New film to document wildlife photographer’s return trip to Yellowstone

By Maria Wyllie EBS Contributor
Photos by Tom Murphy

“The solitude you find in Yellowstone promotes an independence of spirit. These experiences refresh our lives, teach us self-reliance, and reveal the wisdom of the cycles of the land.”
– Tom Murphy, “Silence & Solitude”

LIVINGSTON – Wildlife photographer Tom Murphy isn’t like most people.

His happy place is most folks’ misery. But he’s OK with that. It means he gets far-off places all to himself, save for the wild animals and changing landscape that serve as subjects of his photography.

“I’m an oddball. I like to be outside, and I like to be out in bad weather,” he said. “That’s when it’s more interesting.”

Murphy has traveled the world for his photography, but Yellowstone National Park remains his favorite location. He was the first person licensed to lead photography tours in Yellowstone, and every year he spends an average of 80-100 days in the park.

Drawn to the wilderness, Murphy is interested in seeing that hard-to-get-to country others rarely see.

That draw motivated him to ski through Yellowstone’s backcountry alone in 1985. With only a blue tarp for shelter, he covered 125 miles in a blinding snowstorm in 14 days. It was a trip he says tested his mettle.

“The truth is that solo trip … gave me a lot of confidence,” Murphy said. “Not just that I can ski across Yellowstone National Park but that I can do anything I want.”

Now, at 66, Murphy is retracing that same route, but this time with a film crew to document the excursion.

Five skilled outdoorsmen will join Murphy on the expedition: retired YNP Park Ranger Brian Chan; Murphy’s nephew and regular camping partner Clay Dykstra; award-winning filmmakers Shane Moore and Rick Smith; and Porter John Williams, who will be shouldering much of the supplies and video gear.

The film, called “The Journey Through Yellowstone” will not only showcase Murphy’s trek as he discusses

Standing on the relatively warm, geothermally heated ground, this bison was among many coping with one of Yellowstone's typical February mornings. By holding very still or moving slowly in the cold, bison conserve energy, which also allows frost to accumulate on their bodies.

Standing on the relatively warm, geothermally heated ground, this bison was among many coping with one of Yellowstone’s typical February mornings. By holding very still or moving slowly in the cold, bison conserve energy, which also allows frost to accumulate on their bodies.

how the park has changed in the last three decades, but will also explore his life as a photographer and his lifelong pursuit of Yellowstone’s wildest places. Film producers plan for a fall 2016 release date.

The team of six leaves Feb. 20 from Flagg Ranch, located a few miles from the park’s southern entrance. The entire route will cover at least 135 miles and lead through the most remote area in the lower 48, known as the Thorofare. With possible route deviations, Murphy estimates it will take two to three weeks to complete.

“With this film, I want to show viewers what it’s like back there, how beautiful it is, and ultimately how valuable it is,” Murphy said. “If people see it as beautiful, then they assign value to it, and if they assign value to it, they are more likely to save it. That’s always been a motivation of my photography.”

One of the film’s producers, Rick Smith, met Murphy 10 years ago while earning his master’s in the Science and Natural History Documentary Film program from Montana State University. Murphy invited Smith on a winter camping trip, and as Murphy puts it, “he was one of the few people that wanted to go on another.”

Through this project, Smith says he looks forward to helping realize Murphy’s passion in sharing these wild places with people around the world.

“Not everyone has the chance to visit Yellowstone, and even if you do, not many people go where Tom goes,” Smith said. “I think this film is an extension of that.”

While Murphy avoids technology (he doesn’t own a cell phone), his team will provide updates along the way to journey followers via a live GPS tracking app on the project website and social media channels like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Spending winter in Yellowstone’s most remote areas during its harshest season is a way of life for Murphy. In a way, it always has been.

Originally from South Dakota, Murphy grew up on a 7,500-acre cattle ranch with his parents, brother, and five sisters near the forks of the Cheyenne River. “It was really cold on the prairie in South Dakota –

Tom Murphy, 66, is the only person to ski solo across Yellowstone National Park. He is also the first person licensed to lead photography tours in Yellowstone spends an average of 80-100 days there each year.

Tom Murphy, 66, is the only person to ski solo across Yellowstone National Park. He is also the first person licensed to lead photography tours in Yellowstone spends an average of 80-100 days there each year.

colder and windier than here,” said Murphy, who currently resides in Livingston. “I just survived I guess.”

Growing up on the ranch, Murphy spent most of his time outside, whether he wanted to or not.

“I was basically my dad’s cow dog,” he said.

“We’d have to feed these cattle and drive around in this ‘51 Chevrolet pickup, [I’d feed them, then] he’d pick me up and take me to another bunch, so I was just running along chasing cows, freezing my feet off.”

At 20 years old, Murphy decided to try winter camping. Alone and nervous about the cold, he drove his car to a campsite in the Black Hills. He didn’t trust his sleeping bag, so he slept within 30 feet of the car in case he needed to retreat to its warm interior. He made it through the night without any issues.

“After that I was perfectly confident,” he says. “I did it in one baby step the first time, and after that I knew I could do it.”

Now he ventures into the backcountry to capture images that tell the stories of wild places. But, as the upcoming project will reveal, it’s more than just a job or hobby for Murphy.

“I think everyone has an obligation to give back to their profession and their community, he says. “And Yellowstone is both of that to me.”

Visit yellowstone.film to follow the upcoming journey or learn more about the project.