Technically, it was a bison. It was my first field job, and I spent 6 weeks in Grand Teton National Park with one of my dearest friends. It was the trip we will forever refer to as, "Grab & Stab 2012." There used to be a whole Facebook album dedicated to it, but this was the only photo I found remaining. Luckily, there are bison in it, and this event takes place like half a mile from where the photo was taken. I will tell you how we got chased by a buffalo, but first, I will introduce this segment.
This is my story. It's the go-to one I use when a new crew is swapping tales over beer, or the obligatory question arises, "Anyone got any good field stories?" Field biologists are ripe for the picking when it comes to story telling. I want to tell my buffalo one just as much as I want to read yours. I will send out a Call for Stories in the next few days, in an attempt to partake in the revolution of conservation conversation. We are the ones in the field, the humans working to preserve, understand, and stay alive in the name of something. Everyone I meet in this job has a reason, sacrifice, or story about their experiences and I need to share them. We have faces, and lives, and adventures, and we cannot be marginalized by lack of funding and temporary positions forever. Allow me to take part in the story telling of our passion: the study of life. Mostly, in my taste, the crazy shit that happens when you go out and do what we do. Let us share our stories and give ourselves the gift of connection.
Everyone has a tale, and this one is mine. It comes before the one about wild grizzlies having sex, and after I tell you my name. (For those of you wondering, yes the grizzly sex thing happened, yes I will tell you about it if you want, and no that's not what I'm referencing in an earlier post with the phrase "ability to find natural things particularly stirring." That refers to a whole other can of stirred-up worms.) If we've worked together and I haven't told you the story about the time I got chased by a buffalo, one of us is lying.
It was an ordinary day in the Tetons, with the exception that Johna and I were left with the SUV on the outside of the barbed-wire fence. Once we finished setting up our processing station for the Shermin traps, we got a call to run over to the secondary site and drop off some sterilizer. It was about a 20 minute drive into the property, and pleasant considering we were in a pristine, grassy valley of the Tetons [Figure 1].
On our way back, delighted at the incongruence of the morning's activity with our daily routine, Johna and I made play at spotting things to photograph. Amateur is too generous a word for the random camera snapping I was doing. As my buddy conducted us along the bumpy dirt road to our awaiting traps, we entertained ourselves. One scene specifically demanded the "good" camera: A gnarled old bison stood idle underneath a gorgeous sentinel tree stark in the middle of the valley. Everything was right about it, the sun, the wild-west vibe of the tree and animal together, and the chiseled ripple of boob-shaped mountains behind. I pointed the two out to Johna who quickly agreed, it was the shot of the day. Diving into the day day pack at my feet, I rummaged underneath our pair of Nutella/peanut butter/ banana sandwiches (I know- impossibly good taste) to find her digital camera with the great zoom.
It took me longer than I thought, as I was trying to avoid smashing our delights in my haste. I was finally removing the lens cap when Johna, who of course can't be looking at her 9 'o clock to see the shot, says, "Oh yea, wow he's a beauty. I hope the shot doesn't blur on him."
Still fiddling with my hands, I absently ask, "I mean, we're not moving that fast, why would it blur?" Blatantly Johna comments, "Well, it's running."
"Really?! Cool!" Leaning over, I put the camera to my face and tried to find the buffalo under the tree. We were slightly ahead of it now, so it took me half a second to see. The old thing had dreadlocks of hair and skinny legs. And it was, in fact, running away from the tree. "Oo! It's almost parallel! Still worth a shot, get it?" We both laughed- Johna and I always had wonderful appreciation for word play (however minute). After a beat, I realized I was struggling to get a shot of its profile and then raised my head to check the scene again.
"Hey, babe, speed up.," I said calmly (at least that's how I'm telling the story).
"Why? I thought you were gonna take a picture?" Johna asked. "I am, but it's not really running parallel to us, anymore. It kinda looks like it's veering this way. He's getting closer to the road behind us," I say. "What?" She half turns from the dirt road to see. "Holy shit, what is it doing?!"
"I think it's trying to ram us! DRIVE, GIRL!" Suddenly, the buffalo looked a lot closer. Johna's already speeding up, and with every small hill we glide over, the beast comes into greater focus. It was old, it was pissed off, and it was, in fact, running toward our field vehicle.
We had been warned of this, of course. They tell you when you work in a park like the Tetons that the most common animal attacks are from people trying to pet and approach the bison. Which, from a biological standpoint, is lunacy. But now, we were blazing toward the gate, in what can only be described as genuine panic, while a ragged bison pursued us. As we approached the fence, Johna points out that there are also coyotes poking around our trap arrangement.
She has managed to stay in control of the vehicle and properly address the other shit that might attack us on the other side of our "safety line." I, on the other hand, with no car to drive or road to stay on, am staring wide-eyed at the mass behind us. It was only directly on the road for about 30 seconds, but when it was, we were no more than 2 car lengths ahead of it. Close enough to be in trouble, we both knew.
We sped over the grate parting the fence, and pull up to stop at our site. The beast had veered away and was headed toward the south, after having its fun. Both of us stared at the dashboard for a few heartbeats before looking at one another and bursting into terrified giggles.
"Dude, we just got chased by a frickin' buffalo! What the hell?" I choke out between laughs. "I know, I know, I was so scared!" Johna and I reveled in our experience for hours. By the time we were set up again for the morning's work, the coyotes were nothing but an oddity to shoo away from our samples. Nothing beats the rush of a good chase.
We accumulated a series of other -possibly better- stories over the course of that job, but this one will always be my favorite. Maybe it's the way I get to wave my hands around as I tell it, or laugh at how petrified we were. Or how foolish. Maybe it's that so many things in life are better when they are flavored with a hint of fear. Whatever the underlying reason, this is my go-to story of being in the field. I was happy to share it with you.