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Bierstadt_Lake_Sunset_1The clouds fill with warm color at sunset over Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Today marks twenty years since my first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park.
How do I know exactly what day it was? It was the day before the torrential rains started falling in Fort Collins that led to one of the worst flooding disasters in that Northern Colorado town. (Here is a little background about that flood.)
I was in town visiting Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine as I looked at my options for graduate school. I wound up going to Temple University for my MBA in marketing instead but moved to Fort Collins five years later after falling in love with the town that weekend. Dream_Lake_sunrise_3Early morning light illuminates Hallett Peak above Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Par, Colorado
As I thought about the content I wanted to write for this blog post, I came to the realization that my visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in July 1997 was my first to a national park on my own. It was the first park I chose to explore.
During that weekend in 1997, I explored the park on horseback. My horse, a palomino paint, was named Clown. He was a sweet horse, even when he tripped on the trail, bumping me off the saddle and onto the rocky ground.
I met Aeric two months after my trip to Colorado. He loved hiking and being outdoors, and when I met him the farthest he had traveled west was Pennsylvania.
I couldn't stop telling him how much he would love Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Elk_RMNP_2016_19Two bull elks (Cervus elaphus) practice their sparring techniques on a sunny morning in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado In 2000, we took a cross-country trip from our home in New Jersey and headed west. We would visit numerous national parks on that trip—Canyonlands, Mammoth Cave, Zion, Death Valley, Black Canyon of the Gunnison—but, like my visit a few years earlier, Aeric fell in love with Colorado when we visited Rocky Mountain National Park. He loved it so much that he returned to Rocky a month after we returned to New Jersey from our cross-country travels.
We decided in the summer of 2000 that Colorado was where we wanted to be so when I finished graduate school in 2002, we sold the house, packed all of our belongings and headed west.
Bluebird_LakeOuzel Peak overlooks Bluebird Lake on a cloudy afternoon in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado We rarely camped in Rocky but we visited often, exploring many of the trails throughout the park.
The last hike Aeric and I took together was in Rocky—to Bluebird Lake.
Aeric died in October 2012.
After Aeric died, I found I went to the park at least once a month to photograph sunrise and wildlife.
The park, unknowingly, became my respite from a crazy, depressing world that enveloped me in 2012. It wasn't the only place I explored in Colorado and throughout the west at that time in my life but it was the most consistent.
The park did and has continued to play a big part in my life.
Moose_Trail_Ridge_Road_2017_1A moose (Alces alces) walks across the tundra at first light set against the Gore Range near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Rocky was where I fell in love with Colorado and initiated my ultimate move to the Centennial State. The park was where Aeric and I took our engagement photo.
And Rocky is where Richard and I met in 2015 when we were both living on the road visiting national parks, among other destinations, in our RVs.
Marmot_16A yellow-bellied marmot stops and stands with a mouth full of grasses on the alpine tundra at sunset in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Now I find myself living with Richard at the base of Rocky in the RV we bought together. It is wonderful to look out the window every morning and check the clouds and the Continental Divide to see what sunrise potential is brewing. It is wonderful to have elk, deer and turkeys walk right through the campground.
Twenty years later I am still in love with Rocky as much as I was on that Saturday in 1997.
The park has changed a lot in those 20 years—more from the perspective of number of visitors—but I still find a lot of solitude in this beautiful park.
Pika_3A pika carries a mouthful of grass across the rocks near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Unfortunately, my photos from that first visit to Rocky are packed away in a box deep in my storage unit as there isn't room in my RV for all of my prints and negatives from my film days. There are, however, plenty of digital photos I am sharing here from the more recent years in Rocky. Maybe it is an important sign that life has started over again for me. And there is Rocky still my constant companion through it all.
Enjoy the memories you make in this beautiful national park straddling the Continental Divide in northern Colorado. If you haven't been, what is holding you back?
Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Morning light illuminates the trees in fall color around Mabry Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia Today is my final night on the road as a full-time RVer.
The plan, when I left the keys to my home in the hands of a new buyer and moved into an RV last September, was called a Year in an RV. The goal was to photograph as many mammals of North America as possible.
I actually made it 15 months and five days. I also did the year in not just one RV , but three RVs. I started in my Class C. Then I upgraded to a Class A motorhome. And now I have downsized to a travel trailer in preparation of becoming a weekend warrior, in a sense.
