Among Bison and Bears: Making Memories in Yellowstone’s Wild Classroom

The unexpected joys and challenges of a student’s journey to Yellowstone National Park with Stuyvesant peers and faculty.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I sat on an uncomfortable steel bench at Denver Airport waiting for my connecting flight to Bozeman, Montana. I thought back to eight months ago when I attended an interest meeting for a fieldwork-based experience focusing on the ecology of Yellowstone National Park. After confirming with my parents that I’d be available from late June to early July, I signed up. 

I couldn’t believe I was going to Montana, let alone with a group of people I barely knew. The only connection between us was that we all attended Stuyvesant. Sure, I may have seen some of them passing through the hallways, but this was different. We’d be spending nine days together sleeping in tents, cooking over a foldable stove, cleaning dishes and Tupperware with filtered stream water, and not showering. Needless to say, I was nervous. What if we didn’t get along?

The first hour in Denver was spent settling in and snacking on some (expensive) airport food. Eventually, we pulled out the cards. Tacocat was my favorite game we played; it’s similar to Slapjack, but there are special cards where you have to pound your chest like a gorilla, tap the floor, or create a narwhal horn with your hands. So there we were, sitting on the airport floor with Ms. Kornhauser, pounding our chests and slapping the deck. Our first bonding moment.

Card games became crucial for our entertainment after our phones were confiscated on the first day. This wasn’t a punishment (though it may have seemed like one); it was a policy designed to help us engage with the environment and each other. And sure enough, within the first few days, the “Poker Palace” was established in one of the boys’ tents. Several witnesses described the Palace as smelly and dirty, but I wouldn’t know—I stayed away. Besides poker, we also played more Tacocat and Uno, both of which Mr. Choubaralian was, unfortunately, comically bad at.

But we didn’t spend the whole trip playing games. We spent a lot of time in Yellowstone National Park and other environmental sites like Casey Lake and Cutler Lake. We had lessons every day from our Ecology Project International instructors on topics ranging from the history of bison to the types of amphibians in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The best part about going to the park every day was being able to apply what we had learned to collect data and track collared organisms through radio telemetry and scopes.

My favorite event was Wolf Day. We started the day bright and early at 5:00 A.M. We were all exhausted and freezing cold (temperatures hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the early morning): I had to wear seven layers of clothes as well as fleece gloves and a beanie to keep from shivering. Our first stop was Lamar Valley, where we met up with Jeremy SunderRaj, a biological science technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, who taught us about the park’s history of wolves and its recent conservation efforts. 

After the lesson, we had the chance to look through the spotting scopes, a type of telescope used to view wildlife, to watch wolves. This experience was beyond exciting for me because I got to (safely) look at a wolf in its piercing eyes, which was one of my goals for the trip. I observed multiple wolves pacing back and forth in the grass, the gray of their fur barely noticeable in the landscape. Most of them kept to themselves, but once, we saw a gray wolf approach another one—we all anticipated that a conflict would occur. Instead, they started peacefully playing with each other, painting a charming picture that contrasted with their reputations as violent creatures. But the excitement didn’t end there.

Soon, we were back on the road trying to track collared bison using radio telemetry (a technology that uses radio signals to pinpoint the locations of collared organisms). But we were unable to identify their whereabouts, so we ended up switching gears and following a collared pronghorn antelope instead. Our goal was to observe the pronghorn—a white-bellied, hooved mammal with a giraffe-like head—from a safe distance and wait for it to poop. Yes, we were there to collect fecal samples by taking three scoops of scat and enclosing them in little plastic bags to send to the lab. It may sound like an off-putting experience, but it was actually one of the highlights of the trip. We got to follow the pronghorn inland, which is something other tourists are not allowed to do. Most of the time was spent in silence to avoid scaring the pronghorn away. Even if our efforts had ended up being fruitless, I would’ve still considered it a highlight. But of course, catching the pronghorn pooping was a welcome bonus.

There were several other moments when I felt like a real field scientist collecting data. Outfitted in waders (waterproof boots and overalls) on Amphibian Day, we set off into the vegetation-dense Casey Lake, where we spent the day collecting amphibian data. Another memorable moment was when we collected bear safety data by observing clueless tourists and their bear safety tactics (whether they chose to carry bear spray or wear bear bells).

There were times when the fieldwork was tough, especially when the skies would open up out of nowhere, leaving us rained on and trapped by Cutler’s Lake or on a hiking trail, or when the temperature would drop to 32 degrees Fahrenheit at night, leaving me freezing in my two layers of pajamas, two pairs of socks, and fleece hat in a sleeping bag. Nonetheless, this trip allowed me to explore the possibility of becoming a field scientist in a safe and fun environment. Every experience was invaluable because I was with like-minded individuals who inspired me to learn outside the classroom. Additionally, witnessing the results of the conservation efforts to rebuild bison and wolf populations in Yellowstone National Park intensified my desire to pursue a career in field science.

It’s safe to say this adventure exceeded all of my expectations. I enjoyed every single moment, from our spontaneous karaoke sessions in the vans, to weeding at Cutler Lake, or “saving the world,” as Ms. Maggio calls it. And despite not having access to electronics or running water, we made the best of it (meaning we desperately washed our hair on the side of the road using our water bottles). Being without phones also allowed us to be more present and enjoy the scenic views from our campsite, such as the snow-capped mountains. It allowed us to create unique memories like conversing around the bear bin (a metal bin used to secure our scented items from predators) while getting ready for bed or having a toothpaste spraying contest.

And so, on the final night, as I watched the sun set behind the mountains one last time, I vowed to one day return to this peaceful sanctuary that holds so many treasured memories.