You approach Wolf Lake in Yellowstone National Park from above, winding your way down the hillside to the lake shore. You see the wide valley laid out before you, the lake emptying into the Gibbon River, here still and shallow and easy enough to ford if you want to continue to Grebe Lake, two miles further on. But leaving Wolf Lake is hard, even when dinner beckons and darkness isn’t far behind. Going on isn’t something a day hiker can easily do. Lingering in paradise is better.
On this trip last fall, we see an animal in the valley, far from the trail. Large and dark, it looks like a buffalo, but we use binoculars to be sure. Yes, that’s what it is. A sleeping buffalo, still small and far away even from the valley floor. We walk around a bit, looking and filming, taking time. Eventually we find our way to the river crossing and sit in the grasses by the shore. We eat, watch the bluebirds and gray jays, listen to ravens croak, look at the forest (always hoping for wolves – why not at Wolf Lake?), lie down and take a nap. Sitting up, my husband wonders out loud where the buffalo is? Earlier we saw him leave his sleeping spot and mosey out of sight well behind us, into the trees along the hillside.
One glance answers the question. The buffalo is a few feet away, standing in the trail right by the water where it fords the river. No longer small and sleeping but in fact quite large, he has approached in absolute silence. Now he studies us with enormous head and bulging eyes. I gasp and levitate a few inches off the ground. At least that’s what it feels like. Shoes and socks off, seated, we are in no position to back away or go anywhere. For several seconds we contemplate each other as I hold my breath, hoping his intentions are peaceful. He steps into the stream, and I breath again. We pick up the cameras and begin to film.
Was he waiting for us to leave so he could cross? The river is nothing but a stream here; i.e. he could have crossed anywhere, not just on the trail next to us. Was it habit to cross here? Was he curious? Who knows? But I do know that wild animals are curious about humans and demonstrate an interest in them when there’s no cause for fear. My husband thought the look on his face was almost apologetic, as if to say “Sorry to disturb you”. You can judge for yourself.
Skirt the large buffalo
chomping on the trail
as you circle wide
look back in surprise
as he follows, curious,
at a comfortable distance.
heightened by birdsong