Discovering the trail is magical; unpacking it all is the hard part.
My fourth trip following bison tracks from past to present is over. The unpacking part starts now: not just camping and photography gear, field sketches and notes, but also new perspectives and stories from people who know bison history and bison from intense exposure.
I followed this trail to inform an artist-in-residence project. I have met historians, archeologists, geologists, bison managers, rangers, restorationists, communicators, and interpreters. I have put thousands of miles on my car and truck. And I have only started. Bison trails are more straight and true than their historic path from the Ice Age to today.
It wasn’t until I picked up a book at First People’s Buffalo Jump in Montana that I learned about the Pablo-Allard herd and Canada’s contribution to saving wild bison. It wasn’t until I talked to a historian at Elk Island National Park in Alberta that I learned there was once a Buffalo National Park that failed miserably. At Elk Island, the superb interpreters revealed how challenging it is to manage bison on defined land base within fences. Despite a robust relocation program that most recently airlifted bison to Banff National Park, Elk Island completed public outreach on alternatives to control the population, including hunting in the park.
One constant is the type of people involved with bison. They are passionate, committed, and generous with their knowledge. They want people to be drawn to bison, to make them an integral and eternalpart of our natural heritage. “Bison nerds” are a small but tight international group committed to making sure that these animals don’t disappear forever. They are ecologically extinct — there are no free-roaming herds — but conservation herds shaped by nature still dot the landscape.
Since these large, migratory animals spread across North America, driving grassland ecology, the bison trail leads to a variety of landscapes and places, .
Plains Indian tribes followed these animals across North America, leaving their own trail, including camps, kill sites, and ritual locations. My first visit to a buffalo jump led to places where I could understand communal hunting, from Madison Buffalo Jump to the superb Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This World Heritage site is the best preserved in the world with a phenomenal interpretive center.
Buffalo led a huge parade of life in their wake as they shaped the landscape. I caught sight of many creatures that followed bison, but wondered about all the animals that disappeared with wild bison.
Along the way, I have met so many wonderful, caring, and friendly people; walked so many beautiful landscapes; imagined the sounds and sights of prairies once teeming with life. It is hard to unpack it all and assemble the important bits into a story that will inspire others to experience the buffalo trail for themselves. But I will try.
Remember when you first felt freedom? Whether freedom is frightening or thrilling, people usually have a “first freedom” story. We realized we get to make choices about our lives, vote, leave on a plane by ourselves for the first time, walk through the door on our own apartment or house.
I felt my first taste of footloose freedom in the wildlife areas of Eastern Washington. Hiking through LT Murray, I followