Bison, Bear, and Elk - Oh My!

Suzanne Anderson

© Copyright 2021 by Suzanne Anderson

Photo by Goutham Ganesh Sivanandam on Unsplash
                            Photo by Goutham Ganesh Sivanandam on Unsplash

Tourist visit Yellowstone National Park, hoping for wildlife encounters. Being from the Midwest, I’ve encountered bison in fences and elk in nature. I’ve even sighted a black bear in my front yard as I drove into my driveway. My first visit to Yellowstone exposed my latent fear of grizzly bear.

“I’m not getting out of this car without bear spray!”

My husband has driven us a couple thousand miles from Western Wisconsin, across Minnesota and the Dakotas, and into Montana to see Yellowstone National Park, but now I will only see it through a car window unless he finds us bear spray.

“No problem. We’ll get bear spray.” He pacifies me.

He checks every store that Google maps says carries bear spray in Gardiner, Montana at the North Entrance: TrailQuipt, sold out; Gardiner Market, sold out; Park’s Fly Shop, sold out; Flying Pig Adventure Company, sold out; Gardiner Gifts, sold out. We could have entered the park an hour ago, but we’re on a fruitless mission. We’ve reached our destination. We can’t let a little can of bear spray keep us from touring Yellowstone, so we pay the admission fee and drive into the park defenseless.

Tony places the pass in the dash as I sort through the literature until I find the safety brochure and read aloud as Tony drives.

“All of Yellowstone is bear habitat.”

“Right?Part of the experience.” Tony’s poking the bear.

“Bear is the first animal listed under dangerous wildlife.” I observe.

“We probably won’t even see any bear.”

I apply Murphy’s Law. “If we are prepared, we won’t. If we’re unprepared, we will.”

We encounter our first wildlife as we pull into Mammoth. Elk are lounging and grazing in the lawn in front of the post office. Past the post office, Tony notices the Mammoth General Store.

“If I get bear spray here, will you get out of the car?” He knows I’m adamant.

“Of course!” I’m expecting it’ll be sold out.

I continue reading the safety brochure from the safety of the passenger seat as Tony shops the general store for bear spray. Always stay at least 100 yards away from bear and wolves and at least 25 yards away from all other animals, including bison and elk. I see a tourist photographing the elk in front of the post office. He obviously hasn’t read the safety brochure.

Tony returns to the car with a package, probably snacks he couldn’t resist.

“I have bear spray,” he sings, pulling it out of the plastic shopping bag. I decide to use the public bathroom while he reads through the directions for using bear spray, my first out-of-the-car excursion in the safe confines of a town.

Our first tourist stop is Mammoth Hot Springs. Over a thousand people are casually strolling boardwalks, unconcerned about wildlife. I get lulled into their false sense of security, enjoying the scenery, the warmth of the steam on this chilly October morning, and recalling the putrid smell of hot springs.

Our next destination is the Great Canyon of Yellowstone where we’ll explore Upper and Lower Falls and hopefully hike the trails along the rims. The most danger we’ve encountered so far in the park is the snow-covered roads. Our first hike descends to the Lower Falls in numerous switchbacks. Yes, Tony wears the bear spray strapped to his belt. I feel sheepish as we encounter a steady flow of families with young children who show no fear. The trail between Lower and Upper Falls is closed to hikers, so to my relief we drive to Upper Falls. Again we descend another paved path to view Upper Falls where we encounter tourists and snowflakes.

After completing these two populous trails, we drive out to Artist’s Point. I surprise myself and Tony even more when I ask if he wants to hike out to Point Sublime. This would be our first hike not on boardwalk or pavement but into backwoods without hundreds of tourists around us. My confidence teeters when I read the bear warning sign advising hikers stay in groups of three. I hike on high alert and make Tony lead. I find myself constantly scanning the woods to our left and checking behind us. Fortunately the deep canyon immediately to our left eliminates that area for bear. As we met other hikers returning from Point Sublime, I relax. I figure if they survived; we will too. Day one ends without any bear sightings and a full can of bear spray for tomorrow.