This last week has actually been surprisingly crazy. I wanted to mark the final countdown with a tremendous trip to some new place. But fifteen months on the road has cost a few pennies and my body seems to have finally given in to me pushing it for so many sunrise and sunset photo shoots with some amazing animals. I came down with what I now think was the flu last Sunday, a day after I arrived In Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Snow_goose_BDANWR_2016_1A flock of snow and Ross's geese (Chen rossii, Chen caerulescens) take off from the roosting pond at sunrise in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
I kept my last trip close to my home state of Colorado. I didn't get to visit Bosque last fall, and that was a bit of a disappointment - not for what I did instead but because Bosque really is a wildlife photographer's dream location for bird photography.
Each November, thousands of greater and lesser sandhill cranes, snow geese, and Ross's geese converge on this 57,331-acre refuge along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. It turned out that the bird counts last year were pretty low so everything may have worked out in the long run. And this year I actually added a couple of new photos to my mammal inventory - a striped skunk and a javelina. Both great photo opportunities for my last week of this amazing adventure, even with suffering through an achy body and stuffy head. Collared_peccary_BDANWR_2016_1A collared peccary, also known as a javelina (Tayassu tajacu), stops to check out the clicking sound while crossing a trail in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
I arrived back in Colorado on Thursday so that I could work on answering the big question I now have in front of me: Now what???
I pick up the keys to an apartment tomorrow morning. I have started outlining a revised business plan for my photography business, and I have started to consider what other career options might be out there in addition to photography. Maybe photography will continue to be full-time, maybe it won't. Too early to say at this point. Striped_skunk_BDANWR_2016_6A striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) walks along a pond embankment on a cloudy day at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
All I know is that I think my critters will be very happy to stop being mobile.
I winterized the trailer today. It was kind of a sad moment but it felt right. Timing is right too - the temperatures are supposed to dip into the negative digits in a couple of days here along the Front Range. Feels good too to wrap up this unbelievable year right here at home in a Colorado State Park. There really is no place like home.
When I left Jackson, Wyoming in September after a visit to Grand Teton National Park, there was a sign in front of one of the businesses that really summed up my feelings about this project, this adventure, this wanderlust year: "Don't cry because it is over; smile because it happened."
Elk_GSMNP_2016_16A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) walks through a farm field in Oconaluftee Valley on a foggy morning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina I actually did smile when I read that sign because I thought that was the last drive back into Colorado on my yearlong adventure. I smiled because I was happy it happened. I made a dream a reality.
It turned out I would get another two and a half months on the road and continue to add new places and new critters to my life list, such as Congaree National Park in South Carolina, an eastern spotted skunk along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and beautiful fall scenery in the Smoky Mountains. Leaves_in_Congaree_2016_1A myriad of fall leaves float on the murky water surrounded by reflections of sky and overhead leaves in Congaree National Park, South Carolina
So off I head to bed to dream about all of the beautiful places I have seen this year.
I hope to do it again someday because there were many big sections of the U.S. that I missed. I didn't get to New England. I didn't make it to Florida. I didn't make it to the northwest. I didn't make it to the upper midwest. Goes to prove just how big our country is and how much there really is out there to see. Take it one location at a time and enjoy the exploring.
Lower_Falls_Fall_BRP_2016_2Lower Falls or Second Falls flows down through the vibrantly colored trees in Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina I took an unexpected trip back east to follow fall colors. Unfortunately this year turned out to be late on colors and the dry late summer caused the leaves to be very brown but it was still an amazing time and something that was on my Year in an RV List.
And when I found out that there are elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park I was extra excited. This was going to be a nice change of scenery for a Rocky Mountain favorite. Elk_GSMNP_2016_45Two bull ek (Cervus elaphus) spar in Oconaluftee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
I had never been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It would be park #41 on my list of parks I have visited and what better time of year than peak fall color.
Because of the size of the campgrounds - or what we thought would be limiting - we brought the smaller trailer rather than the class A RV. The campgrounds certainly could have handled the larger RV but the tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway may have been a different story.
Turkey_GSMNP_2016_1A wild turkey tom (Meleagris gallopavo) stands in the afternoon sun in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee The trip started off in Cades Cove. My research showed this to be an excellent place to see black bears, turkeys and white-tailed deer. What I had not anticipated were the crowds. I knew Great Smoky Mountains N.P. is the most visited park in the country - they topped 11 million visitors in 2015 and expect to have more this year - but I was not prepared for the lines of people through Cades Cove. The road into the cove opens at sunrise but the people line up as much as an hour earlier. Thankfully the exit from the campground dumps right into the line and I could get there about 30 minutes before sunrise and still be about tenth in line - a helpful tip if you plan a visit.
