American Serengeti


I walked into the wilderness in search of wolves, though it was the buffalo I had originally intended to go looking for. I’d had visions of wandering the plains, getting out of my truck when the moment struck and hoisting my backpack, heading toward some distant hill or following a river and photographing all of it. I would walk through tall yellow grass under clear blue skies, and there would be buffalo on the horizon.

But the plains were too far away. I had just gotten married, and it was one thing for my new wife to let me disappear for ten days, quite another to have me gone the two or three weeks it would take to do a trip of that scope justice. The fact that she not only let me go but encouraged me to go had proven, if there had ever been a question, that she knew me well and I had married the right woman.

The wilderness I walked into was not completely wild. This national park was a heavily managed wilderness requiring permits for camping. There were rules and regulations like staying on the trails. Not quite the roaming I had dreamed of, but that was the price to pay with national parks. In exchange for restrictions came epic scenery and abundant wildlife.

Like buffalo.

I had seen them from the road, had stopped my truck behind the other tourists and snapped photos of them through my rolled down window.

And wolves.

My mind replayed the scene from Never Cry Wolf, the scientist running naked with the pack, but I had no delusions of actually getting near wolves or even seeing any. They were wary creatures. I was just hoping to hear them. I wanted to be cozy and snoring in my sleeping bag, startled awake by their howling.

They called this the American Serengeti because of all the wildlife, but so far all I had seen on the sagebrush flat was a distant herd of buffalo and a few thumb-sized beetles sitting motionless on the dusty trail. I had passed a few fly-fisherman at the outset, and a trio of slow-moving backpackers about a mile in, but that was all.

The late-summer weather was just warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt, the sky cloudy with thunderheads threatening to the south and west. On my topo map, the trail appeared to follow the river meandering through the valley, but I only got occasional glimpses of water. That was where the wildlife would be.

My designated campsite, 3L7 according to my permit, was five miles in.

Near the halfway point, I passed a lone backpacker coming out. We exchanged nods but no words.

The trail climbed as it crossed an open hill, and I got my first good look at the damage done by wildfires that had devastated the area twenty years earlier. Where once the surrounding hills must have been lush with deep layers of tall evergreens, now they were raw and littered with what looked like grey matchsticks, miles of dead and down timber. The only signs of life amidst the desolation were the young trees that had literally risen from the ashes. It would take another twenty years to resemble a healthy forest.

At the fourth mile, the trail finally dropped down to water, a rocky creek tumbling toward the river. A young couple had dropped their backpacks before the crossing.

I nodded as I approached and set down my own pack, smiling at the incongruous sight of the fit, sweaty woman smoking a cigarette. Her partner gnawed at a fingernail and looked up from his map. “Hey, mate.”

British. Possibly students on holiday. I nodded.

“What about the horror stories then?” he asked.

“Horror stories?”

“You didn’t talk to him?” The student pointed back toward the solo backpacker.

I shook my head.

“Bloody mess,” said the student, exchanging a nervous glance with the girl. “Says he was chatting up some blokes working excavations up there.” He nodded up the trail. “Says there’s grizzlies, man, and aggressive. Making bluff charges and swiping at the ground. Bloody mess.”

The girl nodded and smoked her cigarette.

I sat on the gravel to take off my boots and socks. “The ranger told me this wasn’t grizzly country,” I said. “Black bear maybe, but not grizzly.”

“Bollocks,” said the student. “I think those blokes knew what they were talking about. Where’s your camp then?”

“Just another mile,” I said, fishing my water shoes out of my pack.

“We’re still some miles on yet,” said the student.

“Well, at least there’s two of you,” I said.

“Yeah, right. Bollocks.” The student looked back to his map, the girl looking over his shoulder.

I slipped on my water shoes, hoisted my pack, and picked up my boots to continue. The couple was nice, entertaining even, but they were ruining the illusion of solitude. The grizzly news was unsettling, but I had camped in grizzly country before and knew what to do. The bears were probably deeper in than I was going anyway.

“You got bear spray then?” the girl asked, breaking her silence.

“Nope,” I said, starting across the creek. “Good luck!”

“Yeah,” she said.

“We’ll just be standing here crapping ourselves,” said the student.

I laughed and crossed the creek without looking back or stopping to change back into my boots on the other side. It was only a mile farther.

The trail climbed again and soon entered the young forest, which was not what I expected. I had assumed, looking at the map, that this would also be open sagebrush. The trees were actually thick here, suddenly closing in, and now the prospect of stumbling upon a grizzly seemed more possible. I coughed loudly and continued.

The river was now totally obscured from view, and as the trail turned into the mouth of a canyon, I was forced to acknowledge that I would not be camping in the open. Any hopes I had of seeing wolves were dashed.

