Kim Nelson: Where the Buffalo Roam

We at DWWP love working with writing prompts! This week and next, each writer will take on the theme of “vacation.”


The option was clear. When dozens and dozens of 1,000-pound bison are covering the trail, you sit down and wait your turn. My husband and I learned this the hard way as we hunkered down in a grassy meadow, backpacks resting on the ground, our 5-mile hike to our campsite temporarily stalled. We were on our honeymoon–a partial cross-country road trip from Chicago to Montana–and part of our itinerary included a few days of hiking and backcountry camping in Yellowstone National Park. A herd of bison stood between us and our designated campsite in a valley near Cache Creek in Lamar Valley.

We had been on the trail for less than an hour when we encountered the herd. As we learned from the safety video we were required to watch at the ranger station when we picked up our hiking permit, bison can be aggressive and dangerous. There’s at least a few Yellowstone tourists every year who push their luck by getting too close to one of the massive, horned creatures and are stampeded, gored, or even killed. The video recommended keeping a safe distance of 50 yards or more from any bison we encountered on the trail. Back in the safety of the ranger office, this sounded easy to me; I had been much more nervous about grizzly bears. Bison should be a piece of cake, I thought. Large, bovine, and meandering, they were easy to spot from a distance so it should be fairly obvious to stay away from them.

When we first came around the ridge at the beginning of our hike and spotted the herd stretched across the meadow where our trail was headed, we quickly realized that there was no way around them. The expanse of lush green grass was dotted with woolly brown beasts as far as the eye could see. My husband Kurt and I discussed our options, and decided that our only choice was to wait them out.

14582443332_55d995897a_oWe sat in the warm sun, eating trail mix from baggies and watching the bison graze from a safe distance. It was early June, so many of the females had calves at their side. It was awe-inspiring watching the young calves suckling from their mothers and frolicking in the green grass, their coats fluffy and chestnut-colored in the sunlight. It was like watching Planet Earth live. The adults were massive with ginormous heads and intelligent-looking eyes holding centuries of wisdom. A feral scent clung to their wool: a mix of manure, musk, and tilled earth after a summer rainstorm. I felt transported to another time, when the west was still wild and unsettled and the American ‘Buffalo’ flourished. After nearly becoming extinct in the late 1800’s due to mass slaughter, their populations had risen thanks to conservation efforts. I felt lucky to witness their majesty in person, to see them be wild and thriving again.

As the minutes stretched into an hour, we realized that the herd didn’t seem to be moving from this particular meadow. Not only that; they were meandering closer to us. We looked at the narrow passage we had taken to enter the large meadow, and bison had come up behind us, closing us in. We were officially surrounded by about a hundred of them. On a grassy knoll partway up the hill, two large males circled each other, then ran at each other, ramming their giant skulls and horns together in a thunderous collision in a fight for dominance.

“We have to get out of here now,” I whispered to Kurt. 

Kurt studied the herd as it moved across the trail. “There’s sort of a gap, if we go right down the middle.” I looked where he was pointing at a small opening in the herd too small for comfort, but it would be our best bet to get out of there.

Very slowly, we stood up and slipped our backpacks back on. Kurt led the way, heading towards the opening in the pack cautiously. His 6’2 frame looked tall and imposing, until I compared him to the half-ton creatures surrounding us. I followed in his shadow, hoping to feed off his courage like a race car drafting off the leader. I looked straight through the gap, avoiding eye contact. In my periphery, I could see many of the bison watching us. Their droppings were wide as frisbees and scattered all over the meadow like poop landmines. Some of the animals huffed at us in warning, raising their heads and rolling their eyes until the whites showed. I knew that this was a warning sign, along with foot stamping and tail raising. My heart thumped in my chest, bracing for the sound of a charging bull. But most of the bison seemed to be regarding us with curiosity, if not a few gruff warning grunts. As much as I wanted to run from the feeling of imminent danger, we continued our walk at a slow, unthreatening pace, talking in low, calm, friendly voices.

“It’s OK; we’re just passing through. Nothing to worry about. We mean no harm. Good, nice bison. We’ll be on our way. Good day.”

A cow dodged a few steps sideways, rolling her eyes at us as she put herself between her calf and us. I fought every instinct in my body to cry, scream, or vomit, keeping my feet moving one in front of the other in Kurt’s footsteps. We finally reached the back of the herd. A bison in the caboose position threw a few final warning huffs at us, tossing his massive head, then turned back to his homies. He had told us in bison language “and stay out!” and we got the message loud and clear.

We got back onto our trail, our legs jello. Luckily, the rest of our hike was uneventful, with a few harmless mule deer sightings. A few hours later we reached our campsite along the river in a lush valley. Dropping our heavy packs on the ground in relief, we relaxed and drank in the stunning sight of Yellowstone backcountry.

The next few days were heaven on earth. We enjoyed the solitude of being the only two people in our neck of the woods, going out on day hikes to explore Lamar Valley then relaxing by the campfire. Down the river was a popular spot for animal crossing, so we watched elk and pronghorn traverse the creek and climb up the neighboring ridge. Sunsets exploded with every color that I had ever known existed. It was the perfect honeymoon.

On our last morning in the backcountry, Kurt prodded me awake around 6 a.m. “There’s a bison outside the tent,” he whispered into my ear. The sleepiness immediately drained from my brain as soon as I heard its heavy footfalls just outside our thin nylon tent wall. Its breath was heavy, pushing oxygen through its lungs the size of accordions.

“What should we do?” Kurt whispered. We were frozen in fear. Nothing in any of our guidebooks or safety videos had told us what to do in this situation. Stuck inside the tent, we couldn’t retreat 50 yards. Creating any sort of noise could potentially startle the animal who had no idea what a tent was or what it possibly contained. I’m going to die on my honeymoon, I thought. This is why sane people go to Europe. I grasped Kurt’s hands and we stared into each other’s eyes, waiting. Waiting for a giant bison to stampede our tent and crush us. Waiting for it to walk away. Just beyond our rainfly, its huffing noise picked up speed. I could smell its earthy scent, like some sort of prehistoric beast. I breathed in and out silently, trying to push down the fear rising in my chest. After what felt like the longest minute of our lives, we heard the bison move on, its heavy feet plodding away towards the river. Waiting a safe amount of time, we peeked through the tent flap to track its movement. It took at least 15 more minutes for it to finally be gone from the valley.

We packed up camp faster than we ever had before, shoving Clif bars down our throats instead of cooking up oatmeal and coffee. I hiked at my top speed, flying back over the trail towards our car and route back to civilization, ready to rejoin the world of people. When we circled the ridge where the bison herd had been lingering a few days earlier, we breathed a sigh of relief to find it empty. Our car was where we left it in a parking space near the trailhead. Tossing our dirty backpacks into the trunk, we said goodbye to Yellowstone and hit the road towards our next destination: Bozeman, Montana.

We arrived there in the early afternoon and stopped for a late lunch at an outdoor bar. I looked over the menu after ordering a local craft brew, mulling over what exactly I craved after a few days of dehydrated camping meals. When the server returned, I closed my menu, looked at him and smiled.

“I’ll have the bison burger, please.”

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