This story took on a twist when news came across the wire on Feb. 18 that a man had been gored by a bison on Catalina Island. Hmmm. Still not worried.
Somehow I missed a stage in adulthood. It is the point where people decide camping is too hard, and either stay in motels or travel in trailers with a compact semblance of home. I hit motels on long driving days, or when I need a shower and a real meal. But I sleep best in a tent.
Maybe the memory of lying at night on a rollout bed in my grandma’s screened porch stuck with me. Away from noisy, scorching inner-city Chicago, I watched fireflies in the cool night air, fell asleep with the sound of crickets, and woke to the sound of birds. To this day, far away from Illinois, I leave my windows open when I go to sleep. Bird song is my alarm clock.
Buffalo Camp at American Prairie Reserve is my yard multiplied, with bison to boot. Imagine waves of song swinging back and forth across the grassland, with all the animals that Lewis and Clark saw running together. You feel like you are in a historic postage stamp scene.
Camping at the Reserve in May 2017, I went to sleep with the cooing of mourning doves in the evening.
I woke up every morning to big skies and bird song. The most melodious is the meadowlark, which we don’t have in my area.
As coffee preparation started, a bachelor band of bison would wander by, taking a leisurely breakfast. Deer often tiptoed behind them looking like spies trying to fade into a crowd. A medley of colorful birds made the rounds, hopping from ground to shrub to sign or platform. Rabbits hopped, nibbled, and hopped again, ever watchful.
Any postcard picture has a few stories hidden behind the carefully crafted image. During a September trip, I woke one night to a terrible thumping under the hood of my car, and found a rabbit trying to turn it into a burrow. I am told they can eat wiring and hoses in the process, so I was lucky to catch it early. The trick is to move the car every day, which feels wrong when the stay is meant to be about hiking.
The first night of this trip, I woke in the night and decided conditions were right to view a universe of stars without the light pollution of home. I strolled to the bathroom without a headlamp, and stood outside afterward to gaze upward.
Something caught my ear: the croaking of a bullfrog? Not quite awake, I thought it seemed odd. Then another croak, then another. Suddenly I realized that there simply wasn’t enough water for bullfrogs. Those sounds were grunts coming from bison lying around the bathroom. I carefully retreated down the path toward my tent.
A couple nights later, I woke to a grunt and sniff right behind my head. The only thing between me and the bison was flimsy yellow-green nylon. I assumed it was one of the bulls. I wasn’t worried about getting stepped on since the tent was elevated on a platform. The tent was tied down right on the edge of the platform instead of the middle, so he could stand there and investigate it. I wasn’t sure what – if anything – to worry about.
I could hear the bull lower himself to the ground, first one end, then the other. He was right behind me, close enough that I could smell him. His head moved back and forth like he was grooming, and he leaned back on the tent. He may have been scratching off loose hair with his horns. Little gurgling sounds bubbled up from the digestive labyrinth that processes and re-processes food. He seemed to burp.
This was awkward.
It didn’t seem prudent to yell, “Hey!” or bang pots and pans.
The situation was low stress at that point, but might change if the nylon tent suddenly freaked out on the bull.
I’m one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, such as benches in squalid foreign train stations where unguarded, your passport can be stolen or you can be assaulted. I have had a few sketchy experiences, but am still here, older, wiser, and none the worse for it.
I figured I was probably at no more risk from this bull in a campground he knew than a human stranger in a dubious train station. I fell asleep after listening awhile to the orchestra of rumination, bone-tired from hiking in the sun and wind all day. I woke later to a cavernous sigh, the sound of cloven hooves scraping gravel, and one slow step after another as the bull walked away.
The next morning, the sun rose on that historic postage stamp scene. Bison and deer strolled the pastures, birds sang in the sage, and pale yellow willow catkins lit up in the rising sun.
There are no longer herds of bison, deer, and antelope stretching for miles across these lands. This bison herd is fenced to prevent them from straying onto the next ranch. And I’m camping, but not like early pioneers. I have lots of food, water, and fuel, portable electronics and a high-speed wagon to reach a doctor or grocery store if needed. I’m housed in hi-tech fabric and my tent is secured with metal poles, not wood. I sleep swathed in synthetic fabric, not skins.
But here in Buffalo Camp, I transform site #10 to an early expedition camp in my imagination. I step out of my simple shelter to a dazzling array of life moving like the tide across an ocean of grass.
To check out Buffalo Camp for yourself, visit here.
Find other bison viewing destinations at this link.
Here is a rough little video of a spring trip to Buffalo Camp.