Now I just hoped to come to my camp as soon as possible. Dark clouds had blocked out the sun and brought a cold breeze sweeping up from the valley.

I pressed on through the silent young forest and finally came to the campsite, only to come to a terrible realization. The park service sign marking the side trail read 3L3.

I quickly pulled out my permit and the park map, and there it was. I had reserved the wrong site. I wanted this one, 3L3, but my permit said 3L7, which was five miles farther in, deeper into the canyon and farther away from the wolves.

I threw down my pack and tried to tear up the permit, barely making a dent because of the laminate coating. I crumpled it the best I could and threw it at my pack, then collapsed with a curse and considered my options.

The grizzly news discouraged me from my instinct to make a secret camp nearby. If there was an appeal to the permit system, it was that the rangers knew where I would be in case anything went wrong. And these campsites had special poles for hanging food, something hard to pull off in a forest of young trees. Camping at 3L3 would most likely mean getting run out at dusk by another group or a ranger, so I could either continue or turn back. Turning back would mean I had carried a fifty-pound pack ten miles for no reason. Continuing meant carrying it for twenty miles and camping in a half-dead forest.

The weather had worsened, the cold wind now a constant off the dark clouds to the west, the way back out. I would get soaked walking through that rain, and lightning would be a threat in the open valley, but my truck would be safe and dry.

Retreat didn’t sit well in my gut. Leaving like that would be a walk of shame.

I quickly put on my boots and hoisted my pack, crammed the crumpled permit in my pocket, and continued up the trail. I regretted my decision within minutes. The trail had gained elevation and would presumably do so as it followed the river up the canyon. A flurry of negative thoughts swirled in my mind.

Foremost was my own frustration with myself for not paying closer attention when I got the permit. The permit system itself infuriated me, and I wondered just how bad my designated site, 3L7, would be. I had given up on the wolves, hadn’t even taken out my camera, and probably never would. I wondered how wet my tent and food would become by the time the rains were through with me, how much heavier my pack would be tomorrow, laden down with wet gear. I wondered if I would even be able to cook tonight.

My pessimism expanded from there as I walked. I had promised my wife I would return home safely, and now I was almost certain I would encounter a grizzly before dawn. I had made good decisions up until now, on the two day drive to get out here, on the backpacking trip I had done in the mountains of the neighboring national park, on all the day hikes and car camps leading up to this last night in the woods, and now I was convinced I would pay for my mistake with a mauling that would leave me either disfigured or dead.

A powerful gust from the thunderhead literally gave me chills. My desperate mind inevitably turned toward what I was passing up by continuing forward instead of turning around. A hotel room tonight, warm and dry with a TV and a bed. Arriving home one night earlier than expected, maybe even surprising my wife. Not getting mauled by a grizzly bear.

I stopped and turned around, facing the way I had come. I took a step in that direction, and then again, and now I was walking back to my truck.

Hiking downhill was a physical relief, but my stomach tightened with every easy stride. I stopped after a hundred feet and screamed into the storm, an unintelligible shriek that scared me into turning around again and continuing up the canyon. I had clearly passed the point of doing this for fun. I only hoped the consequences of further failure would not affect my wife or our new life together.

As I climbed now, my inner turmoil gradually subsided, and my biggest challenge became physical, simply putting one foot in front of the other. I hadn’t brought my hiking poles, which helped on trail like this. I hadn’t eaten anything, so my energy was lagging. I should have stopped and sat and ate at 3L3 instead of just rushing ahead, but now I felt like I couldn’t stop because I was racing the rain, which came in gusts and flurries. Drops pounded my head and pack before turning to a drizzle and then pouring again.

I pressed on, clumsy at times and stumbling, grunting and growling and half-expecting a grizzly to appear every time I rounded a corner or crested a rise. I almost wanted it to happen so I could get it over with. The video the rangers had made me watch was fresh in my mind. Keep your pack on. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t run away. Stand your ground during a bluff charge. Lie on your belly and cover your neck as a last resort.

I passed 3L4 and 3L5 but didn’t pause to look at them. In the middle of a downpour, I splashed across another creek and soaked my boots. I passed a ranger cabin but didn’t see a ranger.

I pressed on with my head down, cold rain dripping off my nose, my calves and thighs burning, my stomach rumbling, my mind numb. I passed 3L6 and the trail climbed at its steepest pitch yet. All I could do was pound the muddy switchback, and in the middle of this, like the shriek that surprised me earlier, a primal growl erupted from my core. The rage there had lain dormant for years, untapped since those brutal high school football practices so many years before.

I nearly passed the sign for 3L7. After hurrying on the trail for so long with my head lowered, stopping to look around was an unexpected gift with an even greater reward, the late afternoon sun blazing a light-blue opening in the sky.

