My run in with a bison

by Maren Day Woods

In Native American tradition, it is believed that each person has nine different animals that will accompany them through life, acting as guides. For me, those nine creatures are the buffalo, owl, dolphin, turtle, scarab beetle, mountain lion, humming-bird, eagle, and dog. Animals, both domesticated and wild have brought so much joy and meaning to my life. And from the special animal stories other people have shared with me over the years, I know I’m not alone. It’s interesting to consider your history with animals from your earliest memory to this moment. What animals have you had unique or meaningful experience(s) with?

We grew up with Saint Bernard dogs. First we had Gunder, then Oona. They weighed in at 125+ pounds of pure playfulness and slobber. I can attest to the fact that when your older brother pins you down with a pillow over your face and then commands your St. Bernard to sit down on the pillow, they are oblivious to the fact they are sitting on the face of a small child. 🙂

And fyi, if you’ve ever needed an extra set of eyes at the lake, this is a dog that likes to play lifeguard. As kids when we were swimming in the lake, if we went out too far, Oona would swim out, grab hold of our swimsuit bottoms and pull us safely to shore.

After I was married and had baby number two, I recall visiting Christeen, an intuitive friend of mine to get a reading. Ethan was sitting with us in his car seat. He was about eight months old. We had driven in to town that day from our home in Minnesota lake country. One of the messages she shared with me was that a big dog was going to be coming into our life within the next year or so. And he would get us through a decade of big transitions. It’s interesting to note that her office was across the street from the Humane Society, now called Homeward Bound. Fast forward about a year.

The boys and I had been home all-day.  Several times, the thought, call the humane society, crossed my mind. I ignored it until later in the day when I accepted it wasn’t going to stop.

I dialed the number hesitantly as I wasn’t even sure what to say. When someone answered the phone, I found myself saying, “hello…. you don’t happen to have any golden retriever mixes? It doesn’t have to be a puppy,  8 or 9 months old would be perfect? We’d prefer a male.

There was a long pause.

The woman on the other end of the line said in what sounded like a strained tone, “who is this?”

“Oh I’m sorry, my name is Maureen Woods,” I clarified. Sorry, this may seem like a very strange request.”

“She said, “This is the weirdest thing. We just picked up a dog by that exact description a few hours ago. How could you have known that? Someone pulled his tags and left him out in the blizzard in Moorhead. Our driver is on his way back with him now.”

“Wow, I guess that must mean he’s supposed to be ours. My husband, Jeff will be there to pick him up a little after 5 pm if that’s okay. Thank you so much!”

My husband was not enthused about getting a dog that day, especially one I sprung on him without any time to warm to the idea. But after I explained how things had played out, he begrudgingly agreed to stop by and check the dog out. But he warned, “I’m not making any promises that I’m bringing him home.  So don’t say anything to the boys yet.”

When Jeff was on his way home, he called and said, “guess what I have practically on my lap?”

“What?” I said now a bit unnerved that this was really happening. We’re taking on the added responsibility of a big dog that had likely been mistreated. Little did this dog know that he was going to go from pound to paradise. We were ready to open up our arms, hearts and home to this 8 month old, male retriever cross that synchronicity and intuition had brought to us?

Jeff said, I’ve got a 70 pound lap dog curled up next to me. He’s shaking and he doesn’t seem to be completely potty trained.”

I thought, “Oh God, what did I get us in to?” At this point, I still hadn’t recalled what my intuitive friend had told me a year earlier. In the end, Lambert was the most beautiful, needy, playful, protective, calming influence in our life. I’ve included an image of him below. When you looked into his eyes, it felt like there was a wise old man inside.

There’s one last thing I’d like to share about this gem of a dog.  At the end of his life, January 16, 2007, the day he was scheduled to be put down because he was very sick with cancer, my three boys, their dad and I encircled him. We locked our arms around each other and we thanked him for being the best friend we could ever have asked for. I will never forget the image I have of Lambert as he ran outside and took one last romp in the snow and climbed a large snow bank over looking the driveway. He just stood there, facing the house, with his nose up in the air, letting the wind hit him one last time.

My oldest son Harrison and his dad took Lambert to the vet that dark day. Before they left the house, I lit a candle and told the boys that we would honor Lambert’s life and death by letting the candle burn until it went out on it’s own. Then we would know that he was  in heaven with our cat Eddy. The candle burned for 33 hours. Several days later when I received the final invoice from our vet, it was for $333.33. So it was clear to me, that anytime we saw a pattern of 3’s, it would mean that Lambert was still watching over us. Even today, when I see 333 I think of Lambert.

The wild animal that has been the most symbolic to me in my life is the bison or buffalo. My first home was at Bison Court Married Student Housing on the campus of North Dakota State University (NDSU). And growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, anytime we drove west on I94 and passed through Jamestown, ND (about 70 miles west of Fargo) there was always the chance of seeing a herd of bison from the highway.

