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Bison Roadblock!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A long time ago, I told you about this summer's trip to North Dakota. Now I'm circling back, even though August is throwing every diamond she has at me and it's all I can do to keep up the ooh's and aaahs, much less blog about it. The bloggy backlog, she is tremendous. Hundreds of photos lie keening in their folders, waiting to be shared.

The last couple of years, we haven't stopped in North Dakota--we've pushed farther west into Montana. Medora, North Dakota, has an irresistible pull on us. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an incredible place, a place of painted, sculptured bentonite clay--badlands, really--and abundant wildlife. It's one of the best places we know to surround yourself with bison.

Bison are big animals. Every once in awhile you stumble on a bull who is just...huge.

The really old boys have these huge Afros of black wool that flop out sideways, giving their heads a deltoid appearance, and massive pantaloons of wool that wobble as they walk.

Their horns hook back toward their skulls. It makes me wonder if they'd grow right into the skull if the bull lived long enough. He was a tank of an animal, clearly quite aged. And probably cranky enough to want to be alone most of the time.

A more modestly proportioned cow and her orange calf. The backdrop in this photo kills me.

In the days before a concerted government campaign to exterminate them, bison once covered the Great Plains, looking like a nubbly brown blanket when they were on the move. To break the resistance of Plains-dwelling Native Americans by pulling their food source out from under them, the U.S. Army and private contractors shot nearly all our bison in less than two decades. By 1890, they were all but gone. Before this summer, I’d seen bison only in small groups on private reserves. Our family trip changed all that.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the western border of North Dakota has a herd of around 300 bison, with a penchant for hanging out on the park’s only roadway.

Being brought to a halt by a shaggy, blackbrown wall of bovine flesh is a thrilling thing. The animals show no concern whatsoever for the cars that quickly stack up behind their roadblock.

They separate and flow around the vehicles, a grunting, breathing, massy river. Golf-ball sized eyes roll, meeting yours as the animals trudge slowly past, an arm’s length or closer away. Knowing that this is one of North America’s most dangerous and unpredictable animals adds to the allure of the experience, at least for me. I've been told that the experience is even more heart-pounding when viewed from the back of a motorcycle. I cannot imagine being on a motorcycle in a herd of bison. Well, to start with I can't imagine riding at high speeds with my limbs and head exposed to the pavement, but riding through a herd of bison? Noooo thanks. You'd think they'd warn you at the park entrance. "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here (on motorcycles)."

Ten-year-old Liam, who has been enthralled with bison since he was very young, was a quivering, pleading mess in our first bison roadblock. His apprehension only increased as time went on. “Please, Daddy. Just drive. Just go. Get away from them. Please. I beg you.” But the bison in Medora kept us stalled until well after dark, standing shoulder to shoulder, their backs turned to us, tufted tails switching insolently across their narrow haunches as we listened helplessly to our son’s pleas to get moving. The only thing to do was to relax into it, to inhale the rich, manurey smell of them, to listen to their sonorous grunts, to luxuriate in the texture of dark wool forequarters, shining black horn hooks, and smooth flanks.

I pee, unconcerned.

The bison issue only intensified when we drove on to Yellowstone National Park. Here, as many as 4,500 bison live, and bison roadblocks were apt to be correspondingly longer. Yellowstone is the only place in America where bison have lived continuously since prehistory. And these animals—the only genetically pure Plains bison left-- seem to know it. They're eerily skilled at moseying out into the road just as you think you're going to squeak by them.

In our week's stay among bison, a funny thing happened. I came to revel in the roadblocks, to look forward to them, and to crow with delight when we encountered them. To me, they were an invitation to join the herd, to watch the evening light drain out against the stark blueblack outlines of the hills and mountains, to slow it all down to bison time, even as our hearts raced at the proximity of these massive beasts. There are few places in the world where animals get to call all the shots. Those are the places I most want to be.

Still I pee. You are as nothing to me.


Early on, you refer to TR National Park as TR "state park." Just an FYI. Nice post. I love that place.

