Alternative title: We got charged by a grizzly and chased by a wild mustang stallion.
spoiler: we survived.
The third stop on our road trip was Yellowstone (Glacier will get its own post later). Everyone who knows me knows I’m an animal lover, how you know me tends to skew what kind of animals you associate with me. Childhood would tend to make you think I’m a horse person, college would make me a dog person, and adult life would make you think in the cat and/or dog direction. I grew up with two parents who were animal lovers in Vermont with cats, dogs, horses, chickens, pigs, and the occasional turkey. Those were just the domestic animals. I’m a mostly indiscriminate animal lover who will get excited about pretty much any type, especially if they’re wild. There’s something really special about getting to observe a wild animal, it’s a gift.
Yellowstone was a place I’d wanted to go since I was a child and to go there exceeded all expectations. The first thing we saw crossing into the park were buffalo grazing right by the road. They were massive and completely care free to people stopping and taking photos. You really got the sense after being there a couple of days that these creatures really didn’t fear anything. They’d walk down the middle of the road at times and weren’t concerned when a grizzly or wolf was around either. They weren’t tame though, they ignored people and cars because they didn’t perceive them as a threat (or anything else).
Next we saw a giant elk across the river. I was blown away by how large it was and how easily it stepped over a giant log. We then journeyed to watch Old Faithful. This is a pretty entertaining process. Hoards of people sit on benches around the geyser waiting for it to go (about once every hour and a half). There are lots of little spurts before it really goes so everyone is leaning forward in their seats with a few saying “this is it!” and then it sputters out, another dud. When it finally did go it was worth seeing. It was impressive and beautiful.
There are actually hot springs, geysers, and other things created by all the thermal activity all over the park. It was something I hadn’t expected when I though of yellowstone and pretty cool. Lots of colors created through all the minerals, boiling water and mud like substance, and mineral/rock formations. There was also a lot of bison poop all around them, apparently bison are into them. However we did see a pile of bones in one of them, so clearly doesn’t work out for everyone. We also touched some of the water running by the boardwalk from one of them and it was seriously hot.
(part of Mammoth Hot Springs)
After leaving Old Faithful we saw our first bear. It was a grizzly and a cub walking in a field. We got to see the cub romp around and it was pretty awesome. When there’s a bear everyone and their Mom pulls over to see it, so you can tell by the cars. There’s also usually a ranger or two to make sure people don’t do anything stupid. May was a great time to go because kids were still in school so it wasn’t super crowded and even at the stops where there were a lot of people, there weren’t to many to prevent you from enjoying the animal. The next grizzly we saw was an adventure. It started out pretty far up a hill and slowly worked its way down digging in the ground and eating roots. We watched it for quite a while and then it started to get a little too close. Next thing we know it’s charging across the road and everyone is running for their cars, except for a few people who apparently thought that it was a giant stuffed animal. We scrambled into our car (I give A. full credit for this, because everyone who’s seen me interact with wild animals knows that I’d be standing outside watching on my own). No one was hurt and the bear calmed down as soon as it reached the other side and resumed meandering around eating. I now know the answer to “how did the grizzly cross the road?” Answer: It charged.
The next bear adventure was really special as well. We got to see a black bear with three tiny cubs. This also involved drama. If you look closely at the below photos you’ll see the first with the mom at the bottom of the tree and the little clubs climbing the tree. The photo below it you’ll see what is called a “cinnamon bear”, it’s actually a brown black bear across from her in the field (brown bear on the left and black bear Mom on the right).
We were all pretty amazed how tolerant the bears were to be so near each other. The cubs were rolling around and practicing climbing the tree. Really cool to see. Then the brown bear started getting closer to the Mom and cubs. All of a sudden all three cubs shot up the tree and then the Mom climbed up after them. She stayed much lower, going out on a branch to keep an eye on the other bear, which could try and kill her cubs. Eventually the brown bear went on its way and no one was harmed, but really cool to see how quickly the cubs could climb and how high (almost to the top of the tree). See the photo below of the big black blob is the Mom and the little black spots at the top are the cubs.
