In 1967 my father bought a Pontiac Catalina and a dingy old travel trailer and took his girlfriend, my brother and me on a road trip. Over the next 8 weeks we drove 13,498 miles, visited 51 parks, and saw wonders like geysers, redwoods, grizzlies, and the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The trip made an indelible impression, cementing my appreciation for the natural world and the American landscape. This summer Pamela and I hope to repeat the experience for our family.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dave: Breakfast with a Buffalo, Lunch with a Loon

Yellowstone National Park is full of interesting and beautiful things, but for us the most notable was the wildlife.

Coming from western Massachusetts, we are not wildlife deprived. We commonly see black bear in our back yard. During our first trip into the park, we were scoffing at the tourists who were creating huge traffic jams just to see a couple elk. (“Elk jams” soon became part of our vocabulary.) We were joking that they should sort traffic into different lanes by asking questions such as: “Have you ever seen an elk before? If no, then take this lane.”

A few minutes later, however, I have to admit we were impressed when we encountered a buffalo jam. A huge male bison was walking down the opposite lane of traffic as calmly as could be. It was almost as if he was cockily showing off his ability to disrupt hundreds of peoples’ lives. Of course, judging by the people hanging out of car windows to photograph this guy, most were delighted by the interruption. We passed the buffalo broadside about five feet from the car. That thing was huge!

INTERESTING AND SAD ASIDE: At breakfast in West Yellowstone we were discussing this buffalo encounter with another family at Running Bear Pancakes (an excellent place for pancakes). We started talking with them after they commented on the poor quality of the maple syrup. (Try the boysenberry syrup.) Turns out this family was from Vermont, near Burlington, so they knew maple syrup. I had noticed while we ate, that the wife looked stressed and the husband often had a far-away look in his eyes. Turns out they were visiting Yellowstone thanks to the Make a Wish Program. So I suspect that buffalo encounter was very important to their son.

As we spent more time in Yellowstone, I came to think that buffalo are the new bear.

When I was in Yellowstone as a kid, bears were everywhere. Here is a selection from my 1967 journal:

1:50 2 bears

1:55 1 bear

1:56 1 bear

On this trip we saw bears only twice, including a grizzly and her two cubs. What we saw lots of were buffalo.

When we arrived at our campsite at Bridge Bay, we were surprised to see a lone bull buffalo calmly surveying the campground from a point about six campsites away. There were people watching him. A few were taking photographs.

This buffalo became our near constant companion when we were at the campsite. He would stand there looking around. He’d graze for a while. He’d lie down and wallow for a bit, sending up a cloud of dust. Then he’d repeat the process. Eventually he’d get bored and move to a different campsite, sending the campers there scrambling to a safe distance.

It was strange. This buffalo was almost completely habituated (as the biologists say) to humans. I say almost because we stopped at the campground office to ask them about the buffalo. They said, “This is his home. You’re just visiting. Don’t get too close. If he comes close to you, move away. He attacked somebody this morning because the person got too close.”

Our first night there was a restless one. Our site was near the road and the restroom, so there was noise from both the whole night. In the morning we asked if we could move sites. There were very few sites that weren’t reserved. The one semi-decent site was two doors down from our friend the buffalo. We took it.

We staged an interesting parade up the campground road, moving our big tent, fully erected, to it’s new site at 136 Buffalo Wallow Road (not its real name).

Sometimes the buffalo would wander off and do its buffalo business somewhere else. But most of the time we were there, he was there. When I woke up first thing in the morning, he was there two hundred feet away watching my head emerge from the tent. While Pamela fixed dinner, she’d be cooking away while I was watching her back until I’d say, “You really need to move to a safer place.” During close encounters, Linden felt discretion was the better part of valor and she sat in the car. Even though the buffalo seemed to be headquartered at a site two doors up, he never decided to harass the asshole campers there (more on that in another post).

Clearly buffalo are more abundant than they were in 1967. And they are far more comfortable around humans. We’d spot buffalo in ones and two all over the place, sometimes right beside the road. On the road north of Bridge Bay we saw an entire herd, maybe 300 strong. I’d seen that scene so many times in movies, I expected to see an Indian hunting party descending on the grazing bison.

For me the highlight of the Yellowstone trip was not buffalo, but a series of wildlife encounters we had on a hike we took to a remote spot called Riddle Lake.

We hiked for 2.5 miles through a new forest of pines mixed with occasional meadows. Beautiful meadows (Much of Yellowstone is new pine forest growing up through the fallen remains of pines that burned in a big file some years ago. The remains of the ghost forest are everywhere.)

We passed only a handful of other people. (Walk for a half mile and you can escape 95% of the crowds at national parks.) Just as the lake came into view we saw a bull elk grazing amidst the fallen trees. We carefully passed him, with maybe 100 feet between us. Then we came onto the shore of this beautiful lake, maybe a mile or two wide, with snowcapped mountains rising in the distance to the east and south.

A few white pelicans were swimming in the lake, and we studied them with field glasses.

Lark and Linden got their feet wet. I was still studying the white pelicans (I’ve always liked them), when they took wing, joined up with a few of their friends, and then proceeded to stage some aerial maneuvers. They always fly in a V formation. At one point the V came down low right over us and we could hear the wind in their feathers squeaking with each flap of a wing. It sounded like they needed lubrication. Then the birds settled in for more paddling.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch while sitting on a log near the shore. Just then, the elk wandered back toward us. We watched him warily until he strode into the lake, picked a spot he liked, and casually chomped on some water plants. He kept one eye on us and we sat there quietly watching him. He must have been no more than sixty or seventy feet away. His big rack of velvety antlers (10 points) was very impressive. Pamela said it was like having lunch with Harry Potter’s patronus.

Just then we heard a loon crying in the distance. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to hear that while we watched this majestic elk. Then, we heard a whippoorwill. I hadn’t heard one in decades. Then we heard another. Then whippoorwills began calling to each other all around us. Soon the whippoorwills fell silent. I don’t know what they were doing, making their calls in broad daylight. In my experience, you only hear them at dawn and dusk. We were forced to conclude that nature had decided to give us a little nod, or maybe the fairies were thanking us for the fairy house the kids and Auntie Pam made the day before. In any case, it was a few absolutely magical moments.

Then the elk decided to finish his bathing and he moved toward us. Fortunately I had earlier crept up to the beach and retrieved the kids’ shoes. We scrambled over our picnicking log and beat a retreat into the jumble of downed trees. We circled around back to the trail and headed away from Riddle Lake. Only on our hike out did we start to encounter people again. Again, for some reason the fates tipped their hats to us here on this special afternoon at Riddle Lake, giving us the entire lake to ourselves.

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