Local photographer, Judith Conning, recently returned from a visit to Yellowstone National Park after photographing both the park and the wildlife in all its winter splendour. Karen Farrell spoke to Judith about her most amazing adventure …
Describe what Yellowstone National Park is like and why you’ve been lured back to its beauty on three separate occasions.
Yellowstone National Park – mention it to many Australians, and they either say “Where?” or they remember Mr Ranger and Yogi Bear and the picnic basket thefts.
Many Americans, when asked, put Yellowstone at the top of their must see in the US lists. National Parks in the US are stunning, varied and very people-friendly. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres of wilderness and visited by an average of 3 million people each year.
It never ceases to amaze, from its geothermal features (it is the home of Old Faithful geyser), its amazing geology (much of it is formed by the caldera of one of the world’s active super-volcanos) and its abundant and mostly accessible wildlife. It is a wilderness where for the animals it is business as usual and yet to a certain extent, we can witness this. There’s prey and predator, coping with the changing seasons and extreme winter climate; it is nature on a grand scale.
I had hoped to see wolves, but did not on the first two visits and as the best place in the world to see wolves is Yellowstone in winter, a third visit was necessary.
How familiar are you with the history of Native Americans in the Yellowstone region?
I’m aware that Native Americans have had a presence in the Yellowstone area for some 11,000 years, with the impressive Obsidian Cliff providing the material for their stone tools.
The name Yellowstone is said to have come from an Indian word meaning Rock Yellow River and numerous tribes – Shoshone, Bannocks, Nez Perce, Crow, Blackfoot and Cheyenne have lived and travelled through this area.
Tell us about the photo tour you participated in which travelled by ‘snow coach’ in Yellowstone in 2012 …
One can only travel through Yellowstone in the winter guided by licensed and permitted guides, and the advantages of photo tours is that they are small groups, ensuring you are mostly in the right place at the right time with the best light and led by experienced photographers.
My previous winter visit was on a snow mobile, but this time I felt that a snowcoach tour with Bob Harvey and Diane Kelsay of Nature Photography Adventures would provide a different perspective. All accommodation, travel and most meals were included.
There were 16 in our group – seven Americans, eight Spanish and myself. The Spanish contingent were well-travelled and very accomplished photographers, and we now exchange emails and check out each others’ websites.
You participated in a ‘wolf-watching tour’?
This was four incredible days with the Wild Side run by two wildlife biologists, Nathan Varley and Linda Thurston. It was not a photographic tour, but an opportunity to observe and learn about the various wolf packs as they went about their daily lives and an opportunity to experience the exquisite Lamar Valley under its cloak of winter white.
We saw three packs – the Mollies, Agates and Lamar Canyon packs and were witness to an amazing confrontation between the Mollies and Lamar Canyon. However, standing around in driving snow at 7.30am and -20°C is not for the faint-hearted, but who noticed?
In 1995 you’ve said that wolves were ‘reintroduced to Yellowstone’ after the last one was killed in 1927… please elaborate on how the wolves were reintroduced and if a breeding program was put in place?
Douglas Smith and Gary Ferguson’s book, Decade of the Wolf, documents far better than I the story of their reintroduction. Briefly, the wolves (31 in all), were captured in Canada over a two year period, transported to Yellowstone and placed in acclimatisation pens for some weeks before being released into the wild, where they quickly established packs and once again took their place in the Yellowstone ecosystem. In 2003, there were some 148 wolves in the park, but today the population is closer to 98, as prey numbers fall to sustainable levels.
While this top predator was absent, elk herd populations exploded, the natural balance was out of kilter and various ecosystems were experiencing much damage. Ongoing study is conducted and many of the wolves wear radio collars and are tracked, changes to fauna and flora are monitored and any killing of domestic stock by wolves outside the park dealt with summarily. Despite this, emotional debate continues to rage over the wolves presence.
How close are you able to actually get to the wolves … I imagine a respectful distance is encouraged?
For the most part, wolves keep their distance from humans – they have been vilified, treated horrendously and subject to extermination in most parts of the world. However, they are extremely intelligent and have a strong social structure.
My goal was to experience truly wild wolves in their natural environment. We had one day where a wolf pack appeared comfortable to be in close proximity, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time they are dots on the hillside, spotted by the experienced watchers and best seen through a high powered spotting scope. However, I was able capture some reasonable images of these, the wildest of creatures.
Aside from wolves, Yellowstone is home to hundreds of species of animals. Tell us about your favourite animal encounters while visiting there …
Any animal encounter is amazing, even the ubiquitous bison. Seeing their massive heads and ice encrusted faces as they try to find some sustenance under deep snow is truly awe-inspiring. The red fox, coyotes and bald eagles never fail to delight and one fox came so close I could no longer maintain focus.
I’ve yet to see a bobcat or otters, so I guess there’s at least one more trip in the future and bears are hibernating in winter, so an autumn visit is needed.
As a photographer, what sort of challenges does photographing animals present?
There are a number of things to remember. You are in their territory and all care should be taken not to disturb or cause harm. Animals are not always ‘co-operative’ – they do not pose, stand in the right light or display behaviours you want to capture.
Sometimes it’s behaviours you’d prefer not to capture. Your subject is often some distance away or hidden by foliage or just not in the right environment. A good image is more than a ‘record’ photo, so it’s important to become knowledgeable about the animal/bird and its habits and be able to anticipate actions and behaviours.
Most importantly, be patient, be respectful and be ethical.
You also travelled to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, Canada, in the hope of capturing the northern lights (or aurora borealis). What exactly is the phenomenon?
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are ripples of glowing light seen in the night sky when charged particles from the sun interact with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. They are funnelled to the Earth’s poles by the planet’s magnetic field, thus only seen in the far northern or southern skies; and in the south they are known as aurora australis.
Simply put, they are a fantastic light show which may appear briefly or last for hours and is best seen on cold, clear nights in places such as Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Canada. The activity peaks every 10 or so years when solar storms are intense, and 2012 to 2013 is that peak time.
You frequent and have a preference for colder destinations such as Antarctica, Yellowstone, the Arctic and Canada. Why the preference for colder climates as opposed to sun-kissed destinations?
I live in a ‘sun-kissed’ place, so just don’t feel the need to travel to such places. At the end of the day, most of us have to prioritise where we go, and for me it’s places which I won’t experience in Australia. That’s not to say I haven’t seen much of my own country, and Kangaroo Island is high on my list.
Many of the world’s most incredible animals – polar bears, penguins, wolves, bears – live in cold places, and these are some of the final frontiers. These regions and their wildlife are very much under threat by climate change, an issue I feel strongly about.
I am a sponsor of Polar Bears International, so produced a calendar for 2012 of my polar bear images and donated the proceeds to this organisation.
It was amazing to watch David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet and know I have seen many of the places depicted. Vincent Munier and Paul Nicklen are two of my favourite cold place photographers – check them out on the net.
I prefer to be challenged by my destinations – take the path less travelled, so to speak. I don’t travel to have a holiday; I travel to immerse myself in the experience and to record that experience photographically. I have a passion for photography and travel and consider myself immensely privileged to be able to.
This story was published in issue 63 of Manning Great Lakes Focus