There are many ways to die in Yellowstone National Park.
There is even a book on the subject sold in all the gift shops. Falling off of things - like cliffs (and railings put there to keep you from falling off cliffs) and into things - like boiling hot water are some of the more mundane ways to go (although I suppose for a few seconds it’s pretty intense.) The wild animal attack stories capture my attention most though. I suppose because it is a situation in which you have little control. I mean it is pretty easy to avoid falling off a cliff as long as you don’t go around saying things like “Hey guys! Watch this!” The moose and bears and bison, which apparently didn’t come in through the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, under the inscription which clearly reads: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”, tend to treat the place as if they own it and pretty much go where they please.
If you spend any amount of time at all in the Park it is all but impossible not to learn that while close encounters with bears should be avoided at all cost, very few people are actually attacked by them each year. Unless you are illiterate, deaf, and completely baffled by the signs posted everywhere with the image of a stick figure impaled on the horns of a buffalo silhouette, you will soon learn that it is the American Bison that accounts for the most animal induced injuries and deaths in Yellowstone each year. It makes sense. On the one hand you have a big slow looking beast that spends most of his day strolling along grazing. He doesn’t let on that even though he weighs close to 2000 pounds, he can run 30 miles per hour, turn on a dime and has the anger management skills of Amy Winehouse on a bad day. On the other hand you have a shockingly high number of illiterate, deaf and sign-baffled tourists like the numbskull we saw holding out a handful of grass to a bedded bull from a distance of about five feet. His companions were busy taking his picture from their car across the road. I’d bet a hundred dollars that as he crossed that road he said “Hey guys! Watch this!” We didn’t stick around to see if God really does protect idiots and children. I do know that on my first day in the park it was all over the radio that a man (why is it always the men?) got himself gored when the bull he was trying to get a close-up of with his compact camera decided to turn it into an action shot and rammed a horn through his thigh.
It was my third day in the park and I had spent the last four hours fishing through a mile long canyon on the Lamar River. Perfect weather, cooperative cutthroat trout and solitude had converged to serve up an
unforgettable morning. The solitude was not due to distance since the river is never farther than a quarter mile from the road in that stretch but rather by difficult passage. Granite boulders of all size form the canyon floor. Worn smooth by countless flood events these rocks are slippery and the constant climbing up and down can wear down muscles that are acclimated to lesser grades. Occasionally the canyon walls close in and the only way forward is by climbing high above the water until they open up again. There are easier places to fish.
I debated the wisdom of cutting through the few hundred yards of tall sagebrush that lay between me and an easy walk back to my truck. I could see that bison had been in the area recently but I really didn’t want to take the long way back – scrambling over all those boulders without the distraction of fishing to take my mind off my protesting body. I decided to take the shortcut. The sage was tall enough that I was able to see no more than about thirty yards ahead and I was very aware that it would be all too easy to encroach on a buffalo’s personal space. I could hear vehicles passing on the road so I knew it wasn’t far off when I saw the sun glinting off a wicked looking black horn about twenty five yards away. The bull was bedded with his back to me and I stopped in my tracks. It was one of those moments – sort of like when you pass a dead skunk on the highway – for a few seconds nothing happens but you know, this is going to stink!
I was scanning the sage for other bison and contemplating the best way to detour when the wind shifted and with remarkable swiftness the bull leapt to his feet whirling to face me as he rose. The subconscious part of my brain that controlled my legs got out of the starting blocks well ahead of the conscious thought that running was probably a bad idea. I had traveled several feet sideways by the time I realized that: 1. I can’t run 30 miles per hour and 2. There could be other buffalo. I had the full attention of the bull which was now glaring at me, probably puzzled at the warrior in the baggy chest-high pants carrying a pencil-thin, nine foot lance that had set upon him while he rested. I did my best to appear non-threatening and nonchalant – the former being completely true and the latter completely false. I guess it worked because the bull never charged as I slowly eased sideways. Looking like a turkey hunting for grasshoppers as I scanned the sagebrush for other bulls.
My relief as my feet finally hit pavement was that of a shipwrecked sailor clambering up the beach. I knew with total certainty that I had narrowly escaped a painful death in the tall sage. This knowledge was depressing because I realized that I really didn’t come away from this terrifying experience with much of a story. I mean when you get to the really scary part of the story you hear yourself saying “And then he got up and looked at me” and the person you’re talking to sort of nods politely and says “Yeah, pretty scary stuff.”
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© Allan Sutley 2015