Camping with Bison in ND
Imagine being in a little nylon tent camped in late August half asleep at 3 am in the morning in Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. You remember falling to sleep with the sounds of cottonwood leaves touching gently in the trees above the tent. You realized you truly were camping again at that moment and you were not dreaming but half awake from all the new sounds outdoors at night in a tent.
The cotton woods were still moving quietly in the wind to soothe my mind in the night. I was thinking that this had been brave of me to camp again for one night without the comforts of home or motel-- being over fifty years old and creeping towards sixty years of age.
Earlier that evening, I could not come up with any good reasons NOT to camp as Jeremy, my son, had reminded me it was his last night in the WEST for a year possibly. Besides, we had some camping equipment along, it was a warm pleasant late summer evening, not too many bugs. I had spotted some miniature poison ivy coming back from our evening hike to the river. Besides that, the only thing I could come up with was my allergies with many weeds around -- which seemed like no good reason compared to the rest of the good reasons.
So after setting up camp, we went on a walk to the river nearby and I survived wearing my shorts even with the tall grasses of August on the hiking path. The river was great to see at sunset and the light was shining through the trees with the sun going down. We had set up our small tent to the edge of a large meadow area of the national park campground. Luckily, there were no signs of poison ivy on my legs and so we went to bed with the sun.
Now in the night being half asleep, I realized that ONE more night in a tent might work afterall. I thought about how I truly do love nature and I was trying to fall back into deep sleep. Nature was the best part of camping.
About then I realized there was another sound with the cottonwood leaves in the wind. It was a snoring sound or maybe more of a snorting so I looked over to see if maybe my tentmate, my son, was snoring. It was at this moment that I suddenly realized there were more snorting and breathing noises, plus the sound of soft clomping hoofs accompanied by a munching of grasses! It suddenly seemed to be very near the tent and the sounds were all around us and starting to sound like an animal orchestra. I suddenly realized what I feared --- bison noises were everywhere!
Could it really be buffalo around the tent like in the westerns? But this was not a movie I was beginning to realize in my sleep stupor. I also began to know I was scared to death!
It seemed that there were TRULY BISON surrounding our little tent(in the photo)and now they sounded like a small herd or about twenty bison as they moved closely by our tent. Now they moved even closer and there was no doubt anymore -- we were TRULY camping with bison!
I finally decided I had to wake up Jeremy to make sure I was not losing my mind and to confirm with someone else what I was hearing! We softly whispered back and forth together and realized together that there maybe from six to twenty bison very close to our little tiny tent nylon tent tonight!!
I remembered my son telling me earlier that day that they had encountered bison here a few years ago camping with his sister Molly and Yoko. That time they came in the early daylight though when they were arising (or maybe they were there all night). Bison were all around in the meadow that time too and they had to finally get up quietly just ignoring them -- as much as you can ignore buffalo -- to get packed up to leave that time.
I had dimissed this story earlier, thinking that it was another time and what were the chances of it happening again -- and who would think bison move around all night in campgrounds? I had assured myself that bison lay down and sleep at night! I remembered my son telling me this story NOW. This story had not seemed that important the night before. I remembered he told me several times now on the trip.
All the scenes of westerns and paintings of early explorers with bison in Nebraska where we lived. These images were racing through my mind now as I realized I never really wanted to be in a REAL western movie with real bison by my tent or by my conestoga wagon or horse. Then I wondered if this was just the beginning of what could be a very LARGE herd of buffalo coming through this valley! Or what about a bison stampede or the trampling of small nylon tents by bison who would not see the tent. No wonder most campers were in metal trailers or the two fancy motorhomes that rested across the way!
I started to wonder why they allowed campers to stay in little nylon tents with bison living in the whole area. Then I remembered that bison are herbivorous and not carnivorous which was a tiny bit comforting. Also I was trying to thank my lucky stars I was not in Alaska tonight in Denali camping in a nylon tent with bears all around. That was not real comforting either.
But then I heard the noises together all over again and the fears started creeping in -- my fears of large hairy animals bigger than me or our tent! Then I remembered that it was probably not a good idea to SCREAM bloody murder and that became my focus whispering to Jeremy. What was I going to do? Or would it be good to do nothing at all? I opted for nothing at all!
Well, this truly did happen to us just last week in North Dakota on a research trip to ND with my son -- in the computer age and in the "civilized" early twenty-first century! And we did live through it to tell our story; but at the time I was not so sure. I was getting more scared by the minute hearing the large bison chewing away, with breathing, snorting and moving sounds.
After hearing their heavy breathing for a while and witnessing their floating dark shadows passing by our tent, we both realized they were very close! And they were way too close for my mother loving comfort. I was petrified, scared and nervous all at once. I just kept reminding myself over and over that screams would not be helpful for this very moment and would only make a tense situation worse. I doubt it was tense at all for the bison~
As we continued to whisper back and forth about what we should do now, I realized I was squeezing my son's arm in fear. And he asked me about then, "what is your plan mom?" By now I was mostly paralyzed thinking only about getting to our car at some point. This was my only plan along with no screaming. I was also having visions of a motel waiting for us (my hope)if we survive this western adventure -- maybe even a motel with Comedy Central on television so we could laugh again outloud!