I remember the sense of anticipation I’d have as I was on the look out to catch a glimpse of the herd running the hills together. I felt proud to live in a state where the buffalo still roamed freely. I’d think about how the Native Americans lives depended on the bison for survival. They ate dried buffalo meat to survive the winter, they used the bones to make knives and glue, and buffalo skin was used to make Tipis, clothing, moccasins, bedding, saddle covers, and more. Sustenance, protection, housing, and warmth are just a few of the life-giving blessings the Native Americans received from the bison.

I attended college at NDSU, so for the five years it took me to graduate, the Bison was my school mascot. In my junior year of college, I decided to spend a summer at Yellowstone National Park. I had never lived away from Fargo and knew it was time to expand my horizon. Being in nature, getting to hike, meeting new people, making a little money, were just a few of the opportunities that drew me west.

Being a caretaker for my quadriplegic father from the age of 13, kept me close to home during high school and college. In fact, I remember being 22 years old and feeling ashamed that I felt scared to say goodbye to my mom at the bus station. I’m sure undiagnosed anxiety/ depression were also part of the trepidation I was experiencing. Plus, feelings of guilt about leaving town for three months and not being there to help my mom care for my dad, was also causing me some angst.

The pull between staying safely in my comfort zone to facing my fear of adventuring outside of it was a battle I was determined to win. I was hired to work as a server at Roosevelt Lodge, which was in the center of Yellowstone National Park. When I was off work, we got yo hike and camp throughout the park all summer long. It was heaven. We employees stayed in small log cabins located behind the lodge. There were four employees to each cabin. I was fortunate to end up in one of the first cabins.

Estimating distances isn’t one of my strong suits, but the bathrooms were about a three-minute walk down a well-worn dirt path, maybe about 150 feet away. One night, I needed to go to the bathroom. But my cozy warm sleeping bag made it tough to face the cold night air. I really didn’t want to make the jaunt, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. So, I jumped down from the top bunk and stepped outside my cabin barefooted. I stood on the stoop for a moment, hesitating as to which way to go. Should I go on the main path? Or should I run through the woods, which looked like it might be a bit shorter distance? I decided to take the path less traveled this time. I stepped down and took a few steps on the heavily pine needled ground. For some reason, I felt compelled to stop at the end of our cabin. I wasn’t sure why, I just followed the inner guidance. Then I heard the deepest guttural sound and felt the earth rumble under my feet.

I looked up and saw the most beautiful deep periwinkle sky through the trees.

Everything then went black as my face became buried in a huge tuft of fur. I could feel the heat from this massive body and smelled its natural musky, outdoorsy scent. This was my run in with a bison. The experience is in the top three most mystical experiences I’ve ever had.

I just stood there watching the curvature of this animals body create a moving silhouette with the back drop of a deep blue starlit sky. This story would have ended much differently if I had not listened to that little voice inside my head that told me to STOP. Now, 32 years later as I share this story, I can still tap into the energy of the buffalo. The moral of this story is to always follow your instincts, just like the animals do.

Based on Shaman and Author Ina Woolcott, the buffalo is said to represent abundance, protection, manifestation, creativity, feminine courage, knowledge, survival, challenge, giving for the greater good and formulating a grand plan.

This experience happened during a time when I didn’t know where my dad ended and I began. I believe this magical experience with the bison gifted me the courage to consider what I wanted out of life. I literally, stood on my own feet and for the first time in my life, I beyond being a caretaker for my dad. I am profoundly grateful to the bison/buffalo for their role in history and for our shared home on the Great Plains. The energy and symbolism of the bison/buffalo has always been there for me to lean (and all of us) in to. I love living in a part of the world where I know they’re only a little over an hour’s drive away.

 Life is funny truth (LIFT)

While working at Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone National Park I had the pleasure of working with people from all over the country. One night while we were in the middle of a dinner rush I was standing at the line waiting for my order to come up. Sally, a gal from South Carolina was standing next to me, also waiting.

I said “I had a pretty cool experience last night on my drive back from Gardner.” (Gardner, Montana)

Now imagine the heaviest southern accent possible saying, “Really, why, what happened?”

I explained, “I was driving back to the lodge and a mountain lion jumped onto the road in front of my car and he just stood there looking at us for what seemed like several minutes.”

She said, “you saw a whut jump on to the road?”

I said enunciating as clearly as I could, “I  s a i d, I  s a w  a  m o u n t a i n  l i o n.”

Sally asked again, “darlin you saw a whuut?

Finally, exasperated, I said in the deepest southern accept I could muster, I said, “I saw a mawtin lion!”

“Ohhhh you saw a Mawtin Lion?!!!.” Sally, to the entire kitchen. “Y’all she saw a mawtin lion!”

The entire kitchen erupted as the northern and southern English speaking American girls found their way past a momentary language barrier.

I’d like to end with the wisdom of Lakota Indian and author Tony Ten Fingers says, “If you too, can come to love this land as our ancestors did, all the problems of the world will fall away like autumn leaves in the wind.”

Bison Image Photo Credit: Oil painting on canvas by midwestern artist Michael Dunn.