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Lessons in Judgement

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Photo by Ernie Hawks, photosbyhawks.net Photo by Ernie Hawks, photosbyhawks.net

Ernie learns about words and more on a recent road trip

I must admit a bias against elitism. With that disclaimer I still heard myself say, while driving into Yellowstone Park, “I don’t want pictures of male deer, elk, or moose. I’ll wait until their racks are full grown.”


We were wrapping up a road trip back from Virginia and spending a little time in the park before heading home. Linda, at the wheel, asked if she should even stop if we saw something. “Let’s take a look, but probably not.”
“What about bear?”


“This early in the spring and being on the main road, pretty unlikely.”


“Babies?”
“We won’t see them from the road this early, maybe some buffalo but that’s about it. This will be a landscape day and the light looks to be pretty good for that, too.”


So as the early morning sun climbed over the mountains and backlit the mysterious mists of Yellowstone, we drove into a glorious day of picture taking. The clouds rising from the paint pots and hot mud created a spiritual sense as we started our adventure.


A car had stopped and was looking at a cow elk feeding on grass.


 “Want to stop for a photo op?” Linda asked as she maneuvered around the car.


“No, I don’t need another shot of a cow. If she had a calf I would, but that isn’t going to happen from this road. Maybe I’ll come back in the fall and see if there are any bulls with full racks.”


“Well aren’t you the elitist photographer.”


She does keep me honest but still I didn’t want to stop. I knew today was a good day to get those interesting Yellowstone photos, taking advantage of the early light.


Near a steam-shrouded river a herd of buffalo grazed. I got a few good shots.


“See, you get wildlife from this road,” came a voice from the driver’s seat.


“Okay, some buffalo maybe, but a car doesn’t threaten them.”


Then she said, “You know, they are really bison and not buffalo.”


I thought to myself, “so who is being elitist now?”


A quick check on the iPhone proved her right. However, I almost get a point since “American Buffalo” was first recorded in the 1630s and the scientific name bison wasn’t given until the 1790s. Not only that, but what would we call Buffalo Bill Cody? Don’t forget the football team the Buffalo Bills; should they be the Bison Bills? Sounds like a big, overweight shaggy animal that stands around and lets you take its picture. Not exactly dramatic or intimidating, is it? I also knew I would get the last word because I was going to write the story.


As we followed the buffalos, at less than two miles an hour, one mama stopped right in front of us as started nursing her baby. I asked, as we waited, if that was a mama bison or mama buffalo?
Linda said, “It doesn’t matter. When there is a hungry baby, she is just a mama.”


So I recorded some images of “buffalo” and some calves in their brown, baby coats, admitting quietly—very quietly to myself—she was right.


A little later we were stopped by a herd on the road. One made us wait as it left a sample of buffalo chips on the center line.


 At Gibbon Falls, where the Gibbon River drops into the caldera, we watched and recorded the sun squeezing shadows out of the canyon. At Victoria Cascade the water looked to be flowing over the back of a steeply held cheese grater for several hundred yards. It was a good day to snap the shutter, even if the wildlife chances were slim to none.


As the road wove through a mountain meadow above a steep valley lined with deep green spring grass, several vehicles clogged the way.  People with camera phones halted all travel. Looking for the interest, I got out.

Deep in the valley were a couple Black bear too far away to get a good shot with my telephoto lens. I snapped off one anyway and looked. All I had was two black spots that, with some imagination, looked like bears. I got a little testy listening to folks sound like great hunters closing in on prey. There wasn’t a shot there with anything less than a thousand millimeter lens. I couldn’t understand all the excitement.


Linda pointed out that these people probably don’t have bear in their yard each summer as we do; this might be the only time they will get to see bears in the wild. Again, she manages to keep me honest.


By the time we were through the traffic jam the sun was getting higher and hot, and soon the light for pictures would be getting flat. We found a side road with not much traffic; it took us along a steep, treed hill on the left. On the right was a grassy opening with downed, gray weathered logs and marshes. The hills and forest made the light a little more interesting. As pretty and refreshing as the place was there were no real photos.


We talked about the trip we had been on and this beautiful valley. There were some deer to watch but too far for a shot. A turkey vulture caught an early thermal and spiraled up looking for breakfast. We came into an area where a few trees stood between us and the opening. A movement caught my eye: another cow elk very near the road. She turned a little and took a step which revealed a very young calf.


Linda hadn’t seen her. I pointed and she slowed to a stop. To my surprise the two of them were moving parallel to us with the calf between me and its mother—good shots.  Sitting in the pickup I could shoot out the window, maybe that is why she stayed. She stopped and nuzzled the little one, splashed slowly through a marsh, then moved toward us and crossed the track close to our bumper. As she did Linda thanked her for giving us some time with her newborn, then they were gone.


We headed toward Mammoth and home. As we wrapped up the trip we talked about how expectations or our judgments of them can be so inaccurate. We were in one of the natural wonders of the world and I was trying to limit the experience by pointing out what I thought we would see. At the same time I was limiting the events of others, who were thrilled at their find. I take offence when that is done to me. It was time for me get honest.


In the end we saw wonderful landscapes, falls, geysers and steaming bubbling mud pots. There were bear, elk with a baby and, don’t forget, the buffalo.

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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

Tagged as:

photography, The Hawks Nest, bison, buffalo, expectations

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