Of bison, boneheads, hiking & assassin bugs

Rambling through Wyoming, before ending vacation far too early.

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We were hiking a scenic back-country trail last week at Yellowstone National Park when I saw a big brown hump off in the distance. Binoculars confirmed it was a sleeping bison, which was no surprise since there were bison everywhere during a wonderful three-day visit to the park. At one point, a medium-sized bison barged ahead of cars to cross a one-lane bridge in the middle of a road construction zone – to say nothing of the regular bison-induced traffic jams as they crossed roads or just stood there looking big.

Bison were even in the headlines, unfortunately, after a woman was gored near Lake Yellowstone and suffered seven spinal fractures, bilateral collapsed lungs and other injuries on July 17. The woman reportedly did her best to get away from the big animal, which her fiancee said charged from 60 yards. Frankly, I’m surprised there isn’t somebody gored every day the park is open – and not because bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run up to 30 mph.

People are just idiots. Not everyone. And maybe not the latest victim. Maybe she just had bad luck.

But too many others keep pushing theirs. Spend time in Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons and you’ll see far too many folks get far too close to bison. And bears. And moose. And every other animal they encounter. This happens despite repeated warnings from rangers, park publications and signs all over. Watching it kind of makes you wonder how humans have lasted this long.

Most people sidling up to bison have cellphone in hand for the all-important selfie. Pondering it reminds me what I’ve often thought while visiting areas of natural beauty: Oh how wonderful this place would be if not for all the other visitors.

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That said, it is comforting to pass other hikers now and then on a trail, if only so they can be a bear’s first choice for lunch. My wife, youngest son and I hiked a gorgeous trail to Little Gibbon Falls all by ourselves for a few hours. It was magical, but scary. If a bear decides to eat me, so be it. But to see a loved one taken by a wild critter would be hard to handle. … Speaking of hikes, my sons turned me onto the AllTrails app, a helpful source of information that lets you download trails. That way when the internet connection evaporates, as so often happens in Yellowstone, you can still find your way. … If you are headed to Yellowstone and plan to hike, a must-have book is “A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes” by Carol Shively and Roger Anderson. We picked three hikes based on their recommendations and everything they wrote was spot on.

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What other critters did we see? Well there was a momma bear with three little cubs that captivated some of our crew (while one member hid back by the car). There were two wolves in the Lamar Valley, which is open again after being closed due to flood damage last summer. Moose sightings were most common in the Tetons. There was a ruffed grouse up in Yellowstone’s Dunraven Pass. A bighorn sheep in the Badlands. Monster mule deer and plenty of elk, antelope and prairie dogs. … Perhaps most unexpected of all, in Casper, Wyo., we encountered a pink-haired fellow named Jeffree Star, who my kids tell me is a YouTube influencer and who dates an NFL player. Seriously. Actually, we didn’t see Mr. Star, just the 1,000 people who crowded Casper for the July 15 grand opening of his cosmetics store, where he peddles yak-based cosmetics and yak meat. All of it made my head hurt, but a clerk at the Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters Store said Star is a good guy and a great customer. … Star is also one of many Californians who have moved into Wyoming and Montana, apparently lured by lower taxes, cheaper real estate and natural beauty. One nice thing about the influx of Californians is that they are hated more than Illinoisans. So we had that going for us, which is nice.

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After arriving back in Elmwood, I figured the crazy wildlife experiences were over. Hah. Mary Case of Elmwood walked into TWP headquarters Monday with a covered Kerr canning jar that immediately raised suspicion. Always reserved, Mary wasted no time in asking, “Hey, what kind of bug is this?” Turns out she had captured a wheel bug, aka “the assassin bug.” According to some internet scientists, the wheel bug has spread north, which may be due to warmer temperatures or because they like to eat stinkbugs. The latter might make you seek out wheel bugs. But beware: “The bite of the wheel bug is immediately and intensely painful,” says Texas A&M Extension. Another website said your skin may “slough off” in the area of a bite. That made Mary look pretty brave, since she just barehanded the thing. Myself, I put the little rascal next to the Jim Beam decanter as a guard bug and will pay 50 cents apiece for the first 20 stinkbugs brought in to feed him. Also, any suggestions for a name will be welcomed. … Parting shot: Better yet, we might tell one of our regular patrons – a gruff-voiced fellow with a French-sounding last name – that the office newcomer is an Ayahuasca Bug and see what happens next.

Contact Jeff Lampe at (309) 231-6040 or jeff@wklypost.com