Let’s Talk About Trip Reports
“I love your trip reports!!“
“Looking forward to your photos and reports.“
“Are you going to do a trip report??“
“I enjoy your trip reports and look forward to reading those from your Spring trip.”
“Maybe you should just not write trip reports.”
About fifteen years ago, I started filing trip reports during my Yellowstone trips. Each night, I’d write up a full report on the day, include a couple photos (usually the Good Ones, not the Great Ones that I was saving for later, and quite often some Bad Ones), and post the reports on the Yellowstone.net forum. Why did I do it?
I primarily wanted to share the Yellowstone experience with those who did not have an opportunity to visit the park and encounter its amazing wildlife, on their own. That’s something that was a driving force behind the creation of my website nearly two decades ago, and is a reason I remain active sharing photos on different forums and social media platforms today. I enjoy sharing my perspective of the variety and wonders I’m lucky to see. Any image could serve to educate, inspire or spark some interest in the subject… even if I’m not always posting my best work. A trip report serves the same general function.
A second reason behind posting the reports was to help other prospective park visitors gain insight into how to maximize their own trips, including finding certain animal species on their personal wish lists. I could never forget how it took me five trips to Yellowstone to see a bear. FIVE. Most people who come here only get one Yellowstone trip in their entire life. I remember how frustrating it was bumbling around early on, looking in the wrong places at the wrong times, especially as my passion for nature photography blossomed. It seemed like a no-brainer to help people—making what could be their only visit—enhance their experience and come away with more long-lasting memories.
This all started back before social media became prevalent, before I ever had a blog and before I led any tours in the park or was involved with Yellowstone in any commercial sense. Those circumstances have changed now, of course. I’m a full time professional photographer who profits off of prints, calendars, image licensing, even a Yellowstone wildlife maps and guide… and of course, I lead photo tours in the park. But I’ve never bothered charging for trip reports. It’s not like I’ve ever spent enough time in the park to give that any serious thought, but all these years the goal has remained constant: help convey the park experience and let first-time or infrequent visitors get a better sense of how to find wildlife.
Last year, a moderator of a Yellowstone-related Facebook group told me I couldn’t share links to my reports in the group, for fear of perceived monetization. It didn’t matter that I’ve simply been trying to help the average park visitor just like those coming to his Facebook page seeking advice, or that he continued to share park trip reports (written by someone else) on his own website in the same group. During one of our conversations, he told me bluntly, “Maybe you should just not write trip reports.”
I thought that was somewhat hypocritical, and certainly antithetical to the whole reason I started writing (and the reason he started his own Yellowstone page).
And yet, a year later I find myself questioning whether to continue writing them. It has nothing to do with that awkward and misguided suggestion to quit. There are quite a few more pertinent issues to consider.
The pressing concerns are more personal, rather than anything related to public perception or input. But everyone has an opinion, and at the moment there are valid concerns about the repercussions of sharing Yellowstone information in a public forum. Information is more readily available than ever, as long as a person has an internet connection. Which includes just about anyone alive who has read something about Yellowstone. Compared to even ten years ago, it’s so much easier to get quick advice on park trip planning. Forums have ceded ground to social media, resulting in an instant sounding board for anyone with a question. Tips and advice are instantaneous. At a given moment dozens of people—who like myself are willing to help provide a better Yellowstone experience—are online and ready to jump in to answer questions within minutes.
One of the byproducts of this expanding, well-meaning online community is the greater ease with which visitors are now able to find animals. My own published wildlife map (which actually started as a Google Map) and guide give a general outline of where to look for major park species. But online trip reports are usually more specific, and more importantly the info is more recent. Social media responses are even more up-to-date. In recent years I’ve gone from publishing reports every night to every two or three nights… folks are learning animal locations online within a couple hours of an encounter.
A chief concern many wildlife-lovers have about reports, posts and other information is whether this sharing is leading to burgeoning crowds that in turn pressure animals or destroy habitat. Yellowstone especially seems to be getting busier every year. The numbers seem to bear this out. Overall visitation is up, and we’re definitely seeing an uptick in crowds during what was once considered the Shoulder Season. Traffic is heavier, “bad behavior” appears to be on the rise (though that’s a bit misleading, as it’s also being reported much more readily and quickly online), and more folks are questioning whether even the most well-behaved crowd is applying too much pressure to our wildlife. If a bear loses a cub, concerns are raised about whether it was lost due to stress caused by the constant human audience. If a Yellowstone wolf is shot outside the park border, speculation abounds as to whether hunters (or poachers) knew the wolf was in the area because of the Internet.
