Floris van Breugel on July 21st, 2014

Wilderness: “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man…” Wilderness Act, Section 2(c)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which protects over 100 million acres of land from machines and development. Unfortunately, these spiritual places are coming under more and more attack. A few weeks ago a story came out in the LA Times describing a proposal to build what amounts to a strip mall in the Grand Canyon. Is nothing sacred anymore?

Even the idea of wilderness seems to be under fire. That same day an article in the New York Times suggested that we should we consider taking a more active role in wilderness management. Although the premise is well-meaning – it would be a shame to see some of our ecosystems die out because natural processes cannot keep up with the rate of climate change – intervening would ruin the premise of wilderness. Rather than try to be “reluctant gardeners,” we should be spending our time and energy on minimizing our own impact. Wilderness is not a place, it is a concept. And while our careless actions may lead to the destruction of many ecosystems as they exist today through pollution and climate change, through the Wilderness Act we offer these wild places the dignity to evolve on their own, untrammeled by man. They may not recover within our lifetimes, but they will recover. They may not be the same, but they will be wild. When it comes to wilderness, the only thing we should be doing is preserving more of it.

Wild places offer therapeutic healing that is becoming more and more important as the world is covered in WiFi networks and technology (I you missed it, read my post from last year, Why We Need Wilderness). If you have never spent a few days away from home, people, and the internet, I recommend you try it.

You don’t need to climb a mountain to experience wilderness, but in the summer, it is my favorite. A few weeks ago my friend Shawn and I climbed up Ruth Mountain in the North Cascades to soak in the glorious alpine views. We were surrounded by endless views of jagged peaks of the North Cascades, with over 100 miles of visibility in every direction. Mount Shuksan (pictured below) loomed over us, the Picket Range to our east, Glacier Peak and Mt Rainier to the south, and the American Border Peak(s) to the north. It was inspiring to see so much wilderness! It was also sadly apparent how quickly our glaciers are disappearing.

Camping in the North Cascades, Mt Ruth, Mt Shuksan

Home Sweet Home : Prints Available

My tent, pitched on top of Ruth Mountain, with a view of Mt Shuksan and (barely) Mt Baker, at sunset. This is absolutely one of the top ten places I have camped, surrounded by a 360° view of glaciated peaks in the North Cascades (about 10 yards outside of the national park boundary).

To celebrate wilderness, I’m headed off to Alaska for the rest of the summer with my girlfriend Aubrey, where we plan to spend 10 days in a kayak, and two weeks hiking in the largest contiguous wilderness area in the United States: Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is part of a 12+ million acre wilderness area (of course, we will only see a minuscule fraction of that!).

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Floris van Breugel on June 26th, 2014

First, I would like to announce a print sale! Between now and July 5th, all images on my site will get a 15% discount – just enter the code “BUSHPLANES” on checkout!

The proceeds from this sale will go towards paying a bush pilot to bring Aubrey and I to a remote spot in Alaska’s Brooks Range this summer. I will, of course, post stories of our adventure upon our return!

Because of this trip, among others, and our move to southern California this fall, I will not be able to fulfill print orders made after mid July until early November. So this is your last chance for a while (all orders made up through July 5th will ship by the 15th)!

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After spending a week in the Fitz Roy area of Argentina, Marc and I made the long drive through the featureless snow blown high desert to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Crossing the border into Chile was a new kind of experience for me. Rather than the typical kind of enforced passport control I was used to, this was more of a self-serve process. You get out of the car, walk to the Argentinian office, tell them you’re going to Chile, and they stamp your passport. Then you drive over to the Chileans, and they make you fill out a little piece of paper, confiscate all your Argentinian sausages, and then you go on your way. You could easily drive through both checkpoints without getting the appropriate paperwork filled out, but I have it on good authority that you’d be in big trouble when the time comes for you to go home!

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Lenticular Clouds, Torres del Paine, Patagonia

Dreams of Paine : Prints Available

Moonset illuminates lenticular clouds over Cuernos del Paine in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

I was asleep in the car when we arrived in the park around midnight, and Marc woke me up to see the moon setting over Cuernos del Paine. The swirling mist, evolving lenticular clouds, and dim moonlight created a surreal moment. Even more so by my still groggy state of mind. It was hard to tell how close, and how large, the mountains were. Marc assured me that they were indeed quite large.. and as I found out the following morning, he was right. The gravel road network that provides incredibly easy access to the park is just a few hundred feet above sea level, and less than two miles away the peaks rise over 10,000 feet.

Icy Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine, Chile

Cuernos on Ice : Prints Available

A cold and calm winter night leaves the lake shores covered in ice, with a view of Cuernos del Paine in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park in winter.

Contrary to the typical windy summer weather, most of our days were calm, allowing delicate ice structures to form on the lake edges overnight. And out of the 13 sunrises and sunsets we had, 11 of them were beautiful – there was no shortage of spectacular atmosphere and light! Despite the good weather, we saw very few people. The guanacos, however, were everywhere (the guanaco is a member of the Lama genus, closely related to the llama, but not of course, the Dalai Lama). In general, the wildlife was either very tame, or very naive. Finches, caracaras, woodpeckers, and even a small pygmy owl came to within just a few feet of us, curious, and probably hungry too.

Guanacos, Torres del Paine National Park, Cuernos del Paine

Guanacoland : Prints Available

Two guanacos (Lama guanicoe) pose in front of the Cuernos del Paine in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

Patagonian Pygmy Owl, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

Patagonian Pygmy Owl : Prints Available

A Patagonian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium nanum) in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

One of the primary attractions in the park is Salto Grande, which, as the name would suggest, is a large waterfall. Unfortunately the ideal viewpoint for these falls was made inaccessible thanks to the washing out of a bridge many years ago (the pieces are still there, though). Now, it requires a little more effort and creativity to get there, but the view is well worth it. What initially appeared to be a crystal clear morning, turned into an exceptionally colorful sunrise, and we couldn’t have asked for a better place to experience it!

