Last Thursday we decided to take a break from our usual activities and get out of town for the day. The sky was a mixture of white, gray and stunning blue, the lower parts of the mountains were losing the snow cover and a shy bit of green was beginning to show on the lawns of Missoula. We would spend the day with first a visit to the National Bison Reserve, below the Mission Mountains northwest of Arlee, and then go for a soak in the pools of Quinn Hot Springs, north of St. Regis.
At the Black Cat Bakery, on our way out of town, we picked up a huge cheese and bacon biscuit and a German pretzel containing the same healthy ingredients that was just as gigantic. By the time we were on the highway my hands and steering wheel were covered with grease, and it seemed as if all was right with the world.
Just about the time we turned west off of US93 and continued on MT200 we could see the snowy tops of the Mission as the rest of the clouds started to dissolve. The Clark Fork River was swollen with rushing water from snow melt. Ducks struggled to maintain some sort of dignity as the stream swept them rapidly down the river.
After about ten miles we turned north, off the highway on a smaller road that would bring us to the reserve. We passed a ranch where a large herd of domesticated bison were feeding on a long line of alfalfa hay. These buffalo were getting first class service while those in the reserve would be digging up grass still covered by a layer of snow. Of course, what the tame critters did not know was that they would end up on someone’s table while the wild bunch would be still capering around on their piece of dedicated wilderness.
The visitors’ center was still closed for the season and a padlocked gate barred the way against anyone trying to drive up the still snow covered drive, but there was a wet and muddy road that continued into the interior of the reserve. At the entrance there was a sign tacked up to a post that had a large heading that said, “WARNING,” but the words below were too small for us to read. It was probably left over from last summer, maybe warning about fire danger.
Most of the reserve is rolling hills with a few wooded streams. Apart from the narrow roads and the tall fences that keep the buffalo from roaming into places where they might get into trouble, the land appears to be wild and untouched. The bison have to share the space with a couple of species of dear, black and grizzly bears, coyotes and wolves. Maybe a moose or two.
We made our way slowly, eyes peeled for bison, frequently mistaking large boulders sticking up out of the bushes for sleeping buffalo. Sheila spotted deer on the horizon, and we also spied meadow larks, magpies and starlings. There was plenty of evidence of bison in the form of pile of buffalo poop, but no sight of the animals themselves.
Crossing into another fenced area of the reserve we saw another of the white signs, and this time we could read what the warning was about. Black bears and grizzlies had been seen in the area last fall and visitors were warned to stay in their vehicles. We were in early spring and there were likely to be very few bears emerging from hibernation during our visit.
We drove to the end of the visitor road in the reserve where we stopped to talk to a man who told us that he was a frequent visitor, as often as once a week, to the reserve. He turned out to be a retired wildlife biologist, and he volunteered his observations about the area. He also shared a few of the photos on his phone that he’d taken over the last year. He had photographs of bears, deer, bison and birds as well as flowers and plants but admitted that he’d not seen any mammals other than the occasional white tale deer.
We drove even slower going back toward the entrance to the reserve, hoping that at least one bison might emerge from the hills. There were a couple of more permanent signs that warned people not to wander far from their vehicle as well as signs that forbade bicycles, motorcycles and hiking in the reserve.
Sheila asked me to stop so that she could focus the binoculars on a colorful duck floating in a small stream some distance from the road. After she pointed it out, I wanted a better look and asked for the glasses, but the duck had disappeared behind some trees. I got out of the Jeep for a better view.
I initially left the door open, but closed it because of the alarm sounding with the motor still running. Walking over to the side of the road and peering down among the trees with the binoculars I was able to focus on the brilliant feathers of the wood duck. But then I was distracted by the Jeep’s horn making a racket as if the anti theft alarm had been triggered.
Looking back at the Jeep I saw that Sheila was causing the disturbance, honking the horn to get my attention and pointing behind me. I turned around and saw what the fuss was about: a giant bison bull was standing ten feet from me. I stood still, frozen, wondering: if you aren’t supposed to run from a bear and try to look big for a mountain lion, what do you do when a bison is balefully staring at you?
The bull tossed its head while snot flew right and left. And it stunk, a most rancid odor. When it huffed and pawed the gravel I know that things were going south in a hurry. I was maybe five feet from the Jeep and I could hear Sheila popping the driver’s door. The bison started to move and I turned and ran.
Up to that moment time had crawled, as in a slow motion movie, frame by frame, but then everything turned into a blur. The next thing I knew was something slamming into my back, just under my shoulders and my face hit the dirt. Then something picked me up by my belt and I was flying. Then nothing.
Sheila said that I was tossed up on to the roof of the Jeep and then slid off to the other side and landed on my right side. While the bull was still flinging snot on the drivers side, Sheila got out and somehow picked me up and shoved me into the back. Then after getting back into the passenger front seat, she slipped over the gearshift and got into the driver’s seat.
She tried dialing 911, but being up in the wilderness among mountains, there was no connection. She had to drive to get help.
By this time the bison had lost interest in its game and had wondered up the road, but stood in the middle as if wondering what had just occurred. Sheila put the Jeep in gear and moved forward, approaching the animal, but it just stood there. It wasn’t menacing, shaking its head, pawing the ground or even seeming to notice the Jeep. But it was blocking the road.
Sheila crept closer, getting within feet of the bull, but it did not move. She honked the horn repeatedly. Finally she got mad and slowly drove into the buffalo. It, at last, seemed to realize that there was a mass larger than itself, and it slowly lurched its way into the snow and brown grass on the side of the road.
My nose hurt like hell, and I wondered why I was in the back seat lying down and curled up. When I tried to sit up my right shoulder and arm exploded in pain. I must have yelped as Sheila asked if was hurt bad. For some reason I said no and closed my eyes.
By the time that Sheila had cell phone service, she had driven almost all the way back to Missoula, and it made more sense to go to the emergency room at St. Patricks than to wait for an ambulance. In spite of the pain, I wasn’t that badly injured: a deep cut on my head (gonna have a great scar), a broken nose (I’ve had several of those before), a dislocated shoulder (shoved back into place in the ER) and a sprained wrist. Maybe a concussion and a definite black eye. I didn’t even stay over night.
As I came home through the back yard our neighbor, William Sanders, asked what happened. Without an instance of hesitation Sheila replied, “It was a buffalo, Bill.”