A close encounter with a buffalo near Little Bighorn

George Brown
Back in 1974 BC (Before Children) Yvonne and I took our first road trip out west. Our destination was my Dad and Stepmom’s home near Tacoma, Washington, via the northern route. We were 28 at the time and, although we had seen a good bit of the eastern U.S., we were anxious to see the dramatically different beauty of the west.

Our first major stop was South Dakota. By the end of day four we had passed through Buffalo Gap Grasslands, visited Badlands National Park, and lingered for the better part of a day at historic Mount Rushmore. On the morning of day five we crossed the Montana border headed for our next stop, the Battle of Little Bighorn National Monument.

One of the amazing sites of the west is the massive herds of buffalo. Large herds roam the grasslands but it is not unusual to see a stray buffalo or two along the side of the road, apparently separated from the rest of their herd.

We were not far from the site of Custer’s last stand when we had such an encounter. Over a creek and through a grove of trees we spotted a single bull buffalo. He was a massive creature and was positioned in one of those photo opportunity settings you only see in National Geographic magazine. I had to have a picture.

I had taken a lot of pictures of buffalo as we passed through Buffalo Gap Grasslands, including one of a large calf that came up to the car and would have stuck his head in the window if I had not rolled it up. But this was my opportunity to capture the perfect picture of an imposing bull buffalo standing statuesque in tall grass and framed by a single majestic cottonwood in the background.

I pulled to the side of the road, grabbed my camera, and headed for the buffalo like a modern day Ansel Adams. I quickly crossed the creek and found my way through the grove of trees, moving as stealthily as an Indian.

Within a minute I emerged on the far side of the grove of trees, hunched low in the grass so as not to be seen. The bull buffalo was no more than 30 or 40 yards away and seemingly oblivious to my presence. I judged I’d had the good fortune of being downwind.

He stood near as tall as me and must have a weighed a ton but I was not deterred by his size. Fearlessly I moved closer, crouching on my hands and knees. Then, like an Indian raising his bow to fire an arrow I raised my camera and snapped a quick photo, knowing the big bull buffalo might spot me at any moment and move away. It hadn’t occurred to me that, if spotted, he might move closer.

It was a good picture but not the one I wanted so I slowly moved closer, holding my breath and placing each hand and foot to the ground in slow motion as I crawled forward. By now I was scarcely 15 or maybe 20 yards from the massive beast, and I could hear him breathing as he munched grass, and shook his head and flicked his tail to ward off large flies.

Suddenly he stopped, raised his head and smelled the air. I wasn’t sure if I’d been spotted, but with his head lifted high above the grass and turned in my direction it was time to raise my head and snap that perfect Nat Geo picture.

I slowly raised my head above the grass and peering through the viewfinder I tapped the shutter. At that very instant, as though on cue, and for reasons which to this day I do not understand, Yvonne let out a blood curtailing scream that was probably louder than any heard in those parts since Chief Sitting Bull’s warriors attacked General Custer and his doomed troops. “GEORGE!!!” was the single word she screamed from the bottom of her lungs, long and drawn out.

Well, if that bull buffalo hadn’t already seen me, he sure did then. I froze in my tracks not sure whether to raise my arms in the air and scream like I was trying to scare off an agitated grizzly bear or turn tail and run like hell. I chose the latter.

As I did I could hear him snorting and thundering after me, but I didn’t look back. I thought I’d be safe when I reached the grove of trees, but the sound of his hooves came pounding behind me, through the trees and over the creek, as we both raced toward the car.

No, as luck would have it I didn’t have a backpack with me. But as I rounded the car Yvonne laid on the horn. Like a locomotive locking its brakes and screeching to a stop at the edge of a deep ravine where the trestle had just been blown to smithereens, that big buffalo, head low to the ground, buried both front hooves in the dirt, stirring up a heavy cloud of dust as he skidded to a stop not three feet from the side of my beloved 1969 Mustang.

By now I was in the car and I quickly added to his cloud of dust as I sped away. From the rearview mirror I could see him triumphantly shaking off the dust as he pawed the ground with a front hoof. But I was triumphant too – I had my picture.

As Mark Twain said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.