I said many prayers in that hour thinking mostly of SAFE PLACES and surviving. In my frozen state of FEAR, I whispered very softly that as soon as I was not hearing them any more if that happens, I would be trying to get up and head or dash for the car to sleep the rest of the night. Or I would TRY to sleep if that time came.
After about an hour of all this craziness of bison breathing and chomping grass, we realized that maybe it was once again just the sound of cottonwood leaves rustling in the wind. Several times we both asked, "Do you hear the bison any more?" We wanted to be sure as we didn't want to greet one at the door of the tent in the dark.
We both instantly decided to get up together (as two sounded better than one to me) and Jeremy quietly unzipped the tent door. We also put on our tennis shoes at the same time somehow. When we came out of the tent together about 4 am, all that we could see were the campers and the two fancy motorhomes across the way in the starlight. We could see NO bison!
We could see the lights of the bathroom and yet NO bison in sight. The campground seemed totally asleep except for our tiny nothing noises as we crawled out of our tent and moved towards the car in case we needed safety from a bison. Even though our watches said 4 am we were both totally VERY wide awake from all my quiet angst in the tent.
Normally I hated getting up early but today it sounded like an absolutely GREAT
idea. My son quietly took down the tent and there was no sound until we unlocked the car and I jumped in the car to sit sat quietly still in trauma a bit. He maneuvered things into the back of my Ford Focus wagon so I could find refuge and meditate in my steel car fortress of safety or so I thought. I somehow felt safe.
While I headed to the restroom, watching everywhere for bison but seeing NONE, I said a prayer of thanks that I really meant for a change. The restrooom seemed so warm and safe but I came out very cautiously watching every movement outdoors.
I was also glad there was another witness to this wild western night in ND so we could talk about it for years to come. Actually BEING THERE was important to the story and knowing there WERE bison unlike my imagined bears in Yosemite. Another camping trip in California many years ago only came up occasionally now when people talked about "mom's camping fears" in the dark with fictitious animals in the night.
We loaded up everything like zombies who were awake and we drove silently on the campground road with leaves twinkling in the carlights. It was truly dark and stars were everywhere. Our car lights probably startled sleepy folks in their campers but we knew that we had heard the bison personally through our thin tent walls. There was no doubt in our minds.
We stopped one more time beside the dark road before leaving the park. It was a silent valley now alive with stars of light and shadows everywhere. Maybe bison were sleeping all throughout the valley or off walking through campgrounds and scaring folks like me each night. We stopped the car to check and make sure we had gotten all of our belongings into the car in our haste.
It was then that I noticed my son, Jeremy, standing behind the car gazing at the silent badlands and westernlands. He was breathing it in. He stood there silently in the quiet night for several minutes as I enjoyed the views in a car being warmed by a sweatshirt covering me like a blanket.
This was Jeremy's last night in the West for a year. I remembered he had told me that earlier and that was why he really wanted to camp. And how could I turn down the idea to camp in the West one more night -- or at least until the bison came to close for comfort. It was sad in a way to think of leaving the WEST for a whole year. Maybe I could find a way to get to Colorado or California yet this year. I knew it was different for even my son who was leaving for Berlin again in September and far off places to the EAST soon for more research and writing.
We had enjoyed the roadtrip and western expanses the day before. We remembered the sunlit evening driving in the badlands, setting up camp, the hike and the sunlit evening. It was the last time he would be in the Nebraska Sandhills for a while too he had told me. We had our mind photos now to remind us of the real photos we had taken.
And I was terrifically glad we were both alive to drive onto Williston that morning for sunrise and breakfast in a western area too. And then later, we were ready for a new day of adventures at Ft Union, changing out of our camping clothes, emptying our one air mattress in the daylight to find the old and new Ag Station at Williston, ND for his research in history of science.
Our new day would take us to the wetlands, the grasslands and rolling plains of my childhood travels west of Minot, ND and to this town I had lived in until after sixth grade so many years ago! It was the town where my dad helped to start a mission church and build it for ten years or so. (First EUB Minot that became Faith UMC in l968.) And I have many vivid childhood memories of schooldays there and church life.
Another day of adventures were before us. Nothing like a good western adventure but I have decided I prefer bison in the movies and in Catlin paintings or Bodmer paintings or in national park publications with their warnings of bison.
It was a night of the raw WEST (a little too raw for me) yet rather up close and personal like a safari in our nylon tent with new bits and bites of memory stored. But hey, we did it and that is why the Western landscape is so mysterious and captivating yet familiar to our family on trips west.
I can still see Jeremy standing there to taking it all in -- all the rugged beauty and all the adventures. And I will never forget those bison noises for future camping trips!
NOTE: My research has been the revisiting of the North Dakota prairies of my childhood and the places of my grandmother emma's birth, my grandfather coming at age four from Russia too, and my dad's birth there, then my parents togeher, my birth family and all of my many ancestors who came from Germany and Russia for a better life in America. I also have a some who came from Sweden and some who stayed. Now I have new places along with old places and memories all along the way. I also have few visions of BISON at night!