It was a day I would never forget.
For many years I had traveled the Yellowhead Highway east of Edmonton, and knew that I was in for a treat.
As a child with my nose pressed tight against the car window, I would look excitedly for the mangy buffalo that wandered along the fence line in the National Park bordering the highway. A fight with my sister for the best window viewing position would result in stern warnings from my parents. We were to take turns! “Joy, you can have that window on the way into the city and Melodie can have it on the way back.”
Years later, when I drove that same highway with my own children, the stretch of continuous fencing always broke up the monotony of a long trip. Who would be first to see a buffalo? How many would there be? Would they be running? Fighting? Would there be calves?
Eventually I moved from Saskatchewan to Edmonton with my husband and children. It was summer, and my husband was away on business. My friend’s husband was also travelling, so Val and I decided to plan a “girlfriend’s” day trip out of the city. We packed our bikes and picnic lunch and headed to Elk Island National Park. It would be a great break from our busy city lives.
A profusion of flowers bordered the winding road into the park and danced in the summer breeze. Here the boreal forest to the north merged with the aspen parkland to the south, leaving a veritable feast of color for the eyes. Through the trees a lake glistened invitingly in the sunlight. Signs boasted that Elk Island National Park had the largest herd of plains bison (also referred to in North America as “buffalo”). Directional arrows indicated where the bike paths were, so we unloaded our cycles and headed through a secure gate to the lake trail.
Val was a highly respected counsellor and music director in the Edmonton Public School system. At the time, I was a realtor, managing the sales and marketing of a busy high-rise condominium building. We imagined ourselves a formidable team when we were together and talked about the serious issues of life – you know – equality for women, our husbands and kids, our faith, the infidelity of certain people we knew, and of course, the latest recipes.
And so we leisurely peddled along the paved bike path side by side, talking through life’s problems. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard someone yelling, “Ladies, ladies, watch out! There’s a buffalo charging behind you!”
We quickly turned to look and sure enough, an enormous buffalo was charging full-tilt on the narrow bike path behind us. Much to our amazement a young man was peddling frantically on a bike just a bit in front of the buffalo’s gigantic head. The young man kept yelling, “Ladies, ladies, watch out!”
In an instant we could see that we were in serious trouble. The buffalo was quickly gaining on us. Instinctively we rode our bikes out of his way – off the pathway and into the treed area. We threw our bikes down and sought refuge behind some spindly aspen trees, shaking in terror. Amazingly, the young man did the same, throwing his bike down behind some trees not far from us.
Surely the buffalo would continue down the bike path, but no – the enormous beast charged right after us into the aspen grove. Suddenly he stopped, shook his mangy head and began pawing at the ground and snorting. It looked to us like he was just re-evaluating the situation before he charged in for the kill! Dust and leaves filled the air as he continued pawing and snorting. He was one angry buffalo!
Val and I were all too were aware that buffalo could be extremely dangerous. Recent newspaper headlines reported that a man out for a leisurely early morning walk near a Southern Alberta community had been gored to death by a buffalo grazing on leased land.
“Don’t worry, the buffalo will not hurt you,” the young man’s voice echoed from the trees. Val and I looked with incredulity in his direction. He appeared quite confident as he looked at us and then at the buffalo. How in the world would he know we would not die? Yet his words somehow calmed us. Everything had happened so fast. Where had he come from? How did he manage to stay ahead of the charging buffalo? Why was he in the forest with us?
Unexpectedly, the buffalo stopped pawing the ground and began slowly backing up. He continued to shake his head and after a few halting backward steps, turned around and began walking away through the trees.
There we stood trembling, white knuckles still clutching the trees. Our crisis had passed as quickly as it arrived. We turned to each other grateful to be alive, and then to the young man. He had saved our lives and we felt an urgent need to thank him.
We could not believe our eyes. He was not there. Where had he gone? We walked over to the trees he had just stood behind. Astonishingly, there was no trace of him. The bike he had thrown down beside ours was not there either.
We hastily brushed ourselves off, picked up our bikes and made our way back to the designated path. He probably had just been quicker than we were. Surely we would see him on the trail which provided a clear view in both directions.
But no bike and no young man were visible. We decided to head back to the picnic area to continue looking for him. No one fitting his description was in the picnic area or parking lot.
Val and I sat at a picnic table shaking our heads and muttering to ourselves. What had just happened? Were we dreaming? What did the young man actually look like? How had the buffalo managed to get into the bike-safe area? How did we manage to escape unharmed? What had happened to the young man? How had he disappeared so quickly?
We were truly perplexed. But more than that, we couldn’t help but feel profoundly grateful and amazed. Something very, very special had happened on a totally common day in Elk Island National Park.
Could it be that we had just been privileged to experience what spiritual people of old called the “thin places” where the line between the visible and the invisible had dissolved?
Could it be that the gates of heaven had mysteriously opened and delivered a teenaged bike-riding angel to watch over two very grateful bike-riding girlfriends?
We think so!
Joy Dirks is a former Canadian Citizenship Judge who resides in Calgary, Alberta with her husband. They have two sons, a lovely daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren.