It’s amazing how much can be learned simply by traveling.
Less than a week after an editorial on this very page explained the dangers of humans interacting with exotic wildlife, I had that lesson reinforced firsthand. Luckily, my lesson didn’t end with this newspaper running a story headlined “Editor gored by 1,500-pound bison.”
My wife and I made a trip to Minnesota to see the Johns-town Tomahawks play in the North American Hockey League Showcase. We had never been to Minnesota before but, being travel junkies, that wasn’t enough for us. We also decided to visit Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming – you know, while we were in the neighborhood – as part of our quest to visit all 50 states.
That meant an awful lot of driving – nearly 2,000 miles in three days – but the entertainment options available via satellite radio and the wide-open roads made it a joy. We tried to squeeze in as many of the sights as we could, going to Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Devils Tower in Wyoming.
North Dakota isn’t know as a tourist trap, and for good reason. Despite driving across the entire state, there were few things that we felt like we had to see. Near the top of that short list was the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its Painted Canyon, which is a lesser known form of badlands.
Unfortunately, our schedule had us getting to Painted Canyon just after sunset. No matter how much I tried to make up time – and you can make up a lot of time on North Dakota highways – I couldn’t get there before it started to get dark. The day’s last rays of light were barely visible as we pulled into the rest area.
As I parked the rental car near the restrooms, my wife yelled out, “Whoa!”
I was shocked by her reaction, as I wasn’t even close to hitting the curb.
“What?” I asked.
“There’s a bison!” was her response.
Shockingly enough, she was right. I knew that the park had bison roaming its grounds, but I didn’t expect to see a fully grown one munching on grass a few feet from our car. The only thing separating the bison from our front bumper was a sidewalk.
I looked to my left and saw a motorcyclist attempting to get pictures of the bison. The biker explained to me how he had watched the bison make a leisurely stroll to his current position, taking a bite of grass here and there as it went.
Not wanting to miss out on such a great photo opportunity, I snapped a picture using my phone. By this time, the bison had turned and was slowly making his way to the back of the rest area. That left me with a picture of ... well, let’s just say it wasn’t his best side.
Thinking that the bison was obviously used to being around humans, I decided to position myself to get a better photo. I didn’t want to get too near the massive beast, so I walked in a broad circle, making sure I was still 15 to 20 yards from the bison.
Perhaps it was the flash from my camera; maybe it was just the fact that I was encroaching on “his” territory. Whatever it was, the bison didn’t like it.
He snorted, pawed at the ground and broke into a run, taking at least two giant steps toward me. He might have taken a third, but I didn’t see it. I was too busy running in the other direction.
By the time I turned around, the bison had lost interest and was looking for his next bite of grass. My wife, who was trying in vain to get a picture of the painted canyon in the near-dark conditions, didn’t seem to share my panic.
Even though we stuck around the park for a few more minutes, I don’t think my heart rate returned to normal until after we’d crossed over into Montana.
We saw dozens more bison in South Dakota but I made sure to keep my distance. There’s no sense getting a great photograph if I’m not going to be around to show it to anyone.
Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/eric_knopsnyder.