One of the fabulous things about Yellowstone National Park is that even in the middle of the peak season, if you set out on a trail that takes you over a mile or two from your car, you can find yourself alone with the scenery and the wildlife. Matt and I had located a fairly obscure trail that was about 7 miles long and set off, leaving other visitors behind in short order. We set off into the woods, and the trail began weaving in and out of the edge of the forest which was flanked on our left side by an expanse of prairie. We had gone about 5 miles, spotted a variety of birds and some deer when we began circling an expanse of wide open meadow filled with long prairie grass. Out in the middle about 400 yards away we spotted three bison lounging around. Yellowstone is famous for their bison, which I can’t help but call buffalo, and these animals are responsible for the most damage to people in the park. Many more people are injured annually in bison attacks than bear attacks, a fact which Yellowstone is happy to remind you of via the many colorful posters and handouts showing a person being gored by a buffalo.
The thing is, bison just aren’t a frightening figure in the imagination. They aren’t a predator armed with claws and teeth, they’ll never star in a scary movie; they’re just this really big, shaggy, ornery thing that reads: COW to your apex predator brain. Nobody is scared of cows, even big prehistoric shaggy 6 foot tall cows. Even on Yellowstone’s website there are no videos about what to do if you encounter a bison. Just stuff about how you shouldn’t get too close to them along with fun information about their history in the Park. Did you know Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times? Other fun facts: the rut, or mating season, begins in late July and mature bulls spend most of their time alone or with a few other bulls. However, most buffalo live in a herd, there are two herds in Yellowstone totaling between 2,300 and 5,000 bison.
Meanwhile back on our little Disney perfect hike, the buffalo in the prairie were a safe distance away and it was satisfying to just see them chilling.
“Oh isn’t that cool? Are they close enough for a photo?”
“This is a great hike!” *Birds tweeting Tiptoe Through the Tulips.*
The trail led back into the trees and we came to a wide crusted over river bed. A moonscape of sulfurous craters marked the area and as we marveled at a bubbling mud pit we heard a deep, I’m talking depths of hell deep, guttural noise to our left. Every single hair on my body jumped to attention and I grabbed Matt’s arm and froze. No less than 10 yards to our left, separated by pine trees that looked increasingly puny was an adult bison, looking directly at us. I grabbed the bear spray and we backed slowly back down the trail, avoiding eye contact while he just stared at us.
“Good God did a 2,000 pound, 6 foot tall animal just sneak up on us?”
“Yes, it appears so.”
Our confidence in our outdoorsy skills rattled severely enough to have lost several teeth we realized if we turned around and walked the 5 miles (no running in bear country) we had just come from it would be dark by the time we got back. Yellowstone, with all of its magnificent geothermal activity is also not a great place to go hiking off the trails, as you stand a good chance of falling through a crust of earth and being boiled alive. Also don’t forget its healthy wildlife population most of which are more active at dusk, which includes plenty of bears.
“I guess we could just hike around it. Give it a wide berth and keep on down the trail.”
“Good plan. We’ll head into the forest and loop back to the trail.”
We managed to hike around it and return to the trail, senses on high alert. The trail was approaching another clearing and we saw a buffalo standing in the meadow maybe 250 yards ahead of us.
“We’re just going to have to turn around and hustle back to the car to make it before dusk.” Matt whispered.
Except when we turned around, just about 100 yards down the trail was another bison. We looked up the trail and another had appeared in the meadow. It became apparent that as we were heading East to West on the trail a wide herd of bison was heading from the North to the South, their progress shielded from us by a strip of forest. At the edge of the meadow was a pine tree that looked climbable.
“Ohmigod! Climb the tree!” I whisper screamed and we sprinted to the tree. Matt shoved me up and hauled himself up behind me until we had managed to clamber about 8 feet up and out onto a limb the size of Matt’s bicep. Now Matt has a lovely set of arms but with both of us on the branch it felt like it was half held up by our sheer will. The meadow and area immediately below our feet began to fill with bison and we held our breath as several calves joined the herd. The bison began to graze, rub on trees, lock horns and wallow in a shallow bath of dirt. The air filled with the dust they were kicking up and their conversation of grunts, honks, huffs and brays filled the air. After we realized we were safe from death by buffalo, at least for now, it became sort of magical to watch them interact as a herd, unobserved right above them. The sense of delight at our voyeurism was heightened by an undercurrent of fear of our precarious position. Bison are massive and agile and shaggy and prehistoric in a way that when you get really close to them smashes any connection with cows. Their grunts are a level of bass that vibrates your ribcage and tightens the skin on your scalp. When a couple big males stopped to stare at us in the tree their black eyes made it perfectly clear we were nothing to fear, could go straight to hell. It unsettled us in a way only unseating a subconsciously held seat as the top of the food chain can. How did I ever think they were cows?
Two hours later, fighting numbness in our legs and feet, with no sign of the herd moving on and no ideas, I encountered a problem.
“I have to pee. This is serious; I’ve never been this close to peeing my pants in my adult life.” I whined.
“Well, just pee out of the tree.”
I made Matt face the tree and promptly slipped, shaking the tree, startling a few calves and filling my shoe. We really needed to get out of this tree. Matt noticed the startled calves and started making “Hiyah!” noises, prompting them to spook and move away from the tree. Maybe we could scare them away enough to move along the trees and out of this mess. Half numb, very sore, still scared, and with a soggy piss shoe I began screaming at the top of my lungs. Led by the calves the bison started running out of the meadow! I kept screaming and accidentally triggered a full on stampede. I wrapped my arms around the branch as our tree trembled, trying not to get shaken out of the tree as dust clogged the air.
“C’mon! Let’s make a run for it!” Matt shouted as the last apparent buffalo left the meadow. He jumped out of the tree and I followed, collapsing on my half dead feet. He pulled me to the ground and we began jogging along the trees when a straggler male spotted us and charged. We dived into a pile of pine trees and it trotted off after the herd. We took off running along the edge of the forest, perpendicular to the path of the stampede in a half crouch, keeping an eye out for more bison.
I was so busy with my sweet, adrenaline flooded, defensive maneuvering that I trotted right into a mud hole, caking me with blech from the knees down. My armpits were beginning to feel sore from Matt hauling me to my feet so much when we finally made it to the parking lot. It was filled with tourists taking pictures of a buffalo on the other side under a tree. I was just filled with joy because I wasn’t gored or trampled flat.0