Day two touring takes us to Grand Prismatic. We can’t find a parking spot in the lot, so we continue to the overlook hike instead. We decide to get a closer look at Grand Prismatic and hike this trail until we intersect another trail to Fairy Falls. Since we’ve already seen Grand Prismatic and we love waterfalls, we spontaneously turn left toward Fairy Falls. Again we read the warning sign to hike in groups of three, so we are know we are entering backwoods. Fortunately we had decided to leave our backpack of snacks at the car; I wouldn’t want to attract bear. The trail is no longer paved or gravel but natural and enveloped in young regenerating forest. Along this trail, we meet a single female hiker who vocalizes my same thought: “Oh, I thought you were a bear!” She laughs in relief when we see each other. The view of this spectacular falls rewards my tolerating six miles of bear phobia.

We finally eat our snacks safely in our car while waiting for Old Faithful to erupt. Following Old Faithful’s disappointing show, we feel compensated when we notice a bison grazing in a remote corner of the parking lot. Tony pulls up with 25 yards. I roll down my passenger window and call to the bison so he’d look up for his photo. “Hey, there! Moo.” He ignores me. Day two ends with no bear sightings but one bison and an elk-produced traffic jam at sunset in Mammoth as we return to Gardiner.

Day three presents our last chance for bear encounters but seems unlikely as we hike more boardwalks along Lake Yellowstone and West Thumb Geyser Basin. An elk poses for photos at a stop sign near Grant, presenting only its rear end for photographers. We pull over to admire Gibbon Falls on our return to Gardiner to conclude our Yellowstone tour without a bear sighting.

I become more chatty with potential bear encounters behind me. We pass Norris Junction and I recall, “This is where we drove through snow to the Grand Canyon two days ago.” I’m comfortable with the Yellowstone area now. As we accelerate from the stop sign at the intersection, we crest a knoll and notice traffic stopped in the oncoming lane. We realize they are stopped to accommodate three bison strolling on the road in our lane heading our direction, so Tony stops.

“This is so cool!” I exclaim from the safety of our vehicle.

The bison travel in formation: the biggest bison leads while the other two follow him, flanking his right and left. This bison gang rules the road. They are not turning into the woods but continue straight toward us. They are closer than 25 yards. Tony slowly backs up. The lead bison is picking up speed.

“He’s charging!” I exclaim. I notice its beard and hump swaying side to side, faster and faster.

Tony reverses faster than I’ve ever driven in reverse. He can only backup as far as the car behind him. That driver must realize what’s happening because he’s also backing up until he can’t back up any further either; an unseen vehicle on the other side of the knoll who doesn’t know what’s happening must not be giving him space.

The bison appears to be running at top speed and has put his head down. Tony slams the shifts from reverse into drive and drastically turns left.

“What are you doing?” I demand. “Now he’s heading right for me!” I only see window between my face and the bison’s head, or worse yet, horn. Horn! Should Tony honk his horn? I’m helpless. This battle is between Tony and the bison.

As quickly as Tony turns left, he swerves right again, swinging around the lead bison. I feel like the vehicle could possible roll,but the bison might do more harm. Then Tony slams on the brake; we still have two bison ahead of us.

These followers do not break formation. They do not charge. They continue to plod up the knoll behind their leader. I glance into the rearview mirror and see that the vehicle behind us is now in our previous predicament. I watch him repeat Tony’s escape maneuver. I quickly click the camera app on my cell phone and record the oncoming bison. One brushes against the driver’s window; the other brushes against my passenger’s window. Both give us an “evil eye” with the one eye on the vehicle side of their head. Fortunately their horns clear the top of our car.

I can’t believe we escaped that without a damaged car!” Tony gasps, looking over at me.

Great, quick thinking!” I compliment. “Sorry for accusing you of sacrificing me. I see what you were doing now. The driver in the car behind us copied you!”

Oncoming traffic moves again, and we continue driving toward Gardiner with an adrenaline rush. When we meet an oncoming ambulance, we conclude the second vehicle behind us didn’t dodge the bison. Next, we meet an oncoming tow truck. That could have been us needing rescue.

We return to Wisconsin with a full can of bear spray, a vehicle intact, and a great animal encounter story. I would go to Yellowstone National Park again. I wonder if bear spray expires.

POSTSCRIPT: We did encounter a black bear six months later hiking back in Wisconsin. He was just out of hibernation and only 30 yards away. We were NOT carrying bear spray. But that’s another story…

I retired from teaching high school English after teaching in person twenty years and teaching virtually for two months due to Covid. Travel and nature intrigue me, so now I have more time for both. I still don’t like bear or bison.

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