The traffic moved slowly once the gate opened and because the gate doesn't open until sunrise, getting to one of the good landscape spots before the harsh light hits was next to impossible. Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Morning light illuminates the trees in fall color around Mabry Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia
But I was here for white-tailed deer and bears.
Although I don't feel like I walked away with any super fantastic shots of either from Cades Cove, I still enjoyed the visit. It was difficult to photograph deer with 20 photographers chasing and surrounding them. It made me appreciate the patience photographers have in Colorado to work together for shots. And although I saw a few bears, most were busy enjoying the acorns in the mountains.
Looking_Glass_Falls_BRP_2016_1Looking Glass Falls cascades down a rock just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Transylvania County, North Carolina Next we headed off to various destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This too was a new place for me and it held up to all of the stories about its beauty in the fall. I photographed Mabry Mill, Linn Cove Viaduct, Looking Glass Falls, and many other iconic locations. This area actually has some of the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the country, most easily accessible from the road and all surrounded by beautiful fall colors.
I even found a few chipmunks to photograph. They were busy gathering those plentiful acorns and storing them away for winter. And on our last night on the parkway we had an unexpected and rare animal cross our path - an eastern spotted skunk. Chipmunk_BRP_2016_2A chipmunk cleans her paws on a sunny morning along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
If you have followed this blog for a while you know the skunk continues to be one of the animals I have never photographed. I have seen them numerous times in various places but have yet to capture them with my camera - mostly because they are almost exclusively nocturnal, and if they are out during the day, you don't see them long. Those short little legs are surprisingly quick. I managed a few photos under the illumination of the truck lights at a high ISO so I still don't have a great photo - but baby steps right? Elk_GSMNP_2016_16A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) walks through a farm field in Oconaluftee Valley on a foggy morning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
That little encounter made me miss photographing wildlife even more so after two weeks of working the landscape on the parkway, we headed back to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find the elk.
The fog, elk and beautiful landscape in fall colors made me happy but somber at the same time. Reality was setting in that this was going to be the last big trip and my last new destination for my year in an RV.
But I put that aside for a few days as I focused on photographing the elk in Cattaloochee and Oconaluftee Valleys. Red_squirrel_GSMNP_2016_1A red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) sits on a rock and looks forward along the Oconaluftee River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
It has taken me several weeks to correctly spell the names of those valleys. I have yet to be able to master the pronunciation of the second valley.
These elk were introduced to the valley about 15 years ago. The elk native to the Smoky Mountains have been extinct since the 1700s and the new elk were brought in from Canada, is what I was told by a volunteer. They have also done pretty well and now number about 200 in the eastern Smokeys. Simms_Pond_BRP_2016_1An incoming storm puts clouds in the sky over Simms Pond surrounded by fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
I also found several small mammals to photograph. Unexpectedly I seem to have developed a fascination for photographing the wide variety of squirrels I have seen on my travels. I grew up in New Jersey where eastern gray squirrels were abundant but I found I missed them once I moved to Colorado where we have a couple of different varieties. As one photographer told me, a great photo of a common animal is better than a bad photo of an uncommon animal. So I added shots of red squirrels and gray squirrels to my inventory while out east. I also found a cooperative woodchuck, another animal we don't have in Colorado, although we have their silly cousin the yellow-bellied marmot.
But the calendar kept ticking away and it was time to leave this beautiful area. I have just a few weeks left to visit friends and family in New Jersey before heading back across the country for the last time on this adventure. There will be more adventures - I just don't yet know what they will look like. Woodchuck_GSMNP_2016_1A woodchuck (Marmota monax) sits in a grassy field in Oconaluftee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Moose_35A bull moose (Alces aces) with shedding antlers stands in willows on a rainy day at Brainard Lake National Recreation Area, Colorado. Fall is a popular season for most nature photographers. The colors of the trees and plants from the east coast to the west coast, from the tundra of Alaska to the canyons of Zion National Park in Utah turn the landscapes into an artist's palette of vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow and gold. Pronghorn_buck_FGNRA_2015_1A pronghorn antelope buck (Antilocapra americana) looks directly at the camera as he sports some sage stuck in his horns in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area near Green River, Wyoming.
