Sunday, December 2, 2012

Encounters With Nature

Neither my Mountain Boy nor I are looking forward to the holidays.
In fact we are dreading the holidays.
I remember writing on this blog last year that I loved the entire period between late November and late December - a time which included both of my sons birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.
Now I don't love this entire period.
Now we both just want to get through this period.
And so it went with Thanksgiving this year.
Neither LC nor I were celebrating Thanksgiving, and on a mild day we went for a drive out to the Shoshone National Forest, very much needing to be outside, away from town and close to nature.
The last time were out that way we ran into a nursery herd of big horn sheep (mothers with their young) that had already come down from the mountains so that they could winter in the lower lands.
A few weeks later, and a few periods of snow later, we wondered if we would run into more herds - of big horn sheep, of buffalo, of elk.
Driving away from Cody, beyond Buffalo Bill Dam and beyond the tiny community of Wapiti, we soon found ourselves surrounded by mountains and increasing trees, and very quickly found our first herd of big horns.
Watching them for only a few minutes it was obvious that this was a herd on a mission.
All were focused entirely on eating and ignored us completely, in that way all herds along the 50 mile drive between Cody and the East Gate of the park seem to ignore their human observers
There is something very peaceful about these animals, much as it is always peaceful to watch domestic animals grazing in pastures close to the house
And (as with the wild mustangs that we saw many times this past summer) there comes a time when you feel as though you are beginning to know these animals.
You begin to recognize their looks of comfort and of alarm.  You begin to recognize the watchfulness of the mothers and the princely aura of the males. 
It is a comforting and peaceful experience to be close to them as they quietly make their way in their world...............
Within only a few more miles LC stopped the truck in the middle of the two-lane highway and then backed the truck up a short way so that we could observe this lone bison who was grazing alongside the road.
As I rolled down the window to snap a few quick pictures of this wonderful and prehistoric throwback I quickly wondered "where else could you stop in the middle of a two-lane highway to take a picture of a buffalo?"
Not too many other places.
He was alone and quietly grazing, and both LC and I wondered if this was the lone bison we had been watching since we first saw him grazing alone beside the river back in early September.
At that time we wondered what was wrong with him because it was far too early in the year for bison to be coming out of the mountains. 
Was he old?  Sick?  Banished for no longer being the strongest in the herd?
We pulled the truck into a pull-off on that day, and then walked about 1/4 mile along a grassy embankment just so that we could get a closer look at him.
Standing on top of the hill and looking down at this wonderful animal as he grazed and then drank from the Shoshone River, we realized that he looked neither weak nor ill nor old.
It was a mystery for which we had no answer, but we have continued over the past few months to watch him as he happily appeared to live alone in the forest..................
We blew by a  second and very large herd of big horn sheep after leaving "our" bison.
There were all hidden in the tall sage - some of them grazing but many of them simply sitting and enjoying the watery winter sun - and we did not see them until we were almost beyond them.
Driving another few miles LC slowed the truck down again as we both saw a smaller herd grazing along the side of the highway.
As I climbed out of the truck and quietly closed the door I realized that the male in the herd was surprisingly animated.
We were parked on the shoulder of the road and on the opposite side of the road, with LC still in the truck and me standing beside the truck, but even from that distance this male was not happy that we were there.
He dropped his head, extended his neck out in front of him, and quickly moved to corral all of his females together and away from the perceived threat (us).
I was surprised at his actions.
I had never seen this before, and at the time did not know what to make of it.
After we got home and I thought about it some more though, I realized that up until that moment (and this herd) we had always run into gender specific herds - all female, all female with young, all male.
There was the difference.
A wonderful, curious, brief interaction with beautiful animals.............
Driving further in this most wonderful of places I looked over the my right and saw him.
With head down he was grazing intensely, and from this distance was almost completely hidden in the sage.
This was the first time that LC and I had seen more than one buffalo in the forest since we moved back to Wyoming in June.
This beautiful animal was close to the very same large clump of trees where I had last photographed a bison, sitting almost hidden in the undergrowth and snow.
ONE of the bison we had seen that day was "our" bison - the one we had been enjoying and seeing and wondering about for the past few months.
Even though he was too far away to be able to get a good picture of him I smiled anyway.
They were definitely beginning to move out of the mountains.