This is a tough issue to grapple with. Yellowstone was established “for the people,” but I visit and reside here, and you read my reports, in large part because we all love the wildlife. Part of me is trying to achieve balance as a purveyor of helpful information while remaining sensitive to each situation or encounter I mention in my report. Cutting back my reports from nightly to every 2-3 nights wasn’t a decision made to make my reports “less timely” to protect wildlife. My wife simply wanted to spend some time with me in the evening! But the information I provide is certainly less pertinent and relevant now thanks to an extra 24-48 hours of waiting. At the same time, I have become more reticent about situations I recognize as overly sensitive. Over the years, my reports have become a bit more vague at times, more truncated (though that’s also simply a time issue… who wants to write a full report at night after driving 15 hours a day on tour?) and frankly, less helpful to those seeking specific location information.
In a broader sense, we’re nearly all contributing to the issues that are causing this greater consternation. A large percentage of the 4 million+ people who visit Yellowstone don’t rush over from hundreds or thousands of miles away because of the specific information shared in daily Facebook or Instagram posts, or tri-weekly trip reports in a blog. They are here in part because of the images and video that I, fellow photographers, more casual park visitors and the media all share online. So if there’s pressure on the park or its wild denizens, it stems from all of us who are sharing our view of it with an audience that gets excited about what they see. Many who advocate for complete silence on the locations of roadside bear jams that already attract hundreds of people (crowds formed spontaneously without connectivity: cell coverage is still sparse inside the park) probably aren’t going to put their cameras away completely. We may not always post live from the field, or even daily, or immediately after a trip ends. But at some point someone who sees that amazing photo you took of the bighorn ram on the cliffside last year, or the bison fighting, or the bear cub in a tree is going to be intrigued by Yellowstone, and the desire to visit this awesome place will be kindled.
It’s no wonder visitation keeps going up! So that particular discussion isn’t going away any time soon. But will my trip reports?
I’m still on the fence. And not because of the disclosure debate. The influx of daily posts from tourists, photographers and the like means the information is getting out there, which leaves me asking myself how useful my reports actually are. In terms of sheer volume, the info in a couple weeks of essays written once or twice a year in this blog doesn’t hold a candle to hundreds of daily photos and posts made by those visiting Yellowstone every day. I suppose it’s not all about volume, but I’m also questioning the relevance and usefulness of these reports written during a period when I can’t devote nearly as much time to the park as I used to. Are reports as informative or interesting when they’re half-filled with “had to head back to Silver Gate to take care of some business,” or “I promised to be home in time for dinner”? My tales won’t be as fulfilling because there simply aren’t as many to tell.
(In case you’re wondering, yes I am sitting here writing this at the cabin in the middle of the day, because after I’m done I have to get some work done at the property and here in town. Coincidence? Hardly.)
Time is the other big issue. I mentioned how Jenn actually likes to talk to me after a full day in the park. But I value sleep too. Ironically, back home the responsibilities of parenthood have prevented me from devoting as much time to writing as I’d like. Now I sit here without having to chase a toddler around for a couple weeks (most of my tour clients behave at least like grade schoolers… zing! 1)… and I find myself actually questioning the value of taking time to write more.
So do I want to keep sharing the Yellowstone experience with you? Yes! And I get the sense that many people still enjoy these reports. But ultimately I have to figure out if I can continue to effectively lend a unique perspective to a discussion that is overwhelmed with voices. Will my reports be useful? Entertaining? Will they effectively promote this place without bringing unintended harm? Will the time spent writing be well-invested? It seems like I don’t have an answer at the moment. So maybe I’ll try a bit more writing over the next week or two. Maybe the reports will be filled more with little vignettes or general thoughts or observations rather than a play-by-play account of my long days behind the wheel. Or maybe I’ll decide that the motivation isn’t there, and will ask you to just follow my more basic photo updates here and here and here and here.
Either way, I’ve truly enjoyed writing for you these last fifteen years, and I hope I can continue informing and entertaining (whatever the medium) in the years to come.
Without further ado…
May 25, 2019
Friday was National Road Trip Day. So naturally I cancelled my Friday road trip and stayed home an extra day. Hooray for family time! But that did mean I had a long Saturday in store. Forgoing the Memorial Day Weekend visit to Idaho that’s taken place the last few years, I made a beeline for the park. “Beeline” hints at a rapid pace though, doesn’t it? The drive actually took fourteen hours. And I didn’t even stop for a nap. Slacker.
