Secrets from the Park Ranger Files: Yellowstone

Part 2 of 6: These funny, scary, and downright bizarre true stories come from rangers in some of America's favorite national parks. This week we hear from a ranger in Yellowstone National Park.
Bison crossing road, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Two bison hold up traffic in Yellowstone National Park. (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Yellowstone National Park
Lee Whittlesey was working the information desk at a visitor center in Yellowstone National Park when a guy walked in with a wild look in his eyes. Outside, a small herd of elk was grazing on the summer grass as tourists wandered in and out looking for maps and suggestions on how to spend their time in the country’s oldest national park. Whittlesey, who first started working in the park in 1969 and has been Yellowstone’s resident historian for the past ten, said he’d seen that crazy look before and knew exactly what it meant—confusion and disbelief.

“So this guy walks up to me and he says, in a pretty thick accent, ‘Say, can you tell me something?’” recalls Whittlesey, author of Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. “‘These animals that are walking around out here, are they wild? I mean, you wouldn’t just let them walk around like that, right?’”

Whittlesey was stunned. “We needed to have a serious education moment,” he says. “The guy was just an accident waiting to happen.”

It sounds funny, but every year people enter the park with no sense of just how wild the park’s charismatic “megafauna” really are. “I had to convince him that the animals were indeed wild,” Whittlesey sighs, adding that the man walked out shaking his head as if he were even more confused. “You wouldn’t believe how many people think this is Disneyland or a petting zoo. It’s like they expect the animals to be cut-outs with a board holding them up from behind. You can’t run out and pet a bison. They can kill you.”

There’s a popular legend about a bison that is so entrenched in Yellowstone lore that it has taken on its own life, Whittlesey says: the tale of a man who once approached a bison and put his child on its back for a photograph. True story.

“I was able to actually find and document a party that had put a kid on the back of a bison, but that’s the only one I know of,” Whittlesey says. “In that case everything turned out OK.” A miracle.

Don’t be that guy…
Park regulations say that you must stay at least 25 yards away from wildlife; 100 yards away for bears. Chances are almost certain that you’ll see big creatures like elk and bison at just about any spot in the park. Bears tend to be more elusive, as do wolves. Your best chance for seeing most animals, however, is early (before 8 a.m.) and late (after 6 p.m.). Wolf-watchers like to gather with their spotting scopes at a place known as Dave’s Hill (rangers don’t use the name because it’s not an official one on any map), a 150-foot rise at the turn off to Slough Creek Campground off the Northeast Entrance Road to Cooke City. From the top, you’ll have views looking mostly west into areas where wolves sometimes roam (but no guarantees, of course).

Published: 9 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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