My hope was slowly fading away.
Five days have passed. For each of those days, we left at six in the morning and drove for twelve hours straight, back and forth, on a figure “8” shaped road inside Yellowstone National Park. We were desperately trying to track “her” down through the snow covered mountains and plains. So far, it has been impossible.
“She” was my photography target of the trip — the beautiful and elusive red fox.
I originally thought, “How difficult would it be to find a red spot in a field of snow.”
However, in the blink of an eye, five day have passed without any sightings. That evening I paid an ungodly fee for Internet service at Mammoth Hot Spring Snow Lodge just to send one email to my buddy who had visited Yellowstone in the past. She said: “Indeed, the red fox is difficult to find. I had an experienced tour guide who's been working in Yellowstone for six years, and he’s never seen one.”
Wearing three sweaters, an extremely huge North Face Himalaya Parka jacket, snow pants, a beanie, a balaclava, a pair of liners and gloves, and snow boots, I became a Michelin Man, desperately lying on the back seat of the snowmobile.
I closed my eyes. Only one day left to find her.
Photography in the snow
One of the most iconic images of a Yellowstone winter is the bison covered in frost. They usually stayed motionless in the snow to preserve energy. When their whole body was covered with snow, it looked as if they were wearing a beautiful white armor while wearing the helmet of King Leonidas of the Spartan Soldiers played by Gerard Butler in the movie “300”.
Temperature is constantly lower than minus twenty degrees Celsius. It was -50 last year. Our photographer tour leader got frostbit in two of his fingers within a few minutes while attempting to take a picture of bison in the “snow helmet”.
I suddenly thought of my near-death experience few years ago in Yellowstone in the Spring…
Yellowstone National Park is located on a plateau at about nine thousand feet above sea level. The Rocky Mountains surround the park, while the world's largest volcano sits underneath it. Due to the pulsing magma beneth, hot springs and geysers dot the landscape. The park is filled with the smell of sulfur. In winter, cold air gets trapped by the mountains. Yellowstone becomes one of the coldet places in America.
Snow can be the kryptonite for camera autofocus. Autofocus depends on contrast of the scenery, and there is no contrast in snow. If I point the camera to the snow and half press the shutter to autofocus, the camera focus system will keep hunting back and forth and cannot take a sharp picture. The only solution was to have the tiny focus point of the camera placing right on the animal before pressing autofocus, but it could be difficult because the animal could be far away and moving fast.
Cold weather can cause all sorts of problem for digital camera especially killing the camera battery.
Ice can be slippery. One time I was walking down the stairs of the snow coach to get out, with my left hand holding the Canon 1D Mark IV body and a 500mm F4 lens, right hand holding the Gitzo 1341XLS tripod, while wearing a Black Rapid strap that is attached to another Canon 1D Mark IV and a 70-200mm 2.8 II with a 1.4x III teleconverter. It was like hand-carrying 5 buckets of 1 liter spring water. I slipped and fell down a few steps, all while trying my best to hold on to my gear. I eventually landed awkwardly on the last step right on my butt. I was in shocked silence. It was not a beautiful scene. The first thing I did was to quickly look around to make sure no one saw me fell. Well, everyone saw me. I sat in the snow, clutching my gear for a minute before I could walk again.
I could never tell how deep the snow was. I once sank into four feet of snow while walking towards two beavers. The camera with my 70-200 lens that was hanging on my waist ended up buried in the snow. It's heart-breaking to see that everything inside the lens hood was covered in snow.
However, that moment was the first time that I crouched side by side in the deep snow with Professional Photographer Mr. Charles “Chas” Glatzer, THE best wildlife photographer in the world. We were discussing photography, observing animal behavior, and sometimes smiling at their comical acts. It was dark and snowing the whole day. But while I was chatting with Chas, all of a sudden the snowing stopped, and we had 30 seconds of beautiful sunlight penetrating through the thick cloud. We could even see the catch-light in the eyes of the beaver.
Life was good again.
Although we didn't see the red fox, we did see a lot of other wildlife.
Yellowstone is like a lost world during winter.
We stayed late outside to photograph the sunset on the second day. When we were driving back to the snow lodge, it was dark. There was not a single vehicle on the road except us.
After such a long day, the only thing on my mind was a big bowl of hot soup from the lodge restaurant.
But the least expected thing happened.
About 50 miles away from our lodge, the wheel chains of the snow coach made a strange, screeching noise. The noise got louder and louder, to an unbearable level.
A few minutes later, our snow coach completely stopped.
We looked at each other and had no idea what had just happened.