If not on this day then soon, we would see many more...............
Not very far from the lodge that is only two miles from the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park (and the place where barricades bar further vehicular traffic when the gates are closed)  we unexpectedly ran into still more buffalo.
Again on the opposite side of the road from us, LC and I at first only saw one animal.  Huge, quietly strong, and completely beautiful, we watched him bury his way through shallow snow so that he could graze on the dried brown grass beneath it.
Suddenly LC exclaimed "there's another one", and we watched as a second buffalo appeared from behind a pine tree, and then a third...............
There were three animals in total and we watched in awe of them as they slowly lumbered down the short hill, stood beside the road, grazed, silently interacted with each other.
Our sweet dog loves to bark at deer and elk and antelope but simply whines quietly when she sees big horn sheep, and makes absolutely NO sound at all when she sees these massive bison.
Jamie stood with both front legs on the console between LC and me, all the while intently watching these animals, but never making a sound.
She must somehow sense their strength and size.
I remember being at Yellowstone one day last summer when buffalo crossed over the road directly in front of us and then slowly walked right along the side of the truck.
With them being so close I was concerned that Jamie would loudly and hysterically bark at these unknown and unfamiliar creatures, and would startle them.
She never did...................
We stayed in the same place for a long time watching these three behemoths who seemed in no big hurry to do anything in particular or go anywhere in particular.
This bison (the one we had seen first) at one point moved his eye in our direction.
Not his head.  Or his body.  Just his eye.
As he continued mouthing his way through the snow to get to the grass, he looked over at us silent gawkers-in-the-truck.
He knew we were there and knew that we were watching him, but aside from that one brief but definite eye movement from one animal (and a quick glance by another one), they gave little indication that they were aware of us.
Prehistoric - throwback - quietly and intensely strong.  Indeed..................
All three finally crossed over to our side of the road in back of our truck, and then began to walk in a straight line back the way we had come.
I wondered where they were headed.
Did THEY know where they were headed?
Were they just walking on instinct?  Did they have critical thinking skills or the ability to remember previous places and experiences?
Fascinating - hugely fascinating animals................
We stopped at the roadblock, and climbed out of the truck for a few minutes before heading back.
The East Gate, that is now closed, is located about two miles from this block.
There is very little snow in Cody right now, and less even here than there was only two weeks ago, but up there - up ahead - is a growing winter wonderland that will last for many months..............
We will be out this way again often through the winter and I cannot wait to see it covered with snow.............
A look back at where we had come from...............
As we began our slow journey back towards Cody we were surprised to again run into our three wandering bison.
They took over the road, as bison are often apt to do, slowly but decidedly working their way.........somewhere.
Wherever it is that three massive bison have decided they need to be.
LC slowed down the truck and we moved forward at only a few miles per hour, alone on the highway except for these large black dots in the snow....................
Sometimes they walked together.
Sometimes they lumbered to a stop and briefly grazed before continuing further.
Sometimes they crossed over the road to walk with one of their compadres.
After we slowly passed by them we pulled to a stop at one of the many pull-offs that are located along the highway, all the while mesmerized by their lumbering single mindedness.
There was something very wonderful and hypnotic about them and their seeming focus on an unknown destination.
They were SO great to see.....................
A few miles further LC and I were both surprised to see this herd also standing in the middle of the road.
They stood crammed together for a few moments, all of them first looking in our direction and watching us closely.
Unexpectedly they (almost as one) turned their focus to something beyond the guard rail...............
After a brief drink of water from melting snow alongside the road I was surprised to watch as one, without warm-up or preamble, simply jumped the guard rail.
Clamoring to get the dash and the rear view mirror out of my shots, and clamoring to catch a picture of a big horn in flight, I only managed one half decent picture of their jumps.
As we slowly drove beyond them I realized that this was the nursery herd.
Mothers and babies, staying close to each other, and effortlessly jumping the guard rail one by one to head back into the woods.
Encounters with nature are amazing things.
Always unexpected, always brief, always hard to record in photographs, always wonderful...............
I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says "Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again...........Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass 

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