Art Class Trips to Yellowstone National Park

With Rocky Mountain College's proximity to Yellowstone National Park comes distinct advantages for students interested in exploring art through the natural world. Read Professor  Dave Shumway’s trip log from a recent trip to YNP with his photography students to learn how RMC students take full advantage of their surroundings.

We left Billings, Mont. and the campus of Rocky Mountain College a little before 5:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 9. Arriving at the Park to a very cloudy 8:00 a.m. start we got to work on the point of the trip - taking photographs, but progress was slow, with stops to shoot a bald eagle, trumpeter swan, great blue heron, elk, and autumn vistas.

This was our second consecutive class trip.

We arrived to Castle Geyser blasting off and then spent some time shooting around the area. At this point we needed to head back toward Gardiner, as the general consensus was that we wanted to spend some time in the Boiling River, but the Park had better plans for us.

As we drove north we had the pleasure of sighting a grizzly relatively near the road and were able to photograph it for some time before it crossed the Gibbons River and headed up the opposite hillside. At this point, the students were more than OK with not making it to the Boiling River, and their "great" trip had begun. The day finished off with a sunset shoot atop the Upper Terraces, then off to the Super 8 to get checked in, followed by the K-Bar for some great pizza and conversation.

I was the "bad guy" who ordered 5:15 a.m. wake-up calls for every room so we could have breakfast at 6:00 and be on the road at 6:25. With moose and black bears on the top of my students' list, we were off for the drive to Petrified Tree, be we had no luck with moose or great color at sunrise. I was starting to think that the grizzly was going to be our "great encounter" for the trip.

We drove over the pass, through the clouds, with stops for only a few landscapes. We hit the canyon and did a quick check for great grey owls, still driving south. We heard reports of a grizzly sow with cubs and were still hopeful that we might have something else exciting, but none of use were expected what came next.

"Stop, grab the pullout," was my radio call at Otter Creek. There were a few people stopped and looking down ... my excitement grew. "Yes, I can give them some otter shooting" was racing through my mind, but the Park had an even bigger treat for all of us.

The Canyon Pack Grey was bedded down some 40 yards from the road, and Park staffers were allowing folks to photograph from the road's edge. The students scored something that few get to experience, a relaxed wolf very near the road. I had no idea what was about to happen next. After about 45 minutes of photographing, the students were about ready to go, but we stayed just long enough for the wolf to get up and make his way toward two nearby bison, a bull and a cow. The bull's attempts to breed the cow met with a collapse from her. It became obvious that the cow was injured and weakened and that the wolf had special plans for her. 

The wolf began to approach the bison pretending to have little interest in them, but then would charge and nip, only to be met with a kick and the need for retreat as the bull was in violent pursuit of the lone wolf.

All present were snapping away as the wolf eluded the bull on each of its charges. After a few rounds of this, the bull appeared to give up defending the cow and the cow was left to defend herself, which for the next hour she successfully did. At this point the action was about 100 yards away and most of my students were ready to go as their lenses, even those borrowing my 70-200s with TCs and my 400, just didn't have the power to capture shots as they would like. We waited for a chance to get our blocked-in vehicles out of the pullout and then we were off toward Mud Volcano, along with a quick bathroom break and snack stop.

Then we drove north over Dunraven toward home. We made a few scenic stops, then a stop to shoot a beautifully perched bald eagle near the road, which led to another eagle approaching and a quick grappling display. Then we were off again. Down to Tower where we decided to pass by the "boring" distant black bear, then off to Mammoth with only a stop around Phantom Lake to photograph a mousing coyote. After that we were in homeward bound mode and only stopped for gas and dinner as we made our way back to Rocky Mountain College.

I love my job and absolutely love being in a position to take art students down to Yellowstone each semester. I am able to take students from India, Sweden, Florida,  Washington, and everywhere in-between to the world's first and, in my opinion, best national part for an experience they will never forget.

Once in a while we have experiences that few ever get the privilege of having, and this trip was one of those very special trips where the Park provided an experience beyond the students' wildest dreams.

Before leaving for the Park, one student had wolves on the mind. I kept telling her that with only 75 wolves in the Park I could not promise her anything, but that we would try our best to at least see a wolf, even if it was only through binoculars, If you could have seen the smile on her face when the beautiful grey wolf stood up and looked around, you would appreciate why I love taking my students to our "local" paradise.

Rocky Mountain College is a great place to attend college and anyone in my course, ART 247: Digital Natural Photography, or Mark Moak's course, ART 243: Digital Photography, would tell you that the ability to make trips to YNP on any given weekend is a great perk to attending this great school. Both of our trips this fall were a blast, filled with learning and amazing encounters with nature.

Most of my photographs are actually of students photographing cool things, but I had to take a few for myself, too.


P.S. If, like one of my students, you have been in Montana for years and have never been to the Park - first, shame on you. Second, plan a trip ASAP. You will not regret it. If you have questions or need help planning, there are tons of resources and I am always willing to answer questions via email. I am finishing off my 4th year of making at least one Yellowstone trip a month, every month of the year, and I am more than willing to share information about the Park.