The side trail to the campsite led through a steaming meadow of soft earth and tall grass. Logs circled a fire pit at the edge of the meadow, with several good tent sites to choose from in the young trees beside the river.

I stood for a moment in silence, waiting for a grizzly to come lumbering through the meadow, and then I whooped as loud as I could. I dropped my pack in a patch of sunshine, peeled off my wet shirt, and collapsed on the river bar. Sunlight filtered through the leaves and danced orange and gold across my closed eyelids as I listened to the sound of the river rushing over rocks and birdsong in the meadow across the water. Maybe I would even hear wolves tonight. Assuming the open valley was the best place to hear them had been guesswork on my part. For all I knew, they spent their summers up here in the canyon where it was cooler.

With my body rested and my mind at ease, I set about the routine tasks of backcountry camping: filtering and drinking water, setting up my tent and sleeping bag, cooking chicken soup over my stove. I hung my food and toiletries and had never kept a cleaner camp.

With darkness encroaching I started a fire, the first one since I had left home over a week earlier. I dried out my gear and felt proud and satisfied that I would return to civilization smelling of woodsmoke. In the last of the day’s light, I realized I had a connection to the young forest after all. These trees were the seedlings spawned from the fires of 1988, the same year I had graduated from high school and gone off to college.

I grew drowsy when darkness descended, grateful for the fire’s company. The night was silent except for the licking flames popping sticks against the steady rush of river water. I wondered again if I would hear wolves and suddenly grew wary of what might lurk just beyond the light of my fire. I remembered an old book or movie, either Jack London or Walt Disney, in which wolf eyes suddenly began appearing at the edge of the firelight. I could easily imagine this happening right now, first one set and then another, and another, and so on until my little circle of light was surrounded. The eyes would bob and blink and sway as the wolves shifted and smelled the air, smelled me, smelled my fear.

I stared into the fire until the fire burned down and then hurried into my tent, knife in hand. I crawled into my sleeping bag, too exhausted to stay awake and ponder any suspicious sounds audible over the rushing river.

Except for the usual tossing and turning, I slept through the night.

I awoke disappointed about not hearing any wolves, relieved all the same that neither they nor any bluff-charging grizzlies had visited camp. Frost crunched beneath my boots but the sun shone brightly on my meadow, where I sat in a mist of my own breath eating banana chips and granola.

I whistled as I packed and covered the first five miles much as I had the last five the day before, one foot in front of the other and as fast as possible, which was much faster now that I was walking downhill.

I only stopped to observe animal signs on the trail, which had already dried out after the previous day’s rain. Either I hadn’t noticed them in my delirium or they had been made since I passed.

Bear tracks. All five claws clearly visible, though these seemed too small to be grizzly. Probably a black bear passing in the opposite direction.

Wolf tracks. Too big to be coyote, the only other possibility was a huge dog, but dogs weren’t allowed on this trail. The tracks went both ways.

A half-eaten mouse. Surely I would have noticed this yesterday, its grey tail and back legs bloody in the middle of the trail. Having watched Never Cry Wolf, I knew that wolves could survive on a diet of mice, but why only eat this one’s head? A bobcat or cougar, maybe. I had seen scat strategically left on boulders.

The weather had warmed to perfection, which I never would have predicted the day before, and this became more obvious when I finally left the canyon and emerged into the open valley. Only a few white clouds hovered in the light-blue sky.

Movement to my left. Something large and brown in the trees. A moose.

The bull chewed on vegetation hanging from its mouth and regarded me for a full minute before lowering its head to root in the undergrowth for more food.

I finally felt the rush of excitement that came with pulling out my camera. These shots would not be perfect, with the moose blending into the trees, but at least it was something. I would not go home empty-handed, and when I backed away to continue down the trail, I did so with a lighter step.

In the distance I saw a buffalo herd, closer than the one yesterday, and soon I was again startled by something big and brown, this time up the sage-covered slope to my right. A single buffalo, grazing.

I quietly set down my pack and got out my camera, but the buffalo was farther away than the moose had been. I stepped off the trail to get closer, breaking two of the park’s cardinal rules. Remembering the yellow signs on the park roads – Do Not Approach Wildlife! – I promised myself I would be careful and not get too close or do anything foolish. Buffalo seemed slow and gentle, but I had watched them in their herds and knew they could run at great speeds, kicking up clouds of dust with their massive heads lowered and horns ready to ram.

I stayed low and crept silently up the slope at a safe distance, always about fifty yards, but when the light and the angle made for a good photograph, I rose from behind the sage. The buffalo looked up and regarded me as the moose had, holding my gaze long enough for me to get the photos I wanted. The buffalo turned away and continued up the slope.