Despite the extended drive, I still managed to arrive in Yellowstone with a bit of daylight left. I had prepped my cameras before I entered the park just in case. But nothing much happened on the drive through to the northeast. Until I reached the Lamar Valley. Two-thirds of the way along the valley floor, a roadside crowd was forming as a grizzly bear walked through the sage a short ways away. I measured the angle of its progress and wove past semi-parked cars to pull ahead, where I found a safe spot to pull (all the way) off the road. I was just ahead of where the bear had vanished behind a short hill, so as long as it didn’t alter its trajectory, I figured I might get a good view out of the window. Twenty seconds later…
Okay, that’s a good start to a trip. The bear kept going, so I once again pulled ahead of the crowd. Far ahead this time, where I could get out and take some wider shots from a distance.
I completed the rest of the drive a half hour later. By the time I reached the cabin, I was feeling a bit off. The altitude change was biting me harder than usual. A super long drive and being under the weather in the preceding days probably contributed to the malaise. I had to hope that a good night’s sleep would cure what was ailing me.
May 26, 2019
Does four hours count as a “good night’s sleep?” Normally I start slowly on Day One, but I wanted to get south where reports of some interesting activity had been filtering in. Up at 4:30, on the road by five. It had rained overnight. In the pre-dawn gloom, the hills of the Lamar Valley possessed the contours and texture of a discarded wet rag.
I continued south as quickly as possible. Dunraven Pass was open and safe to drive (a threatening sign still called for snow tires or chains). As I crested the pass, the light transformed. The world melded into to shades of blue and silver. Patches of clear sky mixed with textured clouds. These tones were reflected in the large swaths of snow on the ground and the gray stands of dead trees. My surroundings practically glowed with a cool metallic tone. Some interior designer would probably steal this color scheme, label it RoboCop, and sell it as part of next spring’s collection.
So at least I had left the sodden north behind. My drive took me past Canyon and into Hayden Valley. Pelicans huddled together, bills tucked under wings, in the Yellowstone River. C’mon guys… it wasn’t that cold.
There were a few main goals down toward the lake, and I achieved a few of them. I saw at least one of the popular grizzly bears near the lake shore. But I actually spent most of the rest of the morning photographing Yellowstone Lake itself. It kept showing off. I haven’t seen ice on the lake this late in some time, but there were still remnants along the shore and out beyond, floating frozen islands that provided perches to the occasional duck or goose (sadly, not to any otters). By the end of the day, small bergs were commuting down the river under Fishing Bridge on their way to a quick thaw, or perhaps a lemming-like fall over the edge of Yellowstone Falls far to the north.
The water was still and the sky was occasionally blue. Mixed with whites and grays of passing clouds. So many cool clouds, some angry, some scattered and nicer. But boy it made for some good shooting.
Another goal down south was to find a Great gray owl. One had been spotted occasionally, and I was fortunate to see it. But usually it hunted a ways away. Sometimes while you’re waiting for an owl to fly to a new perch, you simply have to keep an eye on it in case it goes behind a tree. Or a dozen trees.
It was a fun and fulfilling first day, and one of those rare excursions (for me) that lasted from dawn to dusk. After a (very) late dinner, I turned in and prepped for a slightly later start Monday morning.
May 27, 2019
There’s nothing that gets you excited about a day exploring Yellowstone like your mother handing you a stack of junk mail and saying, “be sure to review these ads from the crematorium.”
Yeah, she’s here. So I played tour guide for the first half of the day. It was certainly more relaxed. A chance to explore a bit of the northern range with no real goals in mind. We had a good find early, a moose with a new calf! They remained pretty well hidden amidst willows and trees, but it’s always a treat to see new, cute life in our remote wooded corner of the park.
In the Lamar the main attraction (for this photographer) ended up being two coyotes on the move near the road. One crossed the pavement and climbed a small berm near the Institute. I lined up a shot just as it pounced on something. Out of nowhere two ravens flew in to investigate. The coyote leaped at the passing scavengers.
The coyote took off with its prize, a ground squirrel. The rest of the morning passed in a quick blur. I zig-zagged around checking different spots for the first time on this trip, but they didn’t yield any notable photo ops. Some stops for elk, viewing a falcon through a scope, ravens fighting over dead meat, and a couple shots of Yellow-headed blackbirds, but the coyote was definitely the highlight. As agreed, we returned to Silver Gate for lunch and… you guessed it: work!
By the time I was ready to venture back out a few hours later the rain was back and steady. Cause for pessimism, which can quickly be washed away with a giant milkshake from the Stop the Car Trading Post. With my attitude properly realigned, we entered the Yellowstone muck, but unfortunately the rain never really let up. I did step out of the car once for a couple kestrels. One had the remains of a songbird in its talons. Lots of animals carrying dead animals today. Which put me in the mood for dinner, for once taking place before 10pm.
- Seriously, I was kidding you guys. ↩