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FULL STORY: Yellowstone/Grand Teton Country and My Dance With a Bison

 

PART ONE

I’ve spent large chunks of the past twenty summers measuring, studying, and authoring research papers on Yellowstone’s vegetation and ecology, principally on the Northern Range between Mammoth Hot Springs and Pebble Creek. My research involves lots of hiking and aspen stand measurements, but I also try to carve out time each summer for exploration. I’ve kayaked and canoed many area rivers over the years, and favorites include the Madison, the “town run” on
the Yellowstone, the Henry’s Fork, and the Buffalo. This year I’ve brought my Oru Beach LT to explore the waters of Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park.

“Oooh, an Oru Kayak!” exclaimed the Aquatic Invasives tech as I opened the back of my truck at the Grand Teton National Park Moose entrance station. “My Dad has one and he loves it!”

Every boat entering the State of Wyoming/Grand Teton National Park must be inspected and certified to be free of exotic invasive aquatic species, to prevent the spread of nasty invasive organisms such as Quagga and Zebra mussels. Seems that only a few Oru kayaks have passed through this tech’s inspection station so far this year, but she’s happy to see one! Oru’s origami design makes it the perfect boat to throw in the back of my truck for my 30-50 day annual Yellowstone research field season. Space is a premium when I’m living and working 1000 miles from home and Oru’s compact fold-up design allows me to pack my kayak up in the front of my truck box, out of the way while I focus on my aspen field work but right there when I’m ready for paddling. My fieldwork requires great mounds of gear,
and I have found that the compact fold-up design of the Oru provides for much easier logistics than either carrying a boat on top of my truck or trying to constantly shift mountains of research and camping gear around a hard-shell kayak in the box.

I’ve been exploring the Tetons for years, usually staying in the valley of Jackson Hole only long enough to collect my backcountry permit to head out onto the Teton Crest, Avalanche Canyon, or Alaska Basin with my pack. I’ve spent so much time gazing up at the Grand Teton/Mt. Moran and dreaming of backcountry climbing and hiking trips that it only recently occurred to me that there’s a ton of interesting water to explore down on the valley floor! Necessary permits in hand, I decided to start by exploring Jenny and String-Leigh Lakes, created at the base of the Teton Range by terminal moraine deposition from the retreating glaciers of the Wisconsin Ice Age some 12,000 years ago.

If you’re planning on launching a kayak onto Jenny or the String-Leigh Lake chain, you want to get down to the boat landing early, as the small parking lots adjacent to the landings fill early and stay full all day. Jenny is the best known of the lakes with its beautiful (car) campground and position right at the base of the Grand Teton. However, a Tetons paddling trip is not complete without also venturing out onto the slightly further north String and Leigh Lakes. Motors are allowed on Jenny, but String and Leigh are paddle power only and have a quieter and more remote vibe. Leigh also has several campsites on the west shore that are accessible by kayak/canoe only.

Whether by car, foot, or Oru kayak the Yellowstone/Teton area abounds in wildlife, so carrying a quality camera, telephoto lens, and tripod are a must. When paddling I always pack my camera gear in a dry box, since either on water or land strange things can happen fast in the land of fang, hoof, and claw and you need to be ready …

One encounter, in particular, solidified my reverence for this wild place and the inhabitants that call it home.

The sun was unrelentingly hot as I walked upslope through the sage towards Aspen Plot 32 in Yellowstone’s Slough Creek country. Thirty-two is one of 113 long-term ecological research plots I annually measure on Yellowstone’s Northern Range, and as I crested the ridge coming up from Plot 35, I could see 20 or so bison laying in the shade of 32’s aspen. No big deal. If you work on YNP’s Northern Range, you soon learn to dance with bison. But I’m working alone and off-trail this day, so it’s prudent to keep a keen eye on any wild inhabitants in the vicinity.

I observe the herd’s behavior closely as I advance slowly toward Plot 32. Cows and calves slowly wandering and grazing on the understory grass, lots of grunting and groaning, nothing unusual or threatening here. But they’re grazing in a bad spot, right where I need to make my aspen transect measurements. Hmm, not good. I need to get this plot done today, and I slowly advance to see what the bison will do. As I move closer, the herd moves off a hundred yards or so out into the sage and resume their grazing and grunting. Good. Looks like they’re going to give me
space and I’m good to go on 32, but as I approach the aspen, a big bull and 2 calves lying hidden behind some pole aspen suddenly jump up and run off to join the herd. The big bull, however, stops just short and turns to watch me…


Hiking solo and off-trail that day in Yellowstone’s Slough Creek country, I stood off in the sage watching the herd of bison I had just roused from Aspen Plot 32. Twenty years of working in Yellowstone’s Northern Range backcountry has provided me with long experience with bison, wolves, black bears, pronghorn, badgers, and even King Griz himself at close range but without trouble – we’ve appraised each other and went our separate ways. Shouldn’t be any different today I mused, but that big bull was standing just off from the rest of the herd and watching me
intently - he hadn’t taken his eyes off me since I kicked him out of that pole aspen. He wasn’t acting like most bison I’ve danced with in the Yellowstone backcountry, his eyes had an unblinking intensity and focus on me that was unusual and a bit unsettling. I stopped. What to do? It’s a long, hot, and hard off-trail bushwhack back to this plot and I’ve still got a lot of miles and plots to measure before this day is finished.