Torres del Paine, Salto Grande, Panorama

Paine Panorama : Prints Available

The upper Salto Grande falls rumbles on the Paine river below the impressive peaks of Cuernos del Paine and Paine Grande in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

Salto Grande, Torres del Paine, Patagonia

Vista Grande : Prints Available

Paine Grande and Salto Grande make for a truly grand view in Chile's Torres del Paine in early winter.

Half way through our trip we made an exploratory, aimless, drive through the park to Lago Grey. From the road we could see enormous, impossibly blue, icebergs, and immediately knew what our next trip would be. For the next three days we focused on exploring and photographing these icebergs from a variety of perspectives. Our first afternoon we were “treated” to a real Patagonian wind storm, though the gusts “only” made it to 50 mph or so (they can easily reach 80 mph at times). Still, this was more than enough wind to kick up big waves on the lake, sending icebergs the size of buses sailing towards us from the glacier on the far end of the lake.

Patagonia Wind Storm, Icebergs, Torres del Paine

Winds of Winter : Prints Available

Fifty mile an hour winds transform the once serene Lago Grey in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park into an energetic ocean, blowing house-sized icebergs across the lake. In the distance is snowy Cerro Paine Grande.

Warm Sun and Icebergs, Lago Grey, Torres del Paine

A Moment of Warmth : Prints Available

The setting sun breaks through the clouds, casting warm light over the iceberg strewn Lago Grey in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

That evening the storm subsided and the sun broke through, bringing a glimpse of warmth to the icy landscape. As in all of these images, the scale is difficult to convey, but the large iceberg on the left of the above image was the size of a two-story house. And that’s just the part above water. Since typically only about 10% of an iceberg is above the surface, That means that there is another 20 story skyscraper of ice hiding in the water!

The following morning the winds subsided enough to safely see some of the ‘bergs at water level. Monsters of strangely sculpted arches and spires floated by. I was most intrigued by an “ice cube” we found that was as clear as a flawless gemstone the size of a truck (with another 10 trucks of ice below it, of course).

Icebergs on Lago Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile

Ice Monsters : Prints Available

Gigantic icebergs drift on Lago Grey on a calm morning in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, with a view of Paine Grande in the distance.

Crystalline Iceberg, Patagonia, Lago Grey

Ice Age Gemstones : Prints Available

Flawless crystalline ice, produced through millennia of glacial pressures, floats on the waters of Lago Grey in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

Our final morning was wet, gray, and cold. A perfect time to begin the journey home. Aside from almost getting our tiny rental car stuck in a foot of snow while attempting to take a shortcut back to civilization, the drive back to El Calafate was uneventful. After drying out all the gear, it was time to pack up.

Letting the kaleidoscope of gear dry out in the hotel.

Letting the kaleidoscope of gear dry out in the hotel.

The flight schedules to and from El Calafate necessitate a 24 hour layover in Buenos Aires, so I took the opportunity to explore the city. Here, the patagonian clouds were replaced with sunshine, the eight hour days of quiet nature with eight hour nights of partying, the mountains with huge monuments, the trails with 16 lane city streets, and the guanacos with pictures of Lionel Messi. I’m hoping we get to see if Messi’s dribbling is a match for van Persie’s flying.

Buenos Aires: blue skies, big monuments, and Lionel Messi.

Buenos Aires: blue skies, big monuments, and Lionel Messi.

This was part 2 of my trip to Patagonia, if you missed part 1, read about it here: Fitz Roy in winter.

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Floris van Breugel on June 22nd, 2014

I recently returned from a fantastic two week adventure to near the southern tip of South America with my friend and fellow nature photographer Marc Adamus. After two full days of travel we arrived in El Calafate, Argentina, on the heels of the first big snowstorm of the winter season. To take advantage of the forecasted snowfall, and periodic clearings, we drove to El Chaltén and made two overnight trips to photograph Fitz Roy, one of the most beautiful, and technically challenging, mountains in the world.

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Stormy Fitz Roy, Patagonia Skyline, Panorama

Patagonia : Prints Available

Fitz Roy (right) and Cerro Torre (left), the classic panoramic Patagonian skyline, emerge from stormy skies at sunset.

The storm brought almost two feet of wet and heavy snow, which covered the lenga beech trees (Nothofagus pumilio) with a thick white blanket. Our hike took us through several miles of perfect winter woods, and up the slopes of Fitz Roy’s foothills. The snow was so thick at times that we were practically swimming through it to move forward!

My friend Marc on his way up through the forest.

My friend Marc on his way up through the forest.

Tent, Patagonia, Winter

Winter Camp : Prints Available

My tent in the winter wonderland of Patagonia. 

I’ve been told stories by people who have had to spend over a week waiting here for weather to clear before they saw the mountains, so I felt fortunate that we didn’t have to wait more than a day for some views. We were joined by a friendly little bird, who couldn’t have picked a more photogenic place to spend the winter (if you think you can identify it, let me know!).

Snowy Fitz Roy, Patagonia, El Chalten

Quiet Contemplation : Prints Available

A small bird contemplates the enormity of Fitz Roy, in Patagonia, which has granite faces of over 4,000 vertical feet, complemented here by fresh snowfall in early winter.

Bird, Fitz Roy, Winter in Patagonia

Feathers and Fitzroy : Prints Available

A friendly bird poses in front of the impressive Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina's Patagonia region, in winter.

Monte Fitz Roy was named by Francisco Moreno in 1877 in honor of Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle. The Beagle was, of course, made famous by Charles Darwin’s presence on the ship, which traveled around South America (exploring Patagonia) on its way to the Galapagos, and then to New Zealand before returning home to England between 1831 and 1836.

