Shared Stories: Elk Island

Seeing animals in their natural habitat can be very exciting for city folk.  Fortunately, Elaine Held and her husband knew the potential danger they encountered in a Canadian national park. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Elaine Held

Thirty years ago Bill and I made our first motor home journey into Canada.  Bill had a Rotary International Convention there so we decided to make the trip. The convention was beyond our wildest expectations.  

After the convention we planned to head east and drop down into Minnesota for one of my high school reunions. First, we had heard of a place called Elk Island and we decided to visit. We headed north to Edmonton and then east twenty miles.  

Many miles have been fenced to keep wild animals in and let tourists drive through to see them in their natural environment.  

We arrived late in the afternoon and drove slowly to the information center. We saw many animals and my camera whirred. When we were through in the building that explained the purpose of the place we went for a walk around the lake.  

By this time it was late and the setting sun’s explosion of color was extraordinary, reflecting on the lake.  I snapped many gorgeous pictures and I turned to start back when it hit me.  I was now dummy number one.  Bill looked at me and I realized he was dummy number two.  

“Bill,” I said, “We need to get out of here.  It is close to being dark.”  He turned and looked at the sky.  

“Wow! We should have started back a long time ago.” Walking quickly, thinking of being safe, we heard a huge crash in front of us. The largest animal I have ever been close to came thrusting out of the thick brush. 

It was a humongous buffalo. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt.  No!  No!  The beast was settling down into his wallow. 

He plopped down and I yelled, “Bill.  I didn’t see what we were stepping over. That is his wallow. What on earth are we going to do?”  

For those of you who are not up on buffalo etiquette, he sleeps in the same spot every night. It is called his wallow and he uses it so much the earth is curved and there is no grass. He does not like being bothered once he settles down for the night. 

There was no way of getting around him unless we went into the lake and swam. The brush had been cleared from the lake to about twenty yards to the brush. There was a sidewalk to be able to go around the lake easily, except now there was a huge head lying on the sidewalk.  
“Bill, we have two choices!” 

“Seriously! I can see that but we cannot spend the night here.  It is too cold at night now and we have on just our t-shirts. That means we have got to bother him enough to get him up and moving. You realize when we do this he is liable to move toward us rather quickly!”
I said, “I am going to go into the lake when that happens.” Bill said he would be right behind me.

Bill started to walk very slowly up to his rear end. Yes, the buffalo had turned his butt to the world. I was behind Bill with my hand clutching his back pocket. I don’t know why that made me feel safer but it did.  

When we were three steps away the animal raised his mammoth head and slowly turned it toward us. One huge brown round eye glared at us.  We froze. I moved up beside Bill for a more united front. 

The creature didn’t like that and raised the front part of his body. I got ready to swim. He swished his tail and I felt it on my hand and arm.  Suddenly he was up. I crouched. He started to move. Our lives depended on which way he moved. 

Slowly he started down the sidewalk away from us, his one eye watching us over his rump. If buffalo could roll their eyes that is what he would have done, he was so disgusted with us. But he kept moving. We stayed right on his backside. 

When he got to the parking lot I made up my mind that whichever way he went, I was going in the opposite direction, even if it was away from the RV. He went left and we escaped right to the motor home.  

Bill’s hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t hold the key to get it in the lock.  I took it and opened the door.  We jumped in and locked the door. Oh, Motor Home, I love you!  I jerked up again. 

“Bill, what if they locked the gate and we can’t get out?” It was completely dark now. If you have ever been out in the wild it is so dark you cannot see your hand before your face.  I told Bill to drive up to the building and I would take the flash light and see if it said what time they closed.  

When I got back in I explained to Bill the sign on the window said the gate was automatic and would open for us and close behind us.  But we needed to think that through. It was very dark, we had never been on this two lane road before. 

I told Bill I thought we should spend the night. He agreed so we began to settle down. I burst out laughing.  Bill was irritated and told me to knock it off.  There wasn’t anything funny about it.  

”Oh yes there is,” I said. “What did we plan for dinner tonight?”  

Bill roared with laughter. Buffalo burgers!