Where deer and antelope roam and the bison pee in your campsite
"Bison are dangerous! Watch from a safe distance!" The signs at the entrance to the campground couldn't be more clear. Don't let your kids pet the pretty buffalo, they say, or they could get a hoof in their faces or a horn through their stomachs. Pretty reasonable, of course.
Naturally, there aren't any signs warning the bison to keep away from humans, scary as we are.
But when bison get close, it can be quite a fun to see. That's what happened this Memorial Day weekend when we camped up in the North Dakota badlands.
The cheap Kroger charcoal briquettes wouldn't light in the campsite grill because we'd forgotten to bring lighter fluid. It was getting on for 9 p.m. and our hunger was getting critical. We needed something more flammable than two-buck charcoal and a pot of water for dinner.
Of course, considering this was Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there was a herd of four bison between us and the water spigot and the rest of the campground. And they weren't moving.
The grass around our campsite, apparently, was quite scrumptious because, though these bison had countless other acres to graze, our particular half-acre was their favorite hangout. Between meals, they'd lounge in the adjacent campsite, scratching their heads and fur on the picnic tables and tree trunks. When they were eating, they'd graze in the small meadow between our tents and the car, about 100 feet away.
As I, Jacob and our friend Dave were fumbling with the charcoal, the bison moved into the meadow between us and the driveway, blocking our way to the water spigot. Dave banged his knuckles on a pot hoping the bison would move aside. One reared up his head, snorted and, like a crazed wildebeest, sprinted across the campsite to a clump of junipers on the other side of the meadow. The other three bison looked up, stared at us, and continued noshing on the yummy grass.
Dave snuck by, got the water and returned to find the buffalo back where they were, grazing in his path. He banged the pot again, but this time, they moved closer and closer. He backed off and banged his pot again. A couple of the buffalo moved across the meadow away from the action, but one lumbered to the center of the meadow and stood along the short trail between the car and the campsite.
The bison looked up at Dave, then looked over at us and let his bladder rip — just off the trail. Now, this wasn't just a quick piss before dinner, or a even something like a lengthy caffeine-induced bladder drainage. This ornery bison stood there for several minutes, pissing away gallons and gallons of urine with the force of a fire hose. Then, he moved away and let Dave by.
After we retired to our tents for the night, the bison returned and slept only 20 or 30 feet from my tent.
Apparently, there aren't any violent camper-bison encounters in Theodore Roosevelt National Park's campgrounds as long as humans take up residence in a bison-frequented campsite first, the campground host told me. Try to pitch a tent in a buffalo-occupied site, and you'll be talking with the business end of the bison's tusk-like horn.
These kinds of encounters are what make Theodore Roosevelt National Park so unique and wonderful. It's a gem of a national park split into two units in western North Dakota, where the region's badlands become as rugged as some parts of Colorado Plateau in southern Utah.
None of the three of us on this trip had ever been to North Dakota, and weren't sure exactly what to expect of this park, which sees more visitors than Utah's Canyonlands National Park. The North Unit is mostly designated wilderness, and focuses on the Little Missouri River valley and the bentonite clay badlands that make up the edge of the valley. The South Unit is also divided by the Little Missouri River, but the badlands there are more expansive, with broad washes, coulees and canyons riddled with red-hued ridges, sagebrush flats and juniper-laden slopes.
The park, rich with wildlife — especially bison, which were reintroduced to the park in the mid-20th Century — is, of course, a celebration of President Teddy Roosevelt, who had a ranch in the area in the late 19th Century, before he was president. The park brochure proclaims that if TR hadn't spent time sharpening his ruggedness in the North Dakota badlands, he would never have been president.
Most people who visit the park come off of I-94, drive a ways into the South Unit, take a few photos and call it a trip. Few people venture farther into the park, especially into the depths of the North Unit an hour north of the South Unit, making solitude very easy to find there.
Indeed, our hike of two of the park's most accessible, shortest and scenic trails (on Memorial Day weekend!) yielded hardly any encounters with other hikers whatsoever. That's further proof that those who refuse to visit national parks because the crowds are so huge as to be insufferable are absolutely wrong. Sure, if we visited Zion Canyon, Yosemite Valley or the Grand Canyon's South Rim over Memorial Day weekend, we'd be fighting our way through crowds. But takea hike off of the beaten path in any national park, and the crowds disappear. That's true in Rocky Mountain National Park in my backyard, and it's true at Great Smoky, Grand Canyon and Zion.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is exemplary of the best of our national parks. Uncrowded, sweeping, beautiful and totally worth a visit. Just make sure you pitch your tent away from the bison, even if they do pay you a visit later.
Incidentally, on our way back from North Dakota, we stopped by Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming's Black Hills, one of President Teddy Roosevelt's many great accomplishments. It was under TR that Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, which allows the president to personally create national monuments for their historic and scientific significance. The same year, TR created Devils Tower National Monument under the act, making this 800-foot tall volcanic plug the nation's first national monument.