Unfortunately no image can do this mountain justice; it’s just too big. Even being there in person it was difficult to fathom how enormous it was. The granite spires reminded me of the outstretched fingers of a hand reaching out from the Earth, grasping for the stars. Those “fingers” are each 3-4,000 feet of vertical granite rock, protruding from another several thousand feet of glacial terrain. The summit is well over a vertical mile above Lake Sucia at its base. If you have seen El Capitan in Yosemite, imagine that, but as an isolated pinnacle, and then put three of them next to each other, and put all that on top of another El Capitan made of ice.

With another storm on its way, we hiked back to El Chalten to dry out our gear. There, in the rain-shadow of the enormous mountains, we cooked up some dinner with a spectacular view of the mountain range.

Grasses, Patagonia, Argentina

In the Rainshadow : Prints Available

Grasses catch sunset light in the rain shadow of the mountains of Argentina's Patagonia region.

What do you do when you forget your chef's knife? Use an ice axe! (warning: only works when your vegetables are frozen)

What do you do when you forget your chef’s knife? Use an ice axe! (warning: only works when your vegetables are frozen)

The storm had forecast just an inch or two of snow, but this being Patagonia, an inch or two can quickly turn into a foot or two. We spent the day watching a nonstop stream of enormous snow flakes drift past the windows of the only open hostel in town. The next morning, with everything dried out, we set out for another trip. That night the temperatures dropped to below 10° F, which produced beautiful ice formations along one of the streams in the valley below Fitz Roy.

El Chalten after the storm.

El Chalten after the storm.

Snow Forest, El Chalten, Patagonia

Snowy Embrace : Prints Available

Snow covered trees shortly after a large storm passed over the forests above El Chalten, Argentina.

Reflections of Fitzroy, Winter Frost, Patagonia

Reflections of Winter : Prints Available

Dawn on Fitz Roy, accented by winter's fresh snow and frost, in the Patagonia region of Argentina near El Chalten.

Up next: Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, a place where just about every sunrise and sunset is guaranteed to be beautiful.

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Floris van Breugel on May 5th, 2014

After spending two weeks in the (sometimes unbearable) heat of Mexico, it was a relief to come home to the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. The winter rains are (slowly) subsiding, and I returned just in time for the arrival of spring. Over the past few weeks I’ve had several chances to get out and enjoy the emergence of the greenery, flowers, and sunshine.

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Spring Vine Maples, Cascades, Washington

Spring Unfolding : Prints Available

After 6 months of soaking up the winter rains, the vine maples along the cascade foothills finally emerge from hibernation in spring, unfolding like tiny origami creatures.

Sunshine Elowah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Sunlife : Prints Available

Sunshine brings life to the plants surrounding the majestic Elowah Falls of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. 

Ponderosa Forest, Spring Flowers, Leavenworth Washington

Ponderosa Spring : Prints Available

In spring, the Arrowleaf Balsamroot flowers burst into bloom across the hills of Eastern Washington. While they normally prefer open sunlight, occasionally the Ponderosa forests are open enough that the flowers carpet them with color.

Lupine, Spring Flowers, Columbia River Gorge

Peace and Quiet : Prints Available

A field of lupine flowers overlooks the Columbia River Gorge in spring time.

During my trip to Mexico, the sun was my enemy. Being in it was uncomfortable, painful even. I constantly sought out trees to sit under and always walked on the shady side of the road. The hours between 1pm and 5pm were a real chore to get through, unless I was half submerged in water (under an umbrella to shield me from the sun). To make matters worse, the sun moves so fast that you hardly get a chance to enjoy the sunrise or sunset.

Here in Washington, the sun is my best friend. It brings life, not just to the plants around me, but to my own mind, soul, and body. I relish soaking in the warm rays of light. It was delightful to be back in a place where I could do just that. These images are intended to be a celebration of sunshine. Let them take you away to where the air is crisp and clean. Imagine the warm rays of sunlight as they tickle your skin. Listen to the Meadowlarks, the roosters of the American West, as they herald the morning sun. Smell the sweet fragrance of the wild flowers, and watch as the newly emerging leaves dance in the wind. It’s the time of year to come out of hibernation, stand up straight, and embrace each day with a dance of joy!

Rocky Spire, Cascades, Washington

Cascade Spire II : Prints Available

A lone rocky spire stands proudly over the cascade foothills in Eastern Washington.

Wild Flowers, Sunshine, Columbia River Gorge

Wild for Light : Prints Available

Wind blown wild flowers and scrub oak trees soak in the final rays of sunlight high up on the ridges of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

Spring Greenery, Cascades, Washington

Springshine : Prints Available

The rainbow of early spring greenery of the cascade foothills in Washington.

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Floris van Breugel on April 22nd, 2014

It being Earth Day today, I thought I would start out this post with one of the inspirational quotes we found in Chiapas, at Centro Ecoturistico Causas Verdes Las Nubes (the final destination of our journey).

We never should forget who belongs to whom.

After getting our fill of the warm sandy beaches and waterfalls of Cañon Rió la Venta, see part 1, we set out to visit la Selva Lacandona (Lacandon Jungle) near the Guatemalan border. Although the old growth forest is continuously suffering from deforestation, it is still the largest montane rainforest in North America, and much of it is protected in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Because of its size and diversity in terrain, this region is home to roughly a quarter of all species found in Mexico including the jaguar, although according to our Mayan guide, no one ever sees any.

Ceiba in the Palenque Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico

Jungle Light : Prints Available

Late afternoon light streams through the old growth jungle in Palenque National Park, which surrounds the famous Maya ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. The large trees pictured here are the sacred Ceiba trees.

A colorful tropical bird in the Lacandon Jungle.

Scattered throughout the jungle are memories of what was once an impressive Maya civilization, which peaked some 1800-1100 years ago before mysteriously collapsing. Over the past thousand years, the jungle has taken over their cities, leaving them concealed under layers of dirt, leaves, vines, and trees to the point where they are unrecognizable even when standing on top of them. The Maya built their cities without the help of pack animals, metal tools, or even even the wheel. Instead, immense amount of manpower was needed to harvest the limestone blocks they used to construct their temples and structures. Over time, the limestone has disintegrated, changing the chemical composition of the soil, and thereby affecting the local plant-life. Using satellite imagery it is possible to detect these subtle differences, and identify the locations of some of these long lost ruins. Many of the more impressive structures have been excavated and partially restored so that we can get a glimpse into what was once one of the most advanced societies of the pre-Columbian West.

