The Bison Story
Yellowstone — an iconic national treasure — a volcanic hot spot and a living entity whose raw, wild and rugged ways beckon your soul. Yellowstone is adorned with lush forests, dramatic canyons, alpine rivers and is home to fifty percent of the world’s geothermal features — geysers, hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles and travertine terraces. It’s also home to diverse wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope. I had to take my parents to visit this otherworldly and formidable place.
With that, we set off to explore America’s first national park in spring, just as Yellowstone “awakens.” Bears emerge from hibernation, newborn bison and elk calves make their debut and lush landscape unveils itself in green. It didn’t take long to encounter herds of bison and be in awe of the enveloping wrath of geysers and stunning Caribbean blue hues.
As a photographer, I was undoubtedly in paradise and quickly realized that photographing the bison in snow, an element that speaks to the power, ferocity and hardiness of bison, was a must. Clearly, I would have to come back in winter for the photographic capture I was beginning to salivate over. And then, it happened!
The Close Encounter
On Day 3, we woke up to snow showers. Oh Em Geee!
Within a few hours, Yellowstone had transformed into a winter wonderland. The hills, trees, rivers, roads and landscape that were beginning to breed familiarity became instantly unrecognizable. The white blanket got thicker as the day progressed; it snowed all day and all night without intermission. As we drove through the park to explore, the sights and sounds were a feast for the senses. My parents felt like they had been transported to another world. A day to remember for more reasons than one.
We took a gander at Norris Geyser and headed towards the Canyon. The drive was relaxing, peaceful and heavenly when suddenly, everything came to a screeching halt!
A lonesome bison walking on the road. It was a sight to behold. This was the moment. And I knew it! I pulled over several yards ahead of the bison, leaped out, grabbed my equipment and started photographing the bison as it continued walking in my direction. I found myself down on the ground and in the middle of the road — exactly where I wanted to be. I looked both ways for traffic. And within a nanosecond decided that was peripheral noise not worthy of further consideration. The only thing important in that moment was the bison.
I indulged! As the bison got closer and closer, it rendered my telephoto lens useless. There was only one thing left for me to do — RUN! I ran away from the bison to create distance between us so I could take more shots. At this point, time slowed down and everything transpired in slow motion.
The lonesome snow-covered bison steadily closed the gap between us. He was no more than two arm lengths away and directly in front of me. I slowly stood up. We locked eyes, and then, he just walked past me! That was the moment.
They say, “eye contact is how souls catch on fire.” He certainly lit my soul on fire!
The power of his glance, the risk of his unpredictability, and the distance between us, or lack thereof, was surreal, euphoric and transcendental — a moment I could live and die in a thousand times. Nothing was said. And yet, so much was said.
The entire encounter lasted no more than two minutes. But in those two minutes, nothing else mattered in the world. It was the bison, the snow, my camera and me. I couldn’t see, hear or feel anyone else around me. This primal beast had me captivated.
And just like that, the moment was over. I snapped back into “reality” as surroundings resumed back to normalcy. Cars began to pass by which led the bison to change direction and head into the woods. Passersby stared at me in bewilderment while I carried a harmoniously gratifying smile, knowing how special that moment was, and a feeling of being alive oozing out of every pore of my being.
I jumped back in the car and quickly found out Mom had been screaming a little as she witnessed the encounter. Just as well that she was contained in a soundproof box!
I replayed the encounter for the rest of the day and could not contain myself. I replayed the encounter all night and could not go to sleep. It was a feeling of intoxicating rapture — similar to your first date, except, so much better.
As I reflected in the safety and comfort of my bed, paradoxically, I was overcome with fear. Why was I not afraid of the bison? Why did the notion of fear not enter my consciousness? The fact that I wasn’t afraid in the moment was scary. Was I completely oblivious and stupid (perhaps not a stretch :)) or was I in a space of uncanny awareness and in synchrony with the bison?
Whichever one it may have been, I do know this unequivocally– all the stars were aligned in that moment. For a busy park with road closures and limited options, it was nearly impossible to have no cars pass by, no park rangers and no over zealous straight-laced visitor to interrupt our moment. But that’s exactly what happened. And to keep the theme of unreal chugging along, just one minute after the bison faded away into the forest, a park ranger drove by! Yellowsmokes!!!
At the risk of sounding cuckoo, it was as if the angels were watching over us and facilitated that moment to ensue.
The thrill and fulfilling aspect of photographing wildlife is the connection — the ability to connect and trust each other; the ability to understand each other with unspoken words. In fact, there is an innocent purity to the interaction because we don’t look the same or speak the same language. Connection transcends all barriers.
That close encounter was so much more than just a photographic opportunity. The rugged beast left an indelible mark on me. In those two minutes, I felt alive! It was akin to having electricity run through your body and becoming hyper-aware of every cell in your being. All that ailed me prior to that moment became irrelevant and trivial. The encounter jolted me to regain perspective on what truly matters in life and what makes me happy.
He allowed me to understand that it’s not about how much time we spend together, as much as it is about how we spend the time together.