Silence and 100 yards of space between us, we eyed each other and gauged each other’s intent. But I've got work to do today in 32 so I took a step forward toward my plot and towards the big bull. At the moment of that fateful step, the world
suddenly changed and the big bull wheeled around and came straight for me at a gallop, malevolence in his heart and mayhem in those horns. “Oh, shit…”

 

NEW! PART TWO

It always starts with a foul-up, a misstep. “Oh s***, he’s coming!” I was well out in the brushy open sagelands of Yellowstone’s Slough Creek backcountry when the bull bison wheeled and charged.  Behind me was a small tussocky marsh that prevented any quick retreat and the aspen stand comprising Plot 32 was still mostly out in front of me. Seventy-five yards away a 1700-pound bull bison was heading straight towards me at full gallop - tail up, head down, horns forward, his eyes locked on mine.  He had mayhem on his mind, that much was obvious. And there was no doubt that my rib cage was the intended target of those formidable horns.

“What can I do fast? Real fast, right this second Johnny on the Spot fast?” I considered my pepper spray still in its hip holster.  “Would it stop a charging bull bison at close quarters? Hell, can I even get it off my belt in time?” Just behind me was potential salvation – the only tree in the immediate vicinity - a big and partially toppled aspen.  Long dead, the trunk had cracked 20 feet up and toppled over, though still attached to the stump to form a sideways “L.”  The partially toppled aspen created a sort of picket fence with its broken top and tangle of old dead branches sticking in the ground.  If I could get there in time I’d have a sort of barrier between me and the bull.  A psychological one for sure, since we both knew he could blast through the tangle of dead branches easily enough, but it might buy me just enough time to get my pepper spray out, my last line of defense.  I bolted for the protection of the dead aspen, 10 long yards back to my left as the bull closed the gap – 50, 40, 35 yards – who’s going to win this macabre race? At thirty yards I can hear the dull thud of his pounding hooves and feel the earth tremble at his power. Twenty-five yards and closing as I tuck in behind the dead aspen trunk.  Twenty yards, fifteen and the bull suddenly pulls up, head high, snorting his disgust that I had beat him to my sanctuary.  I pull the pepper spray canister out of its holster, fumble, pop the safety, and peer out from behind the big stump. The bull was staring at me at 15 yards, pawing the earth and letting out an enraged snort of malevolent desire thwarted.  Clearly agitated, he vented his frustration by demolishing a few nearby pole aspens with shakes of his immense head and horns.  But he pulled up just short, sparing me from what an instant before seemed an imminent meeting of his horns and my rib cage. Close – very close - now what?

A standoff, that’s what. He had his rage, 1700 pounds of sinew and muscle, and two large horns that he seemed eager to sharpen on my rib cage. I didn’t have much except my pathetic hidey hole and a can of pepper spray.  I did have some small advantage in the now close-quarters contest – bull bison are built for open country.  He stared intently, shaking his head, pawing the dirt and breathing heavily. I stared back, or rather peeped my head out from the behind the tree trunk and tried to look as inconspicuous and non-threatening as possible. Neither of us had a clear advantage in going after the other, so we didn’t.  After what seemed an interminable time the bull finally decided to lay down to continue his vigil.  “That’s a good sign,” I thought.  Then, a few minutes later, he took up a couple mouthfuls of grass and starting chewing. “That’s an even better sign,” I thought.  There was really nothing else to do but wait and watch.  I dared not leave the protection of my stump because there was simply no other safe place to go, so for me, it was now a waiting game and the bull was going to have to leave this party before I did.  If he reckoned to stay all night, then I guess I’d be staying all night to keep him company.  My heart and the back of my hands still aching from adrenalin, I eventually watched him stand, give me one last look and head shake, then turn and amble back through Plot 32 towards his fellow herd members grazing off in the distance.  He didn’t look back.  I looked again at the small aspen trunks he had snapped and utterly destroyed, considered his power, then looked up at the blue Wyoming sky and considered the white puffs of cumulus clouds. A screaming red tail hawk circled off back towards Lamar River, but it was eerily quiet in the valley of Plot 32. Was the silence ever disturbed at all?  There’s ninety degrees worth of afternoon sun in the Slough Creek backcountry and it’s good to be whole and it’s good to be alive.  But it’s not good to be here.  The bull and I had our dance, and I can only guess as to what went through his mind, but in the end, he spared me a goring and let me pass. “A close call and an unusually aggressive beast” I mused, “think I’ll pick up Aspen Plot 32 another day.” Slowly, carefully, and wiser in the ways of Yellowstone I retrace my steps back through the marsh and over the ridge heading towards Slough Creek, my campfire and my life.