Monday, February 1, 2010

Track & Field Saved My Life

The words on this sign could not be more true. This weekend I was charged, chased, and very nearly killed by a wild buffalo. If I wasn't considerably faster than the average guy, and/or didn't have a 40 yard head start, I was a goner. Seriously. This is no joke. Thank you, track & field.

Before I go on, I know what you're thinking. I know what I'd be thinking. "This idiot was probably trying to get up close and take a picture, flashing flashbulbs in the buffalo's eyes. Or trying to pet their baby. Dumbass." Even after hearing the real story, I'd probably still be suspicious. And so I can't blame you if you are too. After all, I have admittedly done some foolish things in the outdoors from time to time... the time I climbed out on this 3000' cliff in Hawai`i for a picture.

...or the time I jumped out to this ledge over the Grand Canyon, again for a picture.

...or the time I got up way too close to this she-moose in Utah, once again, for a picture.

...or the time I put my arm around this kangaroo.

Ok, this was a petting zoo, so it wasn't really that bad.

Anyhow, I've learned my lessons, and I assure you that this was not one of those "Darwin" moments. This is just a straight up, crazy, outdoor story. Without a doubt, the craziest one I've ever had - and I've had a few.

Here's how it went down.

I had arrived at my beachside campsite earlier in the afternoon, set up camp, and then climbed up a hill behind the beach for sunset, where I took this sweet picture:

All was grand because I had this sweet campground all to myself. In other words, I was the only person for about 5 miles.

On the way back down (in twilight dusk, mind you), I saw three buffalo, hanging out on the grass in the campground. For future reference, I'll call them Doughboy, O-Dog, and Bishop:

They were butting heads with one another, rolling around on the ground much like my mom's horse does, and making strange buffalo noises. It was evident to me that they were in the midst of some sort of disagreement (probably over best "hood" movie of the early 90s), and I wanted no part of it (the answer is clearly Boyz N The Hood; I don't even know why people - or buffalo - have these arguments, but I digress). I decided to allow them a wide berth, and make my way back to camp, minding my own business.

At this point I'll introduce Exhibit A, which you'll find useful in following the story from here on out. My position is indicated by an X (as you'll see, I was on defense), whereas Doughboy, O-Dog, and Bishop (on offense) are depicted by Os.

As shown in the illustration, upon reaching the bottom of the hill, and crossing the ditch into the campground, I passed a large palm tree and had a distance of approximately 40 yards from the buffalo. At this point, two of them (Doughboy and Bishop) continued to be involved in a headbutting altercation, while the other (O-Dog) was by his lonesome, closest to me.* I took a glance to the left, saw the action going down, and immediately made a sharp right and began walking the other way. This would not be satisfying, however, to O-Dog.

* Side note: I theorize that O-Dog had recently gotten the bottom end of brawls with Doughboy and/or Bishop, and was thus off on the outskirts, still riled up, looking for somebody to scrap with. At 1/10 of his weight, and without horns, I looked like a good target for some testosterone rage.

Hearing a ruckus, I glanced over my shoulder to the left, and saw that O-Dog was coming my way. Not strolling, not meandering, but straight up charging at me. Exhibit B shows O-Dog's path in the yellow dashed line.

Moment of decision. With mountain lions and bears, in this situation we're taught to stand up, yell, throw rocks, look big, and otherwise meet aggression with aggression. Running, after all, turns on the chase instinct, and you don't want to be chased by a top-tier carnivore. Buffalo, on the other hand, are prey. 2000 lb prey that run very fast, but prey nonetheless. There weren't any rocks handy, and I wasn't taking my chances grappling, so I took off running, thinking that once it was clear I meant no harm, he'd turn back. Wrong.

O-Dog chased, fast, and he was closing in a hurry. Realizing this, I turned on the jets. We're talking 100% full-out, panic-stricken, life-and-death wheels. Exhibit C shows the chase scene, my path in white:

In the open field, I had no chance. The sounds of hoofs were getting louder, and I was running out of time. I tried some diversion (inset), weaving between a trash can and grill in the campsite, but O-dog wasn't going for the okey-doke - he wasn't buying misdirection for a second. He was on a line, for my ass, with malice and intent to kill.

I crossed the dirt road, which had a steep 1-2' embankment on either side. I don't know how I ran across it at that speed without tripping or breaking a leg, but somehow I did, and upon doing so headed straight for a palm tree and cactus bush that bordered a ravine/estuary:

In the moment I was out of options, and somehow going straight into that bush and into the water seemed like the best alternative. O-dog continued the chase. Exhibit D:

As I ran across that grass, I could hear the hoofs and grunts right behind me, feel the buffalo's presence, and was certain I was about to get caught from behind. I tripped and stumbled/jumped through the cactus bush into the bog, and fully expected a trampling. But all was quiet. He must have stopped.

I got up out of the water, filthy but remarkably unhurt save some cactus spines, and looked around the bush. O-Dog was standing there looking dead at me, and his boys had joined him. The three of them were standing there, just waiting for me to come back out of the water.


I ended up climbing up a cactus-covered hill and making my way down to the beach, keeping the water between me and the beasts. By the time I circled back to my campsite, they'd wandered up the road away from the campground.

I cleaned up, got some dinner, talked with the local sheriff (another story in itself), and retired to my tent for the night. In the morning, I found this in the middle of the campground, about 50 yards from my tent:

As I went back up to the scene to take photos, I looked up on the hillside and saw - indeed - a buffalo staring right down at me.

"These jokers are stalking me!" I thought.

I made my way off the other direction for the morning's hike, but not before a flock of birds came out of that same palm tree by the ditch, and scared the bloody hell out of me!

I saw several other buffalo while on my hikes over the weekend, and took extra care to keep about 200 yards between me and them. I'll walk a mile out of my way if I have to. From now on, buffalo = grizzly bear.

Some takeaway lessons from this experience.

- First, wild animals are dangerous, even seemingly docile ones. However much space you think is reasonable to give a wild animal, double it. Triple it. Be ridiculously conservative. While I think intellectually I realized before this that a buffalo is potentially dangerous (they weigh a ton, have horns, and can run really fast), I didn't have that visceral fear of a buffalo that I would of a bear or mountain lion. I do now. Living in the wild is tough business. These animals are tough. A buffalo can make you just as dead as a grizzly. Period.

- Second, realize that no matter how good your precautions, there is a chance, however small, this sort of thing can happen. Everybody I've talked with from ranger to sheriff to island locals told me that a) what happened is very rare, but not unheard of, b) when it happens it's usually because someone does something stupid, like walk through a herd with baby buffalo, and c) I did the right thing in running and trying to get something between me and the buffalo (i.e. water, tree, picnic table, etc.).

- Third, as with nearly every other time I've had a scary experience in the outdoors, this happened extremely fast. The whole thing started and finished in 15-20 seconds. Probably 999 times out of 1000 (or more), nothing would have happened in the same circumstances. But never allow yourself to be complacent, because when it does, it happens fast and furious, and life and death hangs very delicately in the balance. Awareness and preparation for your surroundings cannot be overemphasized.

- Finally, thank goodness for track and field.

Full trip wrapup later...

Wild buffalo, as seen from the safety of the tour bus

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