Our driver turned around and said, “looks like the snowcoach is dead. I cannot start the engine.”
Since all the other vehicles in the park had already been driven back to the lodge, there was absolutely nothing on the road. It was completely dark outside. And it was cold. There was no phone signal. The radio signal was spotty. Who’s going to rescue us?
The driver decided to walk half a mile in the dark wilderness to look for help. Before we had a chance to talk to him, he had already walked away.
Looking at the back of the driver's disappearing in the darkness, I had a strange and sick feeling that I would never see him again. We were stranded in a forest in the snow in the heart of Yellowstone wilderness. Gray wolves hunt during the night. Some old grizzly bears do not hibernate and would still hunt in the winter…
The moment felt so familiar I almost thought I had a Dejavu. It was the scene from Jurassic Park, where the people in the broken park ride were eaten by dinosaurs one by one.
We waited and waited. Nobody spoke a single word. We had no food or water left. Who would have thought the snow coach would break down?
I remember clearly that we still had our headlight on. It was snowing heavily. The snow reflected the light in the darkness. We could see the gusty wind outside. The wind was blowing thru the thin opening of the door.
Finally, the driver returned safely. Despite the weak radio signal, he was able to contact the headquarters. They sent a small snow coach for our rescue two hours later.
Seven of us crowded into the much smaller snow coach very quietly. We were in pitch-black, speeding in the lonely and bumpy snow covered road. It turned out to be a good experience. It helped us form strong bonds of friendship. After that night, we felt that we could overcome any obstacles.
Good friends and good wine make for a more memorable stay.
After shooting all day, we always enjoyed gathering at the snow lodge’s bar, sitting next to the fireplace, sipping Glenlivet whiskey, telling our stories of the day, discussing photography, and joking about life experiences. One of us was a man in his eighties and he was still very fit. He often said, “I remember when I was young.” Then he would pause before adding “I mean, when I was in my sixties.” His jokes made all of us smile. At that moment, I felt like I had gazed into my future. I realized that we all have the power to choose how our lives will unfold.
Love and Lost
In Yellowstone, I took a series of pictures that, to this date, still leaves me with a haunting feeling whenever I look at it.
“One need not lose hope” — Stephen Hawking
As I lay on the back seat, our snow coach started to drive out from the Old Faithful snow lodge. This was the 6th, and final day of my trip.
Just like the past 5 days, my eyes routinely scanned through the distant ground. It was an overcast day with soft light, perfect for photographing the red fox, except that she’s nowhere to be seen.
Half an hour has passed.
Suddenly, I saw a misty red dot surrounded by white.
I wiped my eyes.
There she was! She sat elegantly on the side of the road, looking slim and petite. Her red fur swayed with the wind. She was just like a ghost, appearing out of nowhere.
As our snow coach approached, I saw her ears suddenly point forward, as if she were listening to something. She slowly squatted down. Our leader said, “She is going to jump and pounce!”
Without hesitating, I grabbed my Canon 1D Mark IV camera and a 500mm F4 lens and ran towards the front of the snow coach. I didn’t have time to zip up my jacket. I didn’t have time to grab my tripod. While I was dashing out, I set up the exposure parameter in my camera. I have rehearsed this moment for so long. I knew very clearly I needed at least 1/1250s shutter speed to capture this fast moment. My hands quickly set up all the parameters for my camera while I leaped past the stairs, hanged in the air for a little while, out from the snow coach into the -20C snow.
I knelt down in the snow. Two other photographers sat beside me, both getting ready. I knew I only had one chance. I needed to raise my lens and target right at the fox. One tiny slip and the autofocus would get stuck on the snow, and I’d end up with a blurry photo. I took a deep breath. All the practices had come down to this point. I calmly raised the camera and lens and pressed the autofocus. And I locked the focus right on the fox!
The photographer on my right yelled, “Holy cow, the camera is not focusing. Ahhhh”
At the same time, the other photographer said, “What the…! Why it said the aperture F91? What the hell is wrong? Ahhhh” His camera broke down in the extreme cold.
They were both cursing and trying to fix their cameras.
Meanwhile, the red fox was oblivious to our presence and got ready to pounce. The whole scene was kind of funny. I felt a smirk form on my lips.
In the midst of all the cursing, the fox jumped unexpectedly fast and high, at least ten feet. I didn’t see it clearly in the viewfinder, but I placed my finger on the shutter and fired away.
Miracles do happen sometimes.
Written by Tin Man Lee
Critiqued and edited by Lew Andrada (special thanks)