The apparent jungle covered hill in the center of the image is actually a buried Maya ruin at Palenque.

One of the largest Maya sites in Chiapas is Palenque, which was the first of three sites we visited. Seeing these incredible ancient buildings and carefully thought out city-plans makes you wonder what life would have been like 1,000 years ago in the jungle. Only one thing is for sure: it would have been hot. Very hot. Even at night, we didn’t stop sweating profusely. Perhaps that is why the Maya were not the peaceful people they were once believed to be, but rather constantly warred with one another, routinely offered human sacrifices to their deities, and spent their leisure time playing a ball game (Ōllamaliztli) where the loser was killed. After all, recent (and somewhat controversial) studies have found that violence may be correlated with hot temperatures.

Palenque Maya Ruins, Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque : Prints Available

The famous Maya ruins of Palanque in Chiapas, Mexico. Only a small portion of this impressive ancient city has been excavated and restored.

Palenque, Maya Ruins, Chiapas

Maya Temples : Prints Available

The Temple of Inscriptions, as seen from the Palace, in the Maya ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico.

Much of the jungle and ruins in this area are accessed from the Carretera Fronteriza, a border highway between Mexico and Guatemala that was constructed in the 1990′s and only recently paved. All the drugs and illegal immigration that comes from the south into Mexico also use this road, making it a potentially dangerous place to be – especially for tourists. Thus, we opted to arrange for a tour company to handle our transportation for this leg of our journey. At 6 am the following morning, much to our relief, the tour van did indeed show up at our campsite to pick us up. We joined 8 other mexican tourists and were on our way. The first destination was Yaxchilan, situated on the Usumacinta river and a major rival of Palenque. To get there requires an hour long boat ride down the river. Compared to Palenque, Yaxchilan offered a far more intimate experience with the ruins, surrounded by pristine jungle and the haunting sounds of howler monkeys.

The boat ride to Yaxchilan on the Usumacinta river, which forms the border between Chiapas and Guatemala.

Yaxchilan Mayan Ruins, Chiapas, Mexico

Jungle Ruins : Prints Available

Hidden in the jungles of southern Mexico are the impressive ruins from the ancient Mayan civilization. This particular ruin is in Yaxchilan, on the Guatemalan border along the banks of the Usumacinta river.

Next we visited a nearby satellite of Yaxchilan: Bonampak. Although very small – it has only a single large structure – Bonampak has been an important site in deciphering the ancient Maya culture. Through a fortunate accident, rainwater seeping through the roof coated the walls of three small chambers with calcium carbonate, preserving elaborate and colorful frescos that depict religious ceremonies, war scenes with prisoners (presumed to be use in sacrifice), and ritual blood-letting. The site was first seen by the outside world in 1946, and provided some of the first evidence that the Maya were not a peaceful culture of mystics.

Bonampak Murals, Maya Ruins, Chiapas

Bonampak Murals

The spectacularly colorful murals in the Maya ruins of Bonampak date back to over 1200 years ago, and provided some of the first evidence that the Maya were not a peaceful culture thanks to the well preserved the depictions of ritual human sacrifice.

Although all of these ancient cities were mysteriously abandoned during a 200 year period roughly 1,000 years ago, the descendants of the ancient Maya still live in the area and speak their native language, and follow some of the old religious practices (though they no longer perform human sacrifices). We spent the following two nights at an ecotourism center in the small village of Lacanjá Chansayab, which is owned and operated by local Lacandon Maya people.

That night, we wandered through the jungle for 2-hours with a local Lacandon guide, listening to the sounds of the jungle as fireflies flashed around us (though the light show was not as impressive as what I witnessed last year in the Smoky Mountains). He brought us to several majestic Ceiba trees, which the Maya believed to be “world trees” or “trees of life.” They believed that the Ceiba formed the connection between the underworld, the terrestrial world, and the heavens. Although today we understand how a tiny seed can turn into such a gargantuan tree, if you step back and think about it for a moment, it is a rather mind blowing process. No wonder they held such an important place in ancient cultures. When you reach out and touch such an ancient spirit, you can feel the life and energy within it. Simply being in their presence, our guide explained to us, cleanses your soul. Although it may seem like a foreign concept to most Western cultures, I must say there is something to it. Just think, some of the trees we visited and touched with own hands could very well have been saplings when the Maya civilization was at its peak 1200 years ago. They could have conceivably been planted and cared for by Maya nobles like Bird Jaguar III, who lived to the ripe old age of 98 in the year 705 AD.

Ceiba Tree, Lacandon Jungle, Chiapas

Spirits in the Night : Prints Available

Scattered throughout the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, Mexico, are the gargantuan, elegant, and beautiful Ceiba trees. In ancient times, the Maya believed that the Ceiba formed the connection between the underworld and the heavens, and today they still believe that the trees can help cleanse your soul. After spending a few hours wandering the jungle with a local guide, I understand why.

Before retracing our way back to San Cristobal de las Casas (a 5-combi, aka van, journey), we decided to stay for a second night to soak in the calm and relaxing environment.

The view from inside one of our combi rides.

Our route back took us through the mountains again, where we encountered a Zapatista road block. The Zapatistas are a revolutionary leftist group, composed mostly of rural indigenous people, who have declared war against the Mexican state since 1994 for various injustices. According to the current leader:

“We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.” – Subcomandante Marcos

War is perhaps not the right word now, as the demonstrations we saw were relatively peaceful. To make their plight known, they periodically shut down the main highway through the mountains, stopping all the trucks, buses, and cars. Our combi driver, however, seemed to have a connection, and we got to pass without waiting. Thanks to these protests, there have been improvements in gender equality and public health throughout the region, but even without seeing the protests it was clear to us that there is still a lot of inequality that needs to be addressed. Just about the only thing these rural families could take for granted were chickens, which were everywhere, in every stage of their lifecycle: eggs, chicks, hens, roosters, plucked, and fried.

