Free Falling

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BOB WOELK
Dr. Doolittle wanted to talk to the animals. I just wanted to see them on our recent trip to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Utah and Colorado.

And, I got my wish. I can’t recall ever seeing more critters in their native habitat.

Our 3,200-mile journey began with a jaunt through Western Kansas to Denver, then up through Eastern Wyoming.

I have no doubt in my mind there are more antelope in Wyoming than people. Interestingly, the pronghorns seem to coexist well with humans and their automobiles. They hang around close to the highways, but I never saw a dead one on the side of the road.

They can’t be much of a challenge to hunt. They just stand there out in the open. A hunter could throw a rock and hit one. I have heard that they are not all that good to eat, kind of the carp of the hoofed world.

I commented at one point on our drive that there were so many antelope, a person could keep one in view at all times.

Maybe we have about as many deer here in Kansas, but at least they are smart enough to hide during the day and come out at night to attack cars and trucks on the highways.

Perhaps the antelope are actually farm-raised and are put along the roads for tourists to look at. There is certainly nothing else noteworthy in the eastern part of the state. That area makes Marion County look like a national forest.

We spent one night at a place called Pahaska Teepee. The original hunting lodge built by Buffalo Bill Cody still stands just a couple of miles from the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

We stayed in an A-frame, and on the next morning, we looked over a ledge behind our cabin and saw a female moose and her calf. Though moose are said to inhabit Yellowstone in good numbers, we never saw another one.

Buffalo, however, were everywhere. It was obvious from the moment we entered the park that the buffalo were in charge of things. They held up traffic, walked through hot springs that were off limits to tourists, deposited fertilizer wherever they felt the urge, and they pushed over young trees.

Despite the presence of grizzly bears and wolves, buffalo are considered the most dangerous animals in the park. They can weigh more than a ton and can run up to 30 mph.

We had several close encounters with these giants. On one morning run through the lodge area on the north end of Yellowstone Lake, I came across a pair of dozing buffs. The path went right between them, so rather than disturb their morning snooze, I chose an alternate route.

Another time, my wife, daughter and I were hiking a trail. We happened upon a trio of buffalo. Not wanting to draw attention to ourselves and risk being gored, we waited about 15 minutes for them to lumber away.

We had seen the videos at park headquarters showing people being flung around like ragdolls on the giant heads of these beasts. We kind of figured that would put a damper on a family’s vacation.

One gentleman who worked in a Yellowstone gift shop told me a number of the buffalo die each winter because they like the warmth of the thermal springs. Rather than leave nature’s hot tubs and venture out into the snow to look for food, the bison starve to death where they stand.

I guess we all have our choices to make.

We traveled to the northeastern end of the park one day to an area known as the North American Savannah because of its abundant wildlife.

A frequent visitor to the area told us that a female grizzly and her cub had been making daily appearances near Tower Falls. Of course, the day we chose to view her, she was a no show. Disappointed and facing the tedious return drive to our accommodations, we loaded back into our SUV.

I hadn’t driven more than a minute or two when a gray wolf emerged from the thicket at the side of the road. It had a marmot, a large mountain rodent, in its mouth. It stopped in the middle of the road, looked at us and moved off into the trees.

Though not altogether unheard of, a sighting of a wolf in broad daylight is considered a treat, so I was feeling better about getting skunked by the fickle bear.

Not 10 minutes later, as we rounded a curve, we spotted a grizzly digging around in a rockslide area just above our vehicle. Unlike the wolf-spotting earlier, this time I had the video camera ready. I shot several minutes of action before the ranger came along and told us we had to move as the traffic was beginning to back up on a blind curve.

By the time we returned to our cabin that day, we had scored a number of animals on the list of most-wanted by Yellowstone tourists. In addition to the bear and wolf, we had seen elk, deer and a coyote that looked much healthier than the Kansas variety.

My daughter enjoyed watching a photogenic marmot who hung around our room and snacked on the carrot sticks we tossed its way.

Yellowstone is a natural treasure. For anyone who would like to see animals as they were meant to be viewed, I strongly recommend a trip to our nation’s first national park.

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