Another cool experience we had was spotting a fox running through the brush while we were driving by. We got to have that one all to ourselves and parked a bit ahead of it and got out to check it out. It was pretty big, originally A. though it was a coyote. The fox stopped when it saw us and we had a stare off before A. slipped off a boulder and it took off from the noise.
The most amazing thing that happened for me was seeing a wolf. Given that we didn’t have any binoculars I had no expectations that we would see them. On our last morning we went for a drive and saw a bunch of people and got out and stood around for a bit. Sounded like there was a bear and we were about to give up when someone said “wolf”. A very nice ranger let us use his scope and we were able to see a face peeking out in front of a tree. It was beautiful. It disappeared shortly after we both got a look and we were about to leave again when someone exclaimed it’s across the road! Somehow it crossed while we were all still looking for it in the hill and was trotting across the plain in front of us. Close enough to actually see it with naked eye. We ended up watching it for about an hour with our borrowed scope. It’s truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It wandered around the valley because we were unfortunately positioned sort of near it’s carcass that it wanted to revisit, so it was trying to figure out what to do. We saw it walking around buffalo (who didn’t care) and then a pronghorn (antelope) started following it around which was pretty weird and funny. Another amazing thing going on was in the same valley you could see two mother grizzlys with two yearling cubs each (with a scope). An amazing amount of wildlife in one area. We also got to see buffalo crossing the river which was neat. Seeing the wolf was more than I ever could have hoped for and something I’ve dreamed of since I was little. Pretty overwhelming.
All in all, we saw about 19 bears (black and grizzly), 1 wolf, 1 fox, 1 coyote, 1 marmot, 1 marten or mink or weasel, lots of elk, lots of bison, lots of white tailed deer, lots of mountain goats, lots of pronghorns, sandhill cranes, and 1 american pika (google it).
The adventure wasn’t over. After Yellowstone we drove close to 3 hours to the Pryor Wild Horse range. I knew you could see wild horses in Montana and had discovered this wasn’t too out of the way from where we were headed. The scenery was starkly different from Yellowstone.
I wasn’t super optimistic about seeing wild horses either with our lack of binoculars and the expansive range they had. We drove through and I had given up seeing anything when I saw them. And useful thing I knew about horses after being around them for the first 18 years of my life flew out of my head. I blame it partially from spending the days before around herbivores that either ignored you or ran away. I told A. we should get out and try to get closer to them because they were hard to see. So we started walking towards them to get a closer look. I saw what I thought was the stallion based on his size, standing apart, and keeping an eye on us. I wasn’t concerned at all. We kept walking towards them, the stallion kept watching us, I was feeling elated at seeing these wonderful gentle creatures I love, and then he started jogging towards us. And then I thought “oh fuck”.
See stallions are not gentle creatures. Stallions are egotistical, moody, bastards who do not back down from a fight. This is why most male horses you will meet are geldings, most people can’t/don’t want to deal with a stallion. And one was coming at us with a clear intent. We started running for the car. Luckily this all occurred with us with a very solid chance (most likely) of getting to the car before he got to us. Even luckier still, after we’d run a ways he stopped, because he felt satisfied he’d run us off. While chasing us, he was smart enough to go behind bushes so when I got sight of him again and confirmed he wasn’t chasing us, he was much closer than I expected. Sneaky bastard. So no thanks to me, we survived being chased by a wild mustang stallion. Oh and seeing wild horses was another dream from childhood, just didn’t take place quite how I imagined.
Your reward for reaching the end of this lengthy blog is some animal photos. And me wearing the outfit that an old Wyoming local challenged with “are you a farmer?” To which I replied “No, but my Dad is”.
(A. in horse country)
Real time update: Chicago tomorrow (Friday)