Chicks and a Turkey in rural Chiapas.

Eventually we made it to Comitan, where we had planned to catch one last combi to the ecotourism center of Las Nubes. It turned out that we would actually have to take three combis to get there instead of one, and that was two combis too many. We changed plans and stayed the night in Paraiso Tziscao, where a local guide directed us to some beautiful cabanas on the shores of Lake Tziscao. About half the nights of our trip we spent camping, but when staying a cabaña like this is only an extra US$15 extra, you’d be a fool not to!

The beautiful cabanas of Paraiso Tziscao, where we stayed for 2 days along the shore of lake Tziscao.

The deep blue lakes of Lagos de Montebello are situated in a cool and refreshing pine forest in the mountains of southern Chiapas.

After sweating for a week in the jungles, the crisp mountain air of this tropical pine forest was a refreshing change. It was, almost, like being back in the Cascades. Our second day in the park, we decided to take up an offer from the guide we had met previously to do a tour with him. This turned out to be rather disappointing, as the tour was simply driving around and joining other Mexican tourists for selfies by each of the 16 lakes of various hues.

At one of the lakes we had the option to do a horseback tour to two more small lakes (“Dos Cenotes”) in the forest, for US$12 each. Aubrey loves horses, so we thought, why not! Immediately after mounting our horses, we noticed something awry: the guides themselves were not on horses. Instead, the tour consisted of them walking our horses along the trail. But before we could go anywhere though, we had to get through the tangled mess of a fallen down tree. My horse reluctantly stumbled through, but seeing this, Aubrey’s horse refused to go any further. Eventually the guides managed to coax it through after she dismounted, but we weren’t sure the poor animal would make it all the to the lakes and back again.

Aubrey, on a rather unhappy and aging horse, as we start our jaunt to Dos Cenotes.

All of the lakes in the region are actually ancient cenotes (sinkholes in the limestone bedrock which expose the groundwater underneath) that have eroded into large lakes that are all connected by underground rivers and caves. We visited one of the accessible above-ground caves, which had several beautiful chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites. If you look closely you’ll find religious offerings such as candles and flowers left for the deities of the underworld.

Stalagmites and stalactites in one of the caves of Lagos de Montebello National Park.

Following our lackluster guided experiences of the day, we decided it was time to move on to Las Nubes. We caught the next combi, which dropped us off on the side of the highway, 12 km from the park. Here we were (perhaps?) fortunate to get a ride from a young family in the back of their pickup truck. Half way there, however, they ran out of gas and the truck started over heating. We helped push it over one final hill to make it to a small store where, after some trouble with the siphon, we purchased a container of gasoline and were on our way again. At long last, we got to cool off in the turquoise waters of the Rio Santo Domingo. All was right in the world again!

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

Aquamarination : Prints Available

The aquamarine waters of the Santo Domingo river tumble through a series of small cascades at Centro Ecoturistico Causas Verdes Las Nubes in Chiapas, Mexico.

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

Las Nubes : Prints Available

Sunset over the thundering waterfalls of Las Nubes on the Santo Domingo river. The blue in the water comes from the high mineral density present in the water.

Golondrinas Waterfall, Las Nubes, Chiapas

Las Golondrinas : Prints Available

Warm sunshine pours over the impressive torquoise waters of the Las Golondrinas cascades in Las Nubes, Chiapas. 

Unfortunately this little paradise was the end of our adventure. To be honest though, my digestive system was pretty excited at the prospect of eating something other than tortillas, beans, eggs, and cheese. But first, we had to make it back to Tuxtla, which would involve 9 hours of combis and buses. We broke up the trip with a night in Comitan, where we had agreed to find a decadent dinner. The guidebook listed a fancy restaurant that served fresh organic food, but it had gone out of business. A local ex-pat didn’t have any recommendations for us, so we ended up at some place on the center square. I won’t even describe how disappointing our meal was, except to say that it came with a scoop of canned tuna as a garnish. I ended up forcing myself to eat a soggy piece of pizza elsewhere instead. At this point, the prospect of a familiar food became not just appealing, but a necessity. I immediately understood why Aubrey had asked me to bring her 20 cliff bars from the US. The next afternoon when we arrived in Tuxtla, we were thrilled to see something I would ordinarily not even consider as a dining option: La Burgesia, or as you probably know it: Burger King. Yes, there in the capital of Chiapas, in the food court of an air conditioned mall, we enjoyed the best of the best: hamburgers (with a slice of ham…?) and french fries.

Rough Translation by Aubrey: "Now, you are also part of 'la burgesia', don't resist it. Accept it. With every morsel it becomes more and more refined. Savour the delicious and refined meat with the fresh and elegant ingredients that make it the cream of the cream, the best of the best."

And with that, our adventure had come to an end. There were many ups, and many downs, and many places I would never return to. And a few that I will. But it was a unique and valuable experience that I’m very glad to have had, and to have shared with the woman I love.

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Floris van Breugel on April 15th, 2014

For the past 2 months my girlfriend, Aubrey, has been in Mexico (and now Guatemala) on a soul-searching voyage, so it was about time I flew down to visit. Aside from a trip to Baja when I was five, this was my first time in Mexico. Everyone I talked to said Oaxaca was a special place, but until I spent the next two weeks traveling through other areas, I did not fully appreciate why. The first thing that stood out to me were the colors. Every building was painted, on the inside and out, with some combination of brilliant yellow, orange, red, green, and blue. Every fence was covered with blooming bougainvillea sporting vibrant pink, magenta, and purple flowers. The jacaranda trees were laden with purple flowers. The walls were covered in brilliant murals (“graffiti”), and the markets filled with ripe and colorful fruits of all shapes, colors, and sizes.