I had a good half hour bison blockade in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone this summer -- I love how these animals can totally put the kibosh on our plans to go speeding down the road...

Posted by Anonymous August 31, 2010 at 11:33 AM

Julie--we encountered a very protected herd of bison when we visited Antelope Island in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City. Similar experience of having a bull saunter across the road, give us the hairy eyeball and decided if he wanted to move. . .or not.
We also had the joy of seeing cows and calves playing in the water at the edge of the Great Salt Lake. Like watching kids at the beach.

Urinating seems to stimulate profound thoughts in bison.

Makes you think of cave paintings and woolly mammoths, no? :)

What a great family vacation. It's nice when you're forced to slow down sometimes. Was Liam overcome? I get that way when any large wild animal is so close at hand. (Drives my husband crazy when we've had moose entirely unaware of us, almost close enough to touch and I can't keep still any longer. Must flee!)

We drove cross country several years back and camped in our 'antique' pop up camper at some of our national parks (Zion, Yellowstone and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon). We stayed at Custer State Park in North Dakota one night and experienced our first ever bison roadblock the next morning. We actually have it on video and you can hear all of us make some pretty crazy noises and remarks when a big dude moseyed on by our window. He moved niiiiice and slooooow and didn't mind a bit that he was holding us up. Us either! I was mesmerized by the herds at Yellowstone, too. And the backgrounds...oh, the backgrounds! MANY rolls of film shot on that trip. Thanks for the memories. Yours and mine.

I have had the pleasure of the bison roadblock in Custer also. I love the crazies who get out for the "perfect picture"

Beautiful. And funny--poor Liam-and lovely, too.

Posted by Anonymous August 31, 2010 at 7:12 PM

being surrounded by bison in Yellowstone (and realizing they are BIGGER THAN YOUR CAR) is one of the most awesome experiences in the world. Turning off the engine to listen to them is essential. Fabulous photos and narration, as always. thanks

Do they not respond to an angry horn honk?

; )

(works on the canada geese here in nj... our most common roadblocks)

A divine post, Julie. I can hear all that grunting and shuffling (and peeing!). I think I would be like you, looking forward to such wildness, not wishing to hurry it so I could be on my way. The closest I have come to them is at the Wilds, which was a pretty surreal experience for Ohio.

I haven't read this blog post yet, but I noticed that your followers have just hit the big 200! Congrats to you! Thanks for your dedication to your blog--it's one of my favorites.

Wonderful~! (hearty applause) I loved this post - and your photos. Whenever I see bison, I just want to get out of the car and give them a darned good grooming.

I am particularly taken with the poetic justice of it all.

@lauraH: um, no. They are indifferent to honks. Bison do what bison want to do... and they can do it surprisingly quickly (as stupid tourists learn to their pain)

One of these, just one, passed right beside my car window in Yellowstone this summer. Good heavens, I thought, he is BIG. I was almost afraid to look him in the eye. here you are driving through A LOT OF BIG BUFFALO.
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Julie, The bison are beautiful! I would love to sit at a "living" road block and gaze at those beautiful creatures. I have never seen them up close and always thought that I would feel like I was in another era if I were standing next to such a large beast. Thank you for the pictures and prose.

I visit YNP and the Tetons as often as I can. Years ago, park employees told me that if you inch along behind the bison in a road jam, they'll stay on the roadway. (Some sort of herding instinct, apparently.) If you completely stop the car, they tend to move off the raodway unless you're in a canyon where they have no choice. It works about 2/3 of the time in my experience.

They're so HUGE!! I panic at the thought of encountering any wild critter larger than a raccoon with my motorcycle......if I lived in buffalo country, I would no longer be a motorcycle owner.


So, cars moving towards them do not prompt them to move in the slightest?

Note: I am definitely not, by my question, suggesting that one drive towards them at normal speeds. I am just wondering if these huge beasts are compelled to move away...either forward or to one side...from cars moving towards them.

(I also laughed out loud at 'I pee, unconcerned')

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