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Karma, Yellowstone Style

May 28, 2015

It was a rough night. With a 5 AM start time scheduled for my guide day the following morning, I made the trek from Bozeman to Gardiner (on the doorstep to Yellowstone’s northern range) to crash at my friend’s house. I settled in just in time to watch the fourth quarter of the Warriors vs. Rockets playoff game and was looking forward to the next day’s tour of my beloved Lamar Valley. But not long after settling in a stomachache of massive proportions struck and it struck hard. Food poisoning made for a long night.

After a fitful sleep my alarm went off at 4 AM. Right on time, in a sleep debt haze I met my clients, a beautiful Cuban family from Miami, under a blanket of darkness with stars still shimmering in the sky. Hours later we were all smiles after a banner morning of wildlife watching. The plethora of bird sightings and bison encounters made for a special morning, but when I spotted a female grizzly with three cubs of the year, I knew right then that this was a day maker. For two hours we watched the momma bear feeding in a succulent meadow of green grasses with her cubs in tow. Though we were the first to spot the four bears, within twenty minutes there were fifty other people, and within an hour there were 100+ visitors marveling at the bears.

As the kids were oohing and awing over the cuteness of the three playful grizzly cubs I felt the weight of a hand on my left shoulder. Jim Barton. I hadn’t seen Jim and his wife Joellyn in over three years and our reunion began with massive bear hugs. Jim and Joellyn were always my favorite of the regular wolf watchers out in the Lamar. I had met them while working as a bear education ranger and my respect for them runs so deep that I included them in one of the essays in my memoir Grizzlies on My Mind. While so many in Yellowstone’s wolf watching community become wolf-centric, Jim and Joellyn still carry that childlike enthusiasm for all of the park’s wildlife, even in their 70’s. They are the most generous and welcoming people in the field, always willing to offer some poor lad without a spotting scope a look through their high end Swarovski glass.

After twenty minutes of reconnecting and talking story we parted the same way we had greeted, with big hugs, and said our goodbyes. For the next thirty minutes my clients and I remained in the pullout watching an interaction between a lone gray wolf and the four bears. The wolf lunged a few times towards the bear cubs, creating quite a stir amongst the wildlife watchers, but 300+ pounds of grizzly simply charged the inquisitive wolf and put an end to its shenanigans.

As the wolf disappeared, the crowd that had formed began to dissipate, but that’s when another kind of magic happened. Again I felt a hand on my left shoulder, but this time it was Joellyn. Like myself, Joellyn has faced her fair share of physical challenges of late, hers in the form of multiple surgeries. But therein lies her beauty. Gratitude for each day and love overflows from her as she meets every individual she comes across with a friendly clasp and radiant smile.

“Michael, I know you’re with clients, but do you have another minute?” she asked.

“Of course Joellyn, what’s up?”

“Michael, we believe you are such a gift to Yellowstone and to the world. And you’ve been a gift to us.”

Almost speechless, I responded, “Joellyn, your words mean so much to me. Thank you! But you and Jim are the gift.”

“Well, that’s nice of you to say, Michael, but we want to give you something. Jim and I have talked it over and we want to give you my scope!”

Now I really didn’t know what to say. I’ve often lamented over how much I miss the spotting scope Jim and Joellyn had donated to my nonprofit (a beautiful Carl Zeiss) that I returned to them after I formally dissolved the organization. Here I was, a wildlife guide, wildlife advocate and former ranger naturalist, and I didn’t have a nice scope. I had always dreamt of owning a high-end scope and had shared just this wish with my mom and wife lord knows how many times. But the good scopes are $2,000+ and that simply hasn’t been in the budget.

After refusing my refusal, Jim walked up with scope in hand. It was a HD Swarovski. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“Are you kidding me, Jim? I can’t take this.”

“Yes, you can, and yes, you will, Michael. I know you liked that Zeiss we had given you, I think you’ll find this to be a slight upgrade,” Jim said with a wink.

Slight upgrade? Yes, the Zeiss was a sweet scope, some would say the Mercedes Benz of spotting scopes. But this, this was a Swarovski. These are the scopes that all other scopes are measured by. The Bentley of spotting scopes.

Jim and Joellyn Barton and me moments after they gifted me the scope. Slough Creek, YNP.
Moments after Jim and Joellyn Barton gifted me the scope. Slough Creek, YNP.

With tears in my eyes and Joellyn’s scope under my right arm, I squeezed Joellen and then Jim. This was beyond a present, or random act of kindness. This was an epic gift and overwhelming act of love, goodness and thoughtfulness. As I hugged Joellen for the third time, Jim handed me a bomber Manfrotto tripod to complete the package. I was astonished.

It’s been one week since my chance encounter with two old friends and I’m still overwhelmed with an overflowing sense of gratitude. Not one day has passed that I haven’t sat with and admired my new scope and tripod. Three days after receiving the gift of a lifetime, on Memorial Day I took my daughter, newlywed bride and mom back to the Lamar and watched my little seven year old in awe of the black bear she watched through our new scope, a scope that will be hers one day.

After we finished watching the bear, I sat Kamiah on my lap and I told her the story of the gift. I spoke to her of karma and the power of Yellowstone.   I then spoke to my daughter about a future Memorial Day, years down the river, when I’m no longer here, and when she will be sharing this holiday during Yellowstone’s most prolific wildlife month with her kids, looking through our family scope, speaking of their granddad and his work to inspire a commitment to the wilds of Yellowstone.

Karma is alive and well. And this gift that the Burton’s shared with a proud dadda will be yet another chapter in their Yellowstone legacy, one that will live on for generations to come. That my friends is karma. Yellowstone style…

~Michael W. Leach

2 Responses to Karma, Yellowstone Style

  1. Michael,

    It is good to see that you are still giving tours of Yellowstone. My family had such an amazing experience with you as our guide. I am glad that you continue to share your love of Yellowstone through your tours.


    • Cesar, thank you for the note! I’m so sorry for the delayed response. I somehow missed this one which made for a pleasant surprise this afternoon. There are certain days afield that you always remember. My day with you and your family several years ago represents one of those days. I hope this finds you, Lani and the kiddos well and thriving.
      With nothin’ but love, Michael