Culinary highlights included chapulines (fried seasoned crickets), mamey and guanábana fruits, a guava molé (sauce made from cacao and spices), tejate (fermented cacao and corn drink), and mezcal (smokey tequila) ice cream.

Colorful Oaxaca, Sunshine, Mexico

Oaxaca's Warmth : Prints Available

Warm colors, warm sunshine, and plentiful plants charaterize the welcoming atmosphere and architecture of Mexico's Oaxaca city. This is a picture of the stairwell at the apartment where Aubrey was staying.

A few examples of the diverse and colorful street art in Oaxaca.

A rubber chicken observes its unlucky fleshy siblings below at the local market.

Me, about to enjoy a handful of chapulines (seasoned and roasted crickets)! They were delicious.

Tropical fruits at the market.

Aubrey shows off a perfectly ripe, and delicious, Mamey fruit. This fruit resembles an Avocado on the outside, but has bright orange flesh and tastes like caramel. Mmmmmmmm!

After two days in the city, I was anxious to get out and see what nature had to offer in Mexico. And truth be told, Aubrey was excited to get out of the city, too. For that, we headed into Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, bordering Guatemala. Chiapas has one of the highest numbers of species diversity of any place on Earth thanks to its range of terrain from arid savannah to pine forests and tropical jungles.

Over the following 16 days we spent over 50 hours in 36 different vehicles, including a “platinum” night bus, taxis, combis, camionetas, pick-up trucks, and horses. We travelled through 5 major cities, passed 5 military checkpoints and 2 Zapatista protest blockades. We slept in 12 distinct places ranging from fancy hotels (US$50 / night) to camping in the lawns of fancy hotels (US$8 / night), and we never saw an American, just a few french, germans, and one kiwi (and lot of mexicans). Everything was in the hands of Aubrey’s 1.5 month old spanish skills, and whatever was left of my middle and high school classes from 10 years ago. Much to our surprise, everything worked out in the end!

Our first destination was Sima de las Cotorras, which means “abyss of the parakeets.” We left Oaxaca on a 10 hr night bus, and arrived in Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas, at 5:30am. After following several dead-end leads to information centers and ecotourism bureaus from friendly strangers on the streets, we hailed a cab and asked him to take us to the tourism office. He dropped us off in front of this official looking state department building.

State department building, with the tourism office.

To appreciate how daunting this building seemed to us, you have to picture that it was the only skyscraper in the city, and the only building that didn’t still have rebar poking out of the side of the cement walls and roof. And probably the only building with air conditioning. Confused, we walked inside, where we were asked to check our passports in exchange for an access key which would take us to the 5th floor. Our gigantic backpacks didn’t fit through the x-ray scanner, but the security guard just waived us through. We definitely did not belong there. But there on the 5th floor, mixed in with fifty other people sitting at their computers, was the lady in charge of tourism. She seemed confused that two dirty backpack-carrying American tourists were there to see her, but she did have helpful (english!) information packets to give us.

Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas, Mexico

Sima de las Cotorras : Prints Available

Hundreds of green parakeets make their homes deep in this gigantic sinkhole in Chiapas, Mexico. 

Armed with the necessary information we found our way to Ocozocoautla, where we found a cab willing to take us to the Sima. First things first: a cold beer, followed by a pitcher of agua fresca de melon (cantaloupe juice blended with water). Refreshed and hydrated, we set up our tent under a dilapidated roof, which used to be a horse stable. We were probably the first people to have camped there in at least a year, probably more – most people stay in the nice cabanas for an extra US$15. To accompany the beautiful natural scenery, several of the ecotourism places we visited had signs posted with inspirational quotes I particularly enjoyed.

Caged birds cannot sing, and the wild and free Cotorras at the Sima certainly sang (screamed) their hearts out all day long!

In the mornings and evenings the hundreds of little green parakeets (Aratinga holochlora) that make their homes in the walls of the Sima fly out in search of food, chattering vociferously as they zoom past at over 60 mph.

Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas, Mexico

Las Cotorras : Prints Available

A flock of green parakeets circles deep in side the sinkhole they call home: Sima de las Cotorras in Chiapas, Mexico.

Parakeets, Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas

Las Cotorras : Prints Available

Hundreds of green parakeets (cotorras) make their homes on the cliff face of a giant sinkhole in Chiapas, Mexico. At dawn and dusk they fly out in search of food in the surrounding jungle.

The green parakeets (Aratinga holochlora) that call the Sima home.

After relaxing to the sounds of happy screeching parakeets for a day, we set off to our next destination: Cañon Rió la Venta. The owner of the restaurant at the Sima was kind enough to take us to the trailhead (for the right price), where we descended the 700+ steps into paradise: towering canyon walls, sandy beaches, a warm river, and splashing waterfalls! We both agree that this was our favorite place of the trip, and I think we might go back someday. It was incredible that so close to a major city, was such a beautiful and peaceful place that we had almost entirely to ourselves for most of the 3 days we stayed there. That is, aside from the three men with dogs that apparently made daily walks up and down the canyon through some secret entrance to fill their buckets with… something.

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Rio la Venta, Chiapas, Mexico

Rio la Venta : Prints Available

The canyon walls tower over the Rio la Venta river as cascades tumble down mossy walls in Chiapas, Mexico. Look very closely and you'll find an egret looking for fish in the river.

Aubrey pokes her head out of the tent to see what I'm up to (taking pictures).

Aubrey, enjoying a waterfall shower.

Mossy Cascades, Rio la Venta, Chiapas

Cascadas de Musgo : Prints Available

Over hundreds of years the mineral rich water in these cascades has built up strange moss-covered structures on the canyon walls of the Rio la Venta in Chiapas, Mexico.