But fall is also a busy season for wildlife. Many of the large mammals go into their mating season. Starting in late July through December, the moose, bison, elk, pronghorn, deer, mountain goats and bighorn sheep focus on finding mates and not much else. Birds migrate through on their way to their winter destinations. Bears begin their hyperphagia stage where they eat tens of thousands of calories a day to bulk up for their long winter nap. And the small mammals get very busy building cache piles of food or build up enough fat reserves to make it through the winter.
And all of this could be framed in photographs with beautiful fall color.
But where do you start to photograph these activities and colors?
Elk_RMNP_2016_16A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) starts a bugle call during the fall rut in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado First, be patient, very patient. Wildlife photography is about watching, observing, learning and being ready for the behaviors. Anticipating the behavior, such as a bugle from an elk as it is walking towards the camera or the horn clash of two large bighorn rams takes some understanding of why they do it. For example, bighorn rams will back up just prior to rearing up on their hind legs and then coming in for the clash. Focus on one of the rams and track with it through the clash so that your camera will not focus on the background in the space between the rams.Black_bear_Waterton_2015_4A black bear (Ursus americanus) sits in a scrub oak tree to eat the ripening acorns in Waterton Canyon near Littleton, Colorado
Next, show the beauty of the season. The vibrant color of leaves on trees will reflect in water. Try framing a colorful duck swimming through it. Meadows of grasses will turn into warm tones of golden color during the early fall season before it goes completely brown for the winter. Yellow leaves on trees will create a warm glow on an animal walking through a wooded area.Mallard_duck_7A pair of mallard ducks swim across Belmar Lake in the early morning steam after a spring snowstorm in Lakewood, Colorado.
Another option for a photo setting is to predict weather patterns. I call this the clash of seasons. Especially in places like Alaska, Wyoming and Colorado, snow may fall on the colorful landscape. Fresh snow mixed across the colorful reds of the alpine tundra offers a nice feeling of the season. Fresh snow on yellow aspen trees as an elk walks by will also provide that feeling of clashing seasons. In many areas, the days remain warm yet the overnight temperatures drop significantly or weather patterns may bring in a cold front after a few warm days. These changes in temperature will create rising mist and fog from warm bodies of water in the cool morning temperatures.Wood_duck_25A wood duck drake (Aix sponsa) swims through gold, red and yellow fall colors reflected on the water surface at Sterne Lake in Littleton, Colorado
The progression of fall starts early in parts of Alaska and the high country of the Rocky Mountains. Moose will begin to bulk up in late July and into August as they prepare to make it through the rut where they will burn off up to 20 percent of their body weight. Bison begin their rut with their grunts and battles for the cows in early August. The plants of the tundra begin to change into deep reds and vibrant oranges in August. The late salmon runs in Alaska in late August and early September bring out large quantities of brown bears looking to build up fat for hibernation.Pika_3A pika carries a mouthful of grass across the rocks near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
The willows of Alaska turn into fields of red in late August and early September, providing great landscape scenery for rutting moose. Moose and elk will shed the velvet from their antlers in early September and be in full swing of their rut by late September. Pronghorn antelope bucks will thrash about in sage bushes to leave their scent markings as a warning to other bucks to stay away from their does during September. Black bears will be found in apple orchards, oak forests and berry patches bulking up on high-calorie foods for hibernation. As the elk rut winds down in mid October, the mule deer and white-tailed deer will start to bulk up for their rut in November and December. The bighorn sheep and mountain goats wind out the fall rut season in late November and early December with battle of their own over the females.Golden-mantled_Ground_Squirrel_1An overweight golden-mantled ground squirrel stands on a rock begging for food along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Don't forget about the small mammals. They will also be busy building stock piles of food in preparation for long winter months without access to plants and bugs.
As the rut season winds down for each animal, consider whether it will be worth photographing them. Tines will break on bull moose and elk as well as deer bucks as a result of fighting. All of the males will get tired, thinner and potentially injured during the rut.Bighorn_Rams_EyeA bighorn ram (Ovis canadensis) looks at the camera through the horn of another ram in the Shoshone National Forest near Cody, Wyoming
A final thought for photographing wildlife in the fall. Fall is hunting season. Primarily I mention this for your own safety. If you are out in an area where hunters may be located, be sure to wear hunter's orange, such as in a vest or hat. Check local regulations for safety attire. Another consideration is that animals may be more skittish and more difficult to photograph.
Enjoy the fall season. It is my favorite because of its beauty and the wide variety of photo opportunities. Moose_GTNP_2015_1A bull moose (Alces alces) walks across the Gros Ventre River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming