. From very specific angles, the grove of tree trunks formed interesting abstract pictures. Even from this setting, I learned. I learned how to get all in focus, from near trunk to far. (adjust f-stop) I learned to not necessarily keep the camera level (if the subject was abstract and looked better in a tilt - right-hand picture.) I also learned that the black scarring on aspen trees, up to about six feet above the ground (left-hand picture), was caused by elk munching on bark in times when other feed was not available.
After our tree break, we returned to wildlife, the always-available elk. One herd was moving across the hillside like a fleet of lawn mowers. Another pair of elk had a decent background and were cooperative in staying isolated enough. (On the left-center picture, I violated a Gricoskie rule of not cutting an animal. Better on the right-center, but even my cute elk-and-deer would have been better if the hooves were not cut off. Always learning.
Unfortunately, on this late afternoon, the only canine we spotted was 200-yards off, really beyond the range of acceptable pictures. Despite the photo quality, it was fascinating to look though the telephoto lens as our coyote hunted, successfully finding a mouse or three in the ten minutes we watched.
So that was it for a personal guided tour. I hope I can retain the lessons I learned about everything from how to hold my camera to the life pattern of moose, elk, sheep, and coyotes. Thanks to Yellow Wood Guiding.
On Thursday, I was on my own again, but my guide had suggested that the sunrise in the east might be clear, based on his interpretation of the detailed weather forecast. OK, I'd try. I packed and out of the hotel by 5:20 again, groggy but on my way. I drove over to the eastern part of Estes Park and chose a golf course parking lot that should have a decent view of the eastward facing canyons. Instead, the ground fog made everything dull, as the shot on the right shows.
But when I woke up and turned around, I saw the western mountains above Estes Park, mountains clouds had blocked for the previous two days. Now THIS has possibilities.
I jumped in the car and drove to another parking lot, with good sight lines to the west this time. The mountains were getting the first pink light of sunrise and the photo gods threw in a setting moon for maximum effect. I watched and clicked, glad for the effort to get out early.
From downtown, I set off for Rocky Mountain National Park again, and Trail Ridge Road up to Rainbow Curve. Along the way, I stopped to look out over Moraine Park and the wispy fog moving through. I continued up to Many Parks Curve, as I had on Tuesday, but now the scene was icy, with wisps of valley fog.
The view called out for a panorama, just to try to catch the majesty. Better to be there in person, however.
And a few "macros" of the ice on tree parts. Fun shooting.
The road from Many Parks to the road's end at Rainbow Curve was quite icy. I was glad I had sprung for a small all-wheel-drive SUV from Hertz. There are no pictures of the slippery road because my hands were welded to the steering wheel.
Up top, the view was magnificent. A parked snow plow gave evidence to further road crew work to be done to finish opening Trail Ridge Road, but for now this was high enough for the few morning visitors. Maybe we will be back when the whole road has been cleared!
All this work had made me hungry, so I headed down into Estes for a healthy breakfast. I could not find one, but I did take advantage of my guides last recommendation: The Donut Haus. Not healthy, perhaps, but just the calories I needed. (The back story is that the recipes came originally from a Bavarian baker several decades ago. I can attest that the flavors of my nut-and-cinnamon "snake" were as authentic as I remembered from Pommersfelden, our old Bavarian home.)
With my new sugar energy, I made one more pass down Highway 34, looking for the sheep that we had missed on the day before. No luck. No animals at all, not even the ever-present elk.
I was, however, able to fall back on that old photo standby, rocks and a rushing stream. With filters and a decent tripod, these shots really are pretty easy, but I still like their drama. I expect they will become kitschy pretty soon, but until then, they are fun to do.
With that, I headed "home" to Longmont, very satisfied with my Rocky Mountain National Park photo training. I need to come back and try a different season!
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