Monday, 28 July 2014

Making Way for Buffalo

Hey, look a post. And a resolve to write more of them that may or may not be followed through to fruition...

We have just got back from a trip around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Detailed posts to follow (I hope!), but first I wanted to share with you a cautionary tale about following Park advisories.

Yellowstone has several guidelines and warnings signs (my personal favourite: “Caution! Hot, flying mud.”) Many of the geothermal areas have a relatively thin crust of earth over scalding hot water, mud and steam, and so there are boardwalks for guests to follow with strict warnings to stay on the boardwalk.

The animals, of course, pay no such attention to these warnings, and so when we were following the trail around the Mud Volcano area, we saw a bison stubbornly plodding through the steaming trickles of water and taking a drink from Sour Lake. (From the smell of the air, I wouldn’t have tasted the water, even if cooled, but our bovine antagonist didn’t care. Then again, this was an animal who had chosen to saunter through a volcanic hot spot in the heat of the afternoon.)

Never trust an animal with a taste for sulphur.

On the subject of Yellowstone’s wildlife, there are cautions for them too. Visitors are advised to stay one hundred yards away from bears and wolves, and twenty-five yards away from all other wildlife. Regardless of distance, if an animal changes its behaviour because of you, you are too close.

In due course, we saw that the bison was heading slowly but surely for our section of boardwalk, so we hurried ahead to get out of its way. Once we were a safe distance from its predicted path, I turned around and started videoing it. I assumed it was going to cross the boardwalk, and I thought a video would be a fun souvenir of just how up close the wildlife can get. Twenty five yards from the other side of the bison, several other tourists had got their camera out with much the same idea.

However, the bison did not cross the boardwalk. It turned and started walking and grazing alongside the boardwalk towards us. Ordinarily, we would simply have moved out of its path, keeping to a safe distance, but the boardwalk was keeping us on its path, so all we could do was move further back. We duly started doing so, but the bison was paying no attention to us and seemed perfectly placid, so we weren’t in too much of a hurry. I was holding my three year old daughter’s hand, which made backing up awkward, and let’s be honest, I was a little more worried about the video than my retreat.

We didn’t let it get very close to us (I was using the zoom on my camera), but it almost certainly was within the twenty-five yard mark, when the bison charged. At me and my daughter.

If there is one thing you can count on me to do in a crisis, it’s to freeze up. There appears to be no ideal tactic for when you are faced with a charging buffalo, but on this occasion, not moving worked. The bison was bluffing. It did not attempt to mount the boardwalk but thundered to a halt right alongside us.

(My daughter’s reaction was to scream and hide behind my legs, so she clearly has superior reflexes, and there is hope for the family line yet.)

When my brain was capable of processing information again, it no longer needed to worry about maintaining a twenty-five yard distance. A full-grown, bull bison was one yard from us, giving me a one-eyed, sidelong glare. I could have stepped forward and touched him. My brain promptly got hung up on just what the hell I was supposed to do now.

Behind me, a woman had leapt from the other side of the boardwalk to get behind a fallen tree, yelling at her son to do the same thing. For some reason, I was still more scared of third degree burns than being gored by a buffalo, so I was all in on the standing-my-ground tack. My main memory of this whole moment was staring back at this bison’s eye, while trying to step backwards slowly and without tripping over my daughter.

As we started moving, the bison made another prancing rush (which, honestly, looked pretty absurd yet in no way lessened my respect for him at the time). I stopped in a moment of panic that he wasn’t going to let us get ahead of him and briefly wondered if I should try moving forward instead, to get past him that way. In retrospect, going behind him and out of his sight sounds like a really bad idea, and luckily I chose to keep retreating, knowing that my husband was behind me somewhere.

Eventually, my brain kicked properly into gear, and—never taking my eyes off the bison—I told my daughter to walk to her father. (She ran.) Once she was out of my way, it was easier for me to walk backwards and—thank goodness—the bison lost interest as abruptly as he had gained it. I made it safely back to my family, and he moved away from the boardwalk and started grazing. At our last sight of him, a few minutes later, some other tourists who had come up after our encounter were having their photographs taken with him.

It was an unnerving reminder that however accustomed to humans wildlife are, they’re still unpredictable, and anything that big is bloody dangerous. I don’t know if that bison ever would have turned violent, but I’m thankful for the boardwalk which gave me a foot of extra height on him and also provided an ‘intuitive’ barrier between us. (Though a quick google of ‘bison charge’ has proven that a boardwalk will not necessarily stop a bison.)

The thing was, I thought I was being safe and respectful of the wildlife. We have a very good zoom lens on the camera, and it was never my intent to interact with the animals or give the children a close encounter. In fact, my son started the holiday with a morbid fear of elk after my firm exhortations about keeping clear of large animals. (Elk can most certainly be dangerous, but this backfired on me when they were casually wandering past our hotel.)  I just fell into the trap of seeing the bison as the docile, slow creatures they so often appear to be. I became that little bit too casual about checking the distance.

We were phenomenally lucky. A cheerful little document online provides all sorts of (painful) alternative outcomes to this story. As fun as wildlife watching is, especially when you get a chance to get up close to one of the really large beasts we share this planet with, remember to play it safe—particularly if you're escorting children.

Finally, please note that my careless bid to play David Attenborough was in no way worth it. While some random tourists probably have excellent pictures of my being-charged-by-a-bison face, all we got out of it was a video that the Blair Witch crew would be ashamed of.