Fun_People Archive
13 Aug
On the Trail of the Buffalo

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 13 Aug 96 16:43:20 -0700
To: Fun_People
Subject: On the Trail of the Buffalo

 From: (Bob Stein)
 Subject: On the Trail of the Buffalo

Well, I said I would tell here's the bison story.

(Part 1 of the not-chronologically-correct cross-country travels of Bob Stein)

Toward the end of my journey around the country I headed into Theodore
Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.  It's part of the Little
Missouri National Grasslands, which are managed by the Forestry Service.

As I entered the park, I asked the ranger if there were any bison around.
"Well," she said, "The bulls are in rut, so you are liable to see them
anywhere."  I filed this information into the lower depths of my brain, and
then asked her about birdwatching opportunities.  "We have a pair of
prairie falcons that have returned this year" said the ranger, and then
proceeded to give me directions to where I could view them.  I trudged over
to the visitor's center, politely perused the exhibits, and then took a
brochure and map and headed back to my car.

In the car, I looked over the map and brochure.  One piece of information
caught my eye: "Rattlesnakes, while shy and usually wary of human presence,
will bite if disturbed or frightened."  This information was filed in the
forebrain, where it was EASILY retrievable.  At this point, bison were soon
forgotten.  Poisonous snakes take precedence over most other facts when you
have the chance of meeting them personally.

So I drive down the road and examine the park's wonders.  Great sandstone
buttes where layers of deposition have been exposed by wind and water
erosion.  Panoramic views of the Little Missouri River.  Sagebrush and
scrub pines, native tall grasses, spruces and endless skies.  All of this
greets my eye as I drive through the park.  Signs along the way warn
"Buffalo are dangerous.  Do not approach"  Once again, this information is
preempted by the natural beauty of the Badlands of North Dakota.  (By the
way "badlands" comes not from the desolation of the place, or that
desperadoes haunted the hills, but from the fact that the French voyageurs
called the area "bad lands to cross".  I had sympathy for the 18th century
trappers and traders who had to portage their canoes up and down those
hills...but I digress).  I enthusiastically shoot picture after picture.  I
sight the prairie falcons and watch them cavort with each other through my
spotting scope.  Not unlike Thoreau, I am a man content to be at peace with
the natural world.  This bucolic reverie would soon be shattered.  Read on
if you dare...

At some point I see a sign that says "Cap Rock Coulee Nature Trail."
"Hmmm" says I to myself, "A hike would be a good thing about now."  I park
the car, grab my camera and binoculars, and head into the coulee, which is
a steep-walled ravine formed by water erosion.  It's a delightful hike
through the sage and the grasses.  I make sure that I make noise and I
constantly survey the area for serpentine-like objects, coiled masses of
snakes, and the sound of rattles.  I encounter some other hikers; we
exchange pleasantries. I walk onwards, and come to a point where the path
descends into a little glade of trees and shrubs.  I hear a noise, which
sounds like people coming up from the glade.  So I stop, and I peer down
into the shade of the trees.  And peering up at me is a very large, shaggy
head, with flaring nostrils and very, very large horns...

Now the following series of events happens in a time span of (at the most)
3 seconds.  I see the animal, and I think "Whoa!"  Then I think "Boy, what
a great chance for a pic..."  At this point, the bison snorts, grunts,
lowers his head, and charges up the path at me.  I manage to do a little
running back side-step maneuver off the path, thinking to myself "Maybe the
shrubs will slow him down...yeah, right!"  I'm also saying (out loud) "OK,
buddy, calm down!!  It's OK...I'm not going to hurt you!  I'm leaving!!"
The animal thunders past me down the path, and I take a moment to stop
myself from shaking and to bring my heart rate down from the 300+ beats per
minute it seems to be working at  right at this moment.  And then three
things occur to me:

1.  I came very close to leaving this mortal coil before my time.

2.  I was actually TALKING to a bison, as if it would do any good.

3.  Maybe I could get a really good buffalo picture, after all.

(If at this point you think I am not in my right mind, you're probably
right.  But how many buffalo have YOU encountered lately, huh?)
I cautiously creep back to the path, and back toward the direction I had
come from, I see my antagonist rolling in the dirt, just like bison are
supposed to do.  He sees me, stands up, and casts a baleful glance in my
direction, but does not move.  I take my picture and hurry down the path in
the opposite direction, casting nervous glances over my shoulder as I go.
So ends my close encounter.

But I'm not angry at the animal.  I really empathize with him.  Think of it
from the bison's point of view:  most of the year you spend blithely
feeding on grass, roaming the hills, and rolling in the dust.  But then,
due to some change in the season, or physiology (or both), your hormonal
levels go crazy.  You are painfully aware of female bison, you have to
constantly battle other sex-crazed males who are trying to further their
DNA encoding into the next generation,  your testicles swell to the size of
cantaloupes,  and it probably hurts when you walk...

Wouldn't you be a little, well, er, testy?

And another thing that occurred to me after this incident.  I had been out
there for four weeks, observing nature and being lulled into the false
notion that the natural world is lovely and benign and most of the time
like the Discovery channel.  What this encounter taught me is that nature
in its infinite wisdom and practicality does not give a hoot whether I live
or die.  I could have just as easily been pushing up sage brush and
entering the great web of life as a source of nutrients than sitting here
composing text on a computer and posting to a newsgroup.

So there it is.

-Bob S

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