Travertine Leaf, Rio la Venta, Chiapas

Calcified Leaf : Prints Available

An imprint of a leaf trapped in calcium carbonate (travertine) many years ago is now revealed in a rock along the Rio la Venta river in Chiapas, Mexico.

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Selva el Ocote, Waterfall, Beaches

Paradise Canyon : Prints Available

Deep in the Selva el Ocote are magical waterfalls, sunny beaches, and warm rivers: a truely divine paradise. I can't wait to go back! 

Regretfully, we left the canyon, on to the next adventure: Mayan ruins, the Lacandon Jungle, and la Biosfera Montes Azules. And lots of rides in combis (12 passenger vans that race through the countryside bringing mexicans to wherever they want to go). That will be the next blog post!

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Floris van Breugel on March 11th, 2014

A few weeks ago my girlfriend, Aubrey, departed on a soul searching voyage through Central and South America, and meanwhile I headed north to Fairbanks to visit some friends, and hopefully see the Aurora. Unfortunately it was cloudy every night we were there, but we found other ways to enjoy the cold. Highlights included getting frosty in some hotsprings, and figuring out how cut a hole in 2 feet of ice so we could try our hand at ice fishing (we got the hole, but no fish).

Me, after spending 2 hours in the Chena Hotsprings at -20° F with some windchill. Now I know what it's like to feel like one of those frosted trees in the mountains!

The joys of ice fishing with a chain saw in Fairbanks, Alaska!

And now we wait. And wait. And wait.

To thaw out (and to visit my parents, as well as my graduate fellowship supporters John Mather and the Hertz Foundation), I made a quick trip south to sunny California. What I miss most about California is not the sunshine (I miss that, too), but the ubiquitous chattering of the birds. Here in Seattle–in the city as well as in the wilderness–the birds are always eerily quiet. My favorites are the Anna’s Hummingbirds, and I spent several mornings in Mt Diablo State Park watching them through my telephoto lens. Though they may look delicate, male Anna’s Hummingbirds can be quite vicious when it comes to territorial disputes. They need to keep limber for their fighter-jet like maneuvers, so their morning routine involves a fair bit of stretching.

Anna's Hummingbird, Mt Diablo State Park, California

Good Morning Sunshine : Prints Available

A male Anna's Hummingbird stretches in the golden sunlight of the rising sun in California's Mt Diablo State Park.

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Floris van Breugel on February 5th, 2014

While the rest of Seattle gathered in front of their TV’s last weekend to cheer on the Seahawks, Aubrey and I escaped to the Olympic coast to watch the hawks by the sea. To be fair, there weren’t any hawks, but we did see bald eagles, sea otters, surfing sea lions, and – to our delight – no people (for a 24 hr period)! We spent most of our time collecting driftwood, roasting it (to dry it out), and enjoying the the warmth of our campfire.

Me, roasting driftwood. Photo by Aubrey.

Along the way, we found some fascinating and colorful sand, which originated from tiny garnet (pink) and olivine (green) gemstones found in the igneous rocks that make up the olympic coastline. Although the colors may look bizarre, they are real!

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Wilderness Coast, Olympic National Park, Washington

Sandtasy : Prints Available

Naturally colored sand along the wilderness coast of Washington's Olympic National Park. The pinks and purples are powderized garnet, and the greens olivine.

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Floris van Breugel on January 15th, 2014

This post is continued from the previous post, about Yellowstone’s gray wolves.

The center of Yellowstone National Park, near old faithful, averages approximately 200 inches of snow fall each year. In such deep snow it would be impossible for the grazing wildlife (bison, elk, moose, and antelope) to find food. This forces them to adopt one of two general strategies: stay near the hotsprings that keep the ground free of snow, or move to the almost desert-like northeast part of the park, the Lamar Valley, which gets as little as 25 inches annually. Despite this low annual precipitation, several times throughout our stay we were fortunate to have periods of significant snowfall, covering everything (including the wildlife) with a pristine white coating.

Bison in Snow, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Horned Snow : Prints Available

A snowy bison rests in the endless expanse of snow of the Lamar Valley in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

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Pronghorn, Snowstorm, Yellowstone National Park

Snowglobe : Prints Available

A Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana, aka antelope), the second-fastest land mammal in the world, in a heavy winter snowstorm in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

Although Yellowstone National Park is most famous for its resident wolves, many other species make their home in the park. The coyotes, bison, antelope, elk, etc. are much easier to find and photograph, opening up more creative compositional opportunities. Our first afternoon we happened to find a friendly and good looking coyote (some were very mangy). We watched him settle down for an afternoon nap, and found him in exactly the same spot later that evening, hunting for dinner under a beautiful sunset.

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Hunting Coyote, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Sunset Hunt : Prints Available

A coyote hunts for dinner in the fading light of sunset in the Lamar Valley of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

The most ubiquitous wildlife are bison, which frequently cause traffic delays as they slowly amble down the roads to get out of the deep snow. Early in the morning, however, they are still (usually) bedded down from the night. We had one clear and cold night on our trip, with temperatures dropping to -3 F (-19 C) just before sunrise. Under these conditions everything – both plants and wildlife – in the Lamar Valley became encased in frost.

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Frosted Trees, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Frosted Lamar : Prints Available

Frosted trees and sage brush in the Lamar Valley of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park shortly after sunrise.

Bison Herd at Sunrise, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Morning Bison : Prints Available

A frosty herd of Bison slowly wake up as the sun rises over the Lamar Valley in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

After sunrise, we began a long snow-shoe hike up to one of the ridges surrounding the Lamar Valley to get a better view of a wolf (see previous post). The ridge provided a unique viewpoint of the landscape, and of course, the wildlife down below. For a brief moment the bison and lone frosted cottonwoods came together in an intriguing composition.

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Bison, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Lamar Bison : Prints Available

A herd of American Bison (Bison bison) walks across the Lamar Valley in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park during winter. This image was take from high above the valley on a nearby ridge with a long telephoto lens.

