YELLOWSTONE IN THE SPRING: PART 2 OF 2

June 22, 2001 11:00 pm
Bison graze on Blacktail Deer Plateau in northern Yellowstone. ().
Bison graze on Blacktail Deer Plateau in northern Yellowstone. ().

Wildlife is one of the great attractions of Yellowstone National Park, but the people there can be just as entertaining.

Yellowstone is frequented year round by international visitors, as I discovered in early May when I transported my son to his summer job in the park.

There were only a couple of cars entering through the Roosevelt Arch on the afternoon we arrived at Yellowstone.

They were packed with Japanese tourists, of course, who were all vying to get their pictures taken under the arch.

After the first car left, I managed to snap a quick shot of my son under the arch. I had to hurry, however, as tourists from the second car were running into my photo.

Later that afternoon, we toured Norris Geyser Basin. We were just getting back into our car when a man called out from the only other car in the parking lot and pointed to my Ferrari jacket.

Ferrari, he cried out exuberantly. Italiano, he said, pointing to himself. Ferrari, very good, he added with a thumbs-up.

I gave him the thumbs-up sign as well and we smiled. Apparently, a passion for poorly-made, overpriced sports cars is a type of universal language.

Our playtime was almost over, however. My son checked in with AmFac, the park concessionaire, the next day and was issued his uniform.

The guy in front of him received a beautiful blue uniform, complete with matching bomber jacket. He drove a tour bus. He said it was the best job hed ever had.

My son was issued checked pants like the ones worn on a date by the owner of Garfield the cat. His uniform was topped off by a comically floppy chefs hat. I explained that his job in an employee dining room would be the bottom of the food chain.

Then it was back to Mammoth Hot Springs for an orientation in the wonders of working for AmFac. A ranger taught us what to do in case of grizzly bear attack.

Grizzly attacks in Yellowstone are rare compared with those in Glacier National Park, but one is enough.

If charged by a grizzly, do not run. Grizzlies can run 40 mph. You cant. The proper procedure is to drop to the ground and roll up in a ball or lie on your stomach.

Let the bear rip off your back if necessary, but dont flip over and expose your vital organs. With luck, the bear will sniff you over and shuffle away.

Most Rocky Mountain outdoorsmen, however, would rather face a grizzly than an angry moose any day.

Mushers in Alaska have had their teams and support vehicles destroyed by moose attacks, yet tourists in Yellowstone continue to regard moose as tame deer.

We saw no moose or grizzly bears that day, but while driving along the north road to Tower Falls, we saw hundreds of bison grazing on some of the only snow-free grasslands in the park.

We also saw plenty of elk, two prong-horn antelope jousting, a fox and some huge ravens.

On the way south to my sons dormitory on Yellowstone Lake, we were held up, and thrilled, by six bison using the roadway to avoid walking in the snow.

Mammoth Hot Springs is at an elevation of about 6,300 feet, but the park is closer to 8,000 feet high in the southern half.

That means lots of snow in May, and we were given a special combination number to get through the road barricade just south of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The canyon is 24 miles long, 800 to 1,200 feet deep, and has two waterfalls with a combined drop of 417 feet. Minerals paint the canyon walls in a rainbow of colors that draw artists from around the world.

South of the canyon, the Yellowstone River meanders through the pastoral Hayden Valley. Its tranquil beauty is striking in the summer, but even better under a blanket of spring snow.

Yellowstone Lake covers 139 square miles at an average depth of 139 feet, but was solidly frozen over when we arrived. My son has called since and said the ice broke up noisily a couple of weeks later.

By the time we moved my son into his dorm, the sun was getting low and more snow was falling. I had 56 miles to drive to reach my Super 8 in West Yellowstone, Mont.

That was at least a two-hour drive in Yellowstone time, figuring in plenty of 10 mph potholes and frost heaves.

Still, I was determined to tour the hot springs and mud pots of the Mud Volcano in Hayden Valley.

Five years ago, Id driven the valley by moonlight and hiked the boardwalks of the Mud Volcano alone in the dark. At least Id hoped I was alone. Every steam vent sounded like a grizzly breathing down my neck.

I found myself alone again, in failing light and falling snow, in a part of the park that wasnt open to tourists, but I was determined to see the features Id missed during my night visit.

Once again, I imagined a grizzly behind every tree. The boardwalk hadnt been repaired for the summer, so I even had to climb over a fallen tree.

Id hiked about a mile uphill and down on the loop trail and was almost to the parking lot when I noticed a lone bison grazing nearly right on the trail. Not far away was a sign warning people to not approach bison.

I could either turn around, climb back over the tree and hike a mile back to the car, or walk past the bison and hope he didnt take two steps and pin me to the hillside with his horns. Had that happened, I wouldnt have been discovered for days.

Reporters are measured by their lack of a sense of self-preservation, so I went for it. I took very small, very loud steps so the bison could see I was approaching, but not quickly. I was prepared to retreat quickly, but bison can also run 40 mph, as I later found out.

He stopped grazing and lifted his head, but didnt move toward me or away. We watched each other out of the corners of our eyes, equally uncomfortable, but he allowed me to shuffle past.

Elated to be alive, I stopped several times to snap photos of the Hayden Valley and Yellowstone River in the setting sun.

The road was starting to freeze over near the Grand Canyon, however, and was slowing me to a crawl.

Fortunately, the road was dry as I headed back to Norris, and when I dropped down toward West Yellowstone, the snow along the road dwindled and disappeared.

I was driving in the twilight, passing gray boulders and bushes along the road when one of them suddenly charged out in front of me.

I swerved to avoid what turned out to be the gray rump of a charging bison. I had the mistaken notion that all I had to do was veer into the next lane, hit the throttle and put the problem behind me.

I found myself in a drag race with a rapidly accelerating bison. All he had to do was toss his head to put a horn right through my door.

Worse, not far ahead were several more bison blocking the road. Fortunately, the one running alongside me ran out of steam and dropped back. The ones in front shuffled off the road.

I lived to tell the tale, but Ill give the bison a rematch in September, when I return to pick up my son. The roads to Old Faithful and other landmarks should be open then, and Ill write Yellowstone in the Fall.