What do you do when you realize you have put yourself in a life-threatening situation? Well, here’s how I handled it, picture this. So there I am in a tree, looking at a wolf just 20 meters away and I think about all of the choices I made to land myself in this situation. It was just a bizarre and stupid idea that should have and most likely would have gotten me killed if I didn’t get lucky. How did I end up in this predicament? Well...
I'm just a college student from outside Washington DC in rural farmland.
The Appalachian mountains are within a short drive from me and it's a nice quiet place when you want it. I go to college in Boston which is a jarring change so whenever I come home for the summer I engross myself in the area. I do this by going on hikes, fishing in the Potomac River, or just walking through the town. Over the summer I tried many new hobbies from the guitar to editing but it all culminated when I decided to spend 14 days hiking in Yellowstone National Park. This was a tie-in trip as my cousin was proposing at Grand Teton National Park, which was touching Yellowstone, and it was a great time. Once I left them however I was on my own, and I had one goal in mind, I wanted to see some wildlife. I had never been to Yellowstone, or anywhere in the midwest for that matter so I was taken aback. Beautiful mountains are the norm where I come from, but for wildlife, other than deer, it was not common. When I arrived at Yellowstone and had to stop my car to let a buffalo baby calf pass I knew I was in for a treat. About halfway through the trip, I got a tip from a wildlife photographer that a bison had died in a valley, and the local wolf packs had recently broken up, making it a prime feasting ground. Wolves are shy animals as they like to ambush, making them very hard to find. Maybe this wasn't the smartest thing to do, but I was fascinated with the idea of getting the chance to see wolves so I decided to trek out there alone and post up on a hill with a massive tree overlooking the valley. I could see the bison carcass in the distance. I found a comfortable branch and layed down for hours, the sun was slowly inching overhead.
I didn't mind this downtime as I didn't expect to see anything, the view alone was well worth it. Wolves have always been this mystical group of animals that I have never seen. I was curious if I'll see anything. I climbed a tree to get a better look and waited patiently. Still, in the tree, I started to think of all I'd been through to get to Yellowstone and be in this moment. From the TSA almost not allowing me on the flight to getting two flat tires on my way to Yellowstone, yeah it was a trying few days. Now I was sitting in a tree, in Yellowstone, there was a slight breeze that cooled off the summer heat. I couldn't believe I was here, in this tree. I was appreciating the moment and staying as still as possible...I was playing the part of Nat Geo photographer the best I could. In the distance, I saw one lone wolf walking as he got closer. My heart raced. I clicked my camera like a machine gun as the wolf walked past my tree, he gave a glance in my direction and kept going. It was serene, and I had an even dumber idea; I wanted a better view.
I crawled down the tree, and (at a distance) I followed the wolf. I found a spot on a hill some 200 meters away from where I had the perfect view and watched as the wolf began gnawing at the bison. It was fascinating in a weird way to see how it acted, how it moved, and how it ate. It was so similar to a dog yet different at the same time. Its moves were more precise; it had this light of intelligence as it was surgical in approaching the dead animal, and then I noticed a bush on the other side of the hill was moving.
At this point, it was 8:30 pm, and the sun was near all the way down; it was getting hard to see anything, and as the object began lumbering down the hill, I realized how stupid I was to have put myself there as what I was looking at wasn’t a bush, but a massive grizzly bear. It was huge, it was furry, and it was hungry. The wolf noticed the bear (I mean, how could it not) and went up to the bear, alone and challenging it. The bear was obviously not having it as it gave one swipe, narrowly missing the wolf's head which sent a clear message. The wolf was not stupid and simply turned around and walked away as if it didn’t just nearly have its head ripped off. The bear, contemptuous, stepped down and began to eat. At this point, the sun was gone, and it was near pitch black, and I decided if I wanted to live to tell this story, I needed to get out as fast and quietly as possible. I did a 180 and began hiking to my car, which was parked around 2 miles away by a dirt path that connected to one of the three main roads. The simple hike felt like hours as I kept turning around to make sure I wasn't being run down by the grizzly or stalked by the wolf. By some magical luck, I made it back to my car safe (and alone) and started the hour-long drive to my campsite.
It's weird seeing something beautiful that has every ability and right to kill you on the spot. The beauty in the nature of what was hiding in that valley just a few miles off of the beaten path shows how once we lift the curtain of modern life, there is still an entire world of life right beneath our feet. This moment inspired me to start leaving the conventional paths set forward and to start looking for what's just around the corner. All of the animals I mentioned earlier, the bear, the mountain lions, the foxes, and so much more, were all seen AFTER I had this revelation. I started leaving the hiking trains (with two forms of GPS and people knowing where I was, of course), and I began to see a part of nature people have grown accustomed to ignoring nature in just that, nature.
- Garrett Coleman
TWM Fall Intern 2021