It was the weekend before Memorial Day, so we had avoided the crowds by making our trip to Yellowstone National Park early in the season. Of course, there are certain risks in doing this, like the real possibility of getting snowed-in. In fact, Cooke pass wasn’t even open yet this particular year due to a mid-May blizzard, and nearby mountain roads of Montana and Idaho were still pretty “iffy”. So, I was sticking to the less vulnerable areas, just finishing up my lunch on a picnic table near Mammoth Hot Springs, looking at a bird on the bench that is begging for part of my sandwich, when a car stops on the road about 30 yards away. Slowly, the fellow on the passenger side exits the car and starts clicking away rapidly at me with his very expensive camera. He’s half-stooping, his knees bent, and every time he lowers his camera I see this look of amazement on his face.
Bird people can get very excited about seeing an unusual bird, but this one wasn’t anything to write home about. I told him, “I think it’s a Clark’s Jay.” He’s still clicking away. “The male” I add. The wide-eyed photographer has stopped his approach and he lowers his camera, pointing something out behind me. I turn to my left, slowly, hoping not to scare off the porcupine or pine martin he must have spotted. I absolutely freeze, as I see it. Twenty feet away from me and just behind a pine tree stands a bull bison. Two thousand pounds of rutting, unpredictable, horned bovine, potentially ready to charge.
Oh pine nuts, how am I going to get out of this one? There’s no cover except for the picnic table between myself and the RV, except for that photographer. Well, there’s an idea; I don’t have to be faster than a running bison, I just have to be faster than that guy! However, the situation is getting worse by the second as more cars are stopping and seemingly dozens of clueless tourists with their iPhones are now approaching what could be the scene of my demise. People get excited when they see a wild animal, and they lose their common sense. Every one of them with their excited jabbering and their running towards the bison makes him more likely to charge, and unfortunately I am in the middle. Slowly I sink down to my knees underneath the table. It’s not much, but it’s some protection. Still, if this fur-covered Mack truck charges me, that’s going to leave a mark.
At this moment a light came on in the head of the original shutterbug, and he realized what our situation actually was. He turned around and started to stop the small crowd of tourists from coming any closer, explaining to them that we had a real situation here. Apparently, I can only be dead terrified for so long, or I stripped a gear in my head because the stupidity of what I did next surprises even me. I recognized that I will never again have the opportunity to be this close to a living, breathing bison, and I pulled out my pocket camera and started taking pictures! Like I said, people lose their common sense.
To make an already long story short, the situation diffused when the tourist-acclimated or oblivious beast simply turned and walked off, and I had a long conversation with the park rangers trying to explain that no, I hadn’t approach the bison at such a dangerous range, HE ambushed ME!
I own a pair of binoculars, but more often than not I find myself surprised by wildlife at close range. If you’re quiet, stoop down and move slowly you’ll find you can often approach some animals to just a few feet. Still, try to be aware of your surroundings and don’t get too close as startled animals can be unpredictable. A whitetail may look docile, but many people have been hurt by a spooked or rutting deer.
Wherever your summer vacation may take you, when it comes to approaching wildlife, take it slow and think about safety first. For what it’s worth, I don’t recommend trying to get up close with a bison at all. The experience is over-rated.