In August 2012, my wife, teenage daughter and I were finalizing the plans for our family motorhome vacation to a national wildlife park up north. It was particularly exciting because six years prior, I’d convinced my wife I needed a 4-inch Smith & Wesson Model 629 in .44 Magnum just in case we ever wanted to go hiking in bear country. She seemed incredulous, but did eventually rubber stamp the purchase. Tragically, there had been a recent spate of bear attacks in and around Yellowstone. I purchased a great custom holster from Ryan Grizzle (Rgrizzle Leather) and a few boxes of Cor-Bon 225 grain DPX. Of course, I didn’t really want anything to do with shooting a bear and making national news, so I studied up on bear behavior, bear defense and bear avoidance. It was all about the bears until I read that bison were responsible for more attacks than bears. According to everything I could find, the answer to being safe is just to leave the animals alone. It doesn’t take an expert to know that, does it?
Mere days later, we were in the park driving to one of the more popular hiking trails in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. We laughed at the foolish tourists approaching the bison on foot to take photographs. If they’d done their research, they’d know that bison gore a dozen people every year. We parked and began our 3-mile trek. Every so often, we came across temporary signs that warned, “Bear frequenting area. There is no guarantee of your safety while hiking or camping in bear country.” It didn’t matter. Our situational awareness was maxed out, we were making plenty of noise, we had bear spray and, most importantly, “Maggie” if a situation really went south. A bear would not be a problem.
The unexpected assailant
Unfortunately, another of the park’s residents would be a problem. After we were literally (but not figuratively) out of the woods at a crowded rest stop along the trail, I had my head down in a map as we walked across a busy paved road. My wife stopped and whispered for me to get the camera as a large bull elk exited the tree line and stepped out in front of a rental RV motorhome. The driver had to stop in the roadway to avoid the animal. As I dug for the camera, my wife’s tone became disturbingly elevated, “He’s coming after us!” My dismissive “Oh, please” quickly became a correspondingly high-pitched “Oh [something else]” when I looked up. At this point, I knew that a wild elk could be dangerous, even though the species wasn’t exactly on my radar. What I didn’t know is that they are 20-feet tall, have glowing red eyes, breathe fire from their flaring nostrils and have chandeliers of razor-sharp spikes on their head that glistened in the sun. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but it sure seemed like it at the time. I saw the charging elk and the fleeing women trying to make it to the rear of the RV. The familiar clopping sound of horse hooves on a leisurely ride will forever be replaced in my mind by 900 pounds of angry bull elk running on the asphalt. I caught up with my wife and daughter and joined the quasicomedic circuit around the motorhome with Benny Hill chase-scene music playing in my head. The magnitude of the elk’s rack forced it to swing wide as it pursued us around the RV. That allowed us to stay safely ahead of him. The family inside the RV asked if we were all right each time we passed the driver’s side window. Meanwhile, we were screaming in unison, “Open the door!” They didn’t. I knew one of us would eventually fall and become defenseless. There was nowhere to go for cover now that we were out in the open. There were pedestrians and vehicles everywhere, but one shooting lane did exist. The next time we got there, I turned and began to draw that 41 ounces of comforting steel. I remember thinking I’d done all that research to avoid being national news only to have it happen anyway.
Fortunately, just as quickly as the beast had focused his energies on us, he chose another target and charged after a large crowd. We used that moment to flee back into the thick woods to the safety of the hiking trail we had just considered so treacherous. The animal turned back around and followed us for a while, but his massive frame was unable to navigate the confines of the trail. He quickly gave up, seemingly content that he’d won the encounter.
Keep in mind, I went into this trip with years of SWAT team leader experience. A big part of that job is planning for knowns and unknowns. Planning for contingencies. Planning for anything that could put my team members in danger. I failed to do that in this situation. I got so obsessed with the recent bear attacks; I failed to look any further. Before that day, I thought elk were just slightly bigger deer. I had no idea they could grow to a half-ton and have a rack of antlers 4 feet in width. I did not know they could be proactively aggressive, especially during certain times of the year and toward women in particular.
I went into the situation with what I erroneously believed was enough knowledge. Had I approached that trip as I would have a raid, I would have known that out of the half-dozen or so animals that can be dangerous to humans, elk are the most likely to be seen and the most likely to be aggressive in crowds of people. Running into the crowd was instinctual, but not wise. Humans feel safer around other humans. Had I done my research, I would have known that the best way to avoid this incident was to simply walk back into the woods and away from the crowd and into the thick trees where a bull elk can’t go. At the beginning of our trip, I had felt quite superior to those idiots out in the field giggling as they took selfies with bison. On the drive home, not so much.