I wanted to follow but held to my promise and returned to the trail, ready now to go home. I pulled off my shirt and hoisted my pack, easing down the slope with my face up to the sun and wind. I noticed a bird of prey sitting high on the branch of a dead tree, an osprey with a view of the entire valley, its keen eyes following me as I passed.

I was so satisfied and elated when I rounded the last hill on the last mile, so focused on seeing the glimmer of my truck parked at the trailhead in the distance, that at first I didn’t notice another lone buffalo about two hundred yards away. We were walking in the same direction, and it appeared that if we kept walking at the same speed we would bump into each other in a few minutes.

I stopped to watch the buffalo and let it pass. I set down my pack and fished out my camera, doubting I would get a better photo than I had gotten on the slope. It was flat and dusty here.

The buffalo changed direction. Instead of keeping its course, which would be to my right, the animal now appeared to be walking directly toward me. Maybe there would be a photo here, after all.

The buffalo was about one hundred yards away now, and I knew it would inevitably veer to my left or right. I hoped for the right, which would put it in better photography light.

But the buffalo continued walking directly toward me. I snapped a few photos and inched to my left as the buffalo came within fifty yards. I hoped this slight movement on my part would encourage the buffalo to veer right.

But the animal kept coming. I could hear it now, breathing heavily, huffing and snorting. It trailed a cloud of dust that framed its enormous shaggy head, the two solid horns very obvious as it came within twenty yards. A green tangle of sage hung from the left horn.

This wasn’t supposed to be happening. I had spent years hiking and backpacking and exploring wilderness, but no wild animal had ever approached me like this. I felt my unease quickly growing.

I could smell the buffalo now. It smelled like the earth, all dust and musk mixed with sage, wooly hair washed by years of snow and rain. It snorted and bobbed its massive head from ten yards away, still showing no sign of changing direction or pace.

I had to do something, and my first action was to break eye contact, a strategy from the grizzly video. I looked down and saw the buffalo’s front hooves pounding the ground five yards away.

This was no bluff charge.

Some insane part of me considered standing my ground. In the face of the raw power of the beast, I suddenly felt brave and stupid. Every muscle in my body squeezed like a spring. I was a matador for a moment, dancing with death. All I had to do was look it in the eye.

Instead I blinked and saw the eyes of my wife, my beautiful wife, and I sprang to the right. I could have run fast and far, but somehow I knew I didn’t have to. I spun and saw that the buffalo had stopped where I had just stood.

I made eye contact again, my body still buzzing and charged with energy. I wanted to see something in the buffalo’s eye, some meaning or message, but it was just a buffalo’s eye, dark and indifferent. I could smell its hide and hear its heavy breathing and now I wanted to touch it. Two or three steps would put me within reach.

The buffalo lowered its head and stared at me, incomprehensible.

My body finally relaxed.

The buffalo snorted, stepped around my pack, and continued in the same direction across the sagebrush flat. From behind, it resembled a lion. Both animals looked grand and intimidating when seen from the front, but their hind quarters were sleek with short hair, showing only the rippling muscle beneath. The buffalo’s thin tail swung lazily back and forth, keeping the bugs at bay.

I put on my shirt and watched the buffalo, hoisted my pack and watched the buffalo, now fading into a small brown lump on the horizon.

I remembered my original conception of this trip, roaming the plains in search of these animals, and now, even as I walked, I looked up and noticed another lone buffalo watching me from ahead.

This one was a giant, lord of the valley and sprawled in a pool of dirt it had made for itself over time. It sat just up the slope from the valley floor with a perfect view of everything, like the osprey. The buffalo’s position was ideal for a photograph, stoic and framed in good light with the scenery behind it, but I kept walking, turning the previous encounter over in my mind.

I would have two days of driving in which to do that, and with the parking lot and my truck just over a hundred yards away now, I saw that there was still one more scene to witness on this trip.

A group of tourists had left their cars to come down and watch an antelope grazing above the creek where fly-fishermen casted their lines. The antelope didn’t seem concerned about the people or the noise of passing cars.

There were three small groups of people: a mother and her two teenagers, and a younger couple telling an older couple about a grizzly they had seen that morning. I kept my silence and joined them in photographing the antelope.

Soon the two couples returned to their cars, leaving me with the mother and her kids, the boy about sixteen and his sister a few years younger. The boy had been bolder than the rest with his camera, ignoring the trail and inching closer to the antelope, which began looking up more frequently from its grazing.

“Can we go already?” asked the girl.

The mother was looking for something in her purse.

“Hold on,” said the boy. He lowered his camera with a mischievous grin and turned to his sister and mother to make sure they were watching. They weren’t, but he realized he had my attention.

The boy started running toward the antelope, which bounded away before stopping, having realized that the boy had only made a bluff charge.

The boy was smiling and looking to me for approval.

I turned and walked to my truck.


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