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Floris van Breugel on January 4th, 2014

Although the scarcity of snow along the west coast mountains makes it seem as though we are still stuck in autumn, winter is in full swing in Yellowstone National Park. Last week I made a spur of the moment decision to join my friend and fellow photographer Raghu to look for wolves and other wildlife in the snow. Three years ago I had come to Yellowstone in the winter with my parents to see the geysers and wildlife, but we only caught a brief glimpse of the Druid wolf pack through high magnification spotting scopes.

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Wolf Pack, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Wolf Pack : Prints Available

One of Yellowstone National Park's resident wolf packs (5 of 7 members in the frame) explores the snow hillsides of the Lamar Valley in winter.

Once native to the area, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was all but exterminated from the Yellowstone ecosystem by the Army, National Park Service, and ranchers between the 1900′s and 1940′s. As a result, the park saw an exponential increase in elk and coyote populations, which had a dramatic effect on the ecological balance. The plants were dying from over grazing, and the land was eroding. The park was being destroyed by its own booming wildlife population. The Park Service was forced to begin relocating elk, and even resorted to killing them, filling the former niche of the gray wolf. Between the 1960′s and 1990′s biologists urged congress to come up with a plan to reintroduce wolves to the Yellowstone ecosystem. Passing the Endangered Species Act in 1973 provided a legal basis for doing so, and after two decades of research and planning, 14 wolves were finally reintroduced into the park in 1995. To help keep track of the wolf populations in the park, approximately one third of the animals are fitted with radio and GPS collars. In addition to tracking the wolves for research purposes, park service officials help visitors see them by locating wolves with radio signals every morning.

Wolf project radio antennas and spotting scopes

A wolf project official, surrounded by eager wolf watching tourists, listens to radio signals from collared wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Since their reintroduction, the wolves have done remarkably well, surpassing the population goal in 2002. Because of this success, in December of 2011 there were 98 wolves within the park, grouped in 10 packs. In May of 2011 the gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in Montana, Idaho and parts of Oregon, Washington, and Utah, opening the doors to state managed hunting. According to the management plans, there are quotas for how many wolves can be shot in a given area throughout the hunting season. Wolves form complex family structures and packs, however, so the death of a pack member can have a profound effect on their social network. Just this past year several members of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack were shot and killed while roaming outside the park boundary. With only three remaining members, the alpha male (#755) was forced to leave his pack to find a suitable mate, as the only female left was his own daughter. On our third morning, the wolf project officials had located the lone wolf, taking a nap on a distant hillside.

The wolf, in the distance. The large image was taken with a 700mm lens (approximately 14x magnification), the inset shows the full pixel resolution, effectively 300x. You can just barely make out its ears.

It was a beautiful morning, so Raghu and I decided to pack up and snowshoe up to a parallel ridge in hopes of getting a better view. After an hour of hiking, we spotted him, still peacefully sleeping in the snow! We set up our cameras (still about 1/4 mile away) and waited. Half an hour later, he lifted his head, stretched, and ambled off. As we later learned, his new partner (#889) was nearby, limping with an injured front leg. Perhaps he had gone to help her out.

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Yellowstone Wolf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Wolf : Prints Available

Former alpha male of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack (#755) poses for a brief moment in the Lamar Valley of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

On our final day – New Years Day – we were off to a late start because of the snow that had fallen overnight. While driving down the icy roads of the Lamar Valley in the predawn “blue hour,” I saw a car with its flashers on up ahead. I slowed down, and suddenly we spotted a beautiful black morph gray wolf slink away from the road. Quickly I grabbed my camera and fired off a few images, resting the lens on the window sill. It was very dark, but after coming home I was delighted to see that one of my 1/30th second exposures was satisfactorily sharp! The wolf turned out to be the daughter of the former alpha male of the Lamar Pack, and was one of the few un-collared wolves we had the privilege of seeing. She, and her partner, had killed a female elk right by the side of the road overnight. Most of the “wolf watchers” had arrived so early in the morning that day that they had driven right past them in the dark – thankfully we had a late start!

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Gray Wolf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Gray Wolf : Prints Available

A gray wolf (Canis lupus), a member of the Lamar Canyon pack, poses in the pre-dawn light in the Lamar Valley of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

The wolves often catch up to their prey near the road, as the elk head for the river to increase their chances of survival. However, when approaching or crossing the road they stumble, giving the wolves an opportunity to catch up. Because wolves are naturally skittish of humans, they abandon their kill as soon as there are people nearby. To give them a chance to finish off their kill, the park service will often move the carcass a safe distance from the road. Although the wolves rarely return, other scavengers have no qualms coming in to finish off the job. We spent the rest of the day waiting near the kill, in hopes of some excitement. That afternoon, the handsome gray colored wolf (#755) and his injured partner (#889) made an appearance across the valley. I watched through my binoculars as they traversed the valley, making characteristic zig-zagging maneuvers indicative of scent tracking. They were coming in to feast on the elk that the other wolves had taken down during the night – the injured wolf was probably in desperate need for a meal. I can only imagine what it must be like to have a nose that can smell a frozen meal from two miles away!

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Gray Wolf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Gray Wolf 889 : Prints Available

A hungry gray wolf (Canis lupus) pauses for a moment while on its way towards an elk carcass in the Lamar Valley of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park. Many of the wolves in Yellowstone are fitted with radio, or GPS, collars to help track their behaviors. This one sports one of the newer GPS collars. 

As she approached, she gave us exceptional views, at one point coming too close to photograph with my 700mm lens. Her partner, the handsome gray wolf, was more shy, and stayed farther back. She cautiously approached the elk, had her fill, and joined her partner to wander back into the woods. Hopefully a full belly will allow her leg to heal in the coming days.

A gray wolf feasts on an elk that was killed by other wolves.

This concludes our incredible and unexpected encounters with wolves this trip, however, I have many other images of the other wildlife that I look forward to sharing next! I hope everyone’s 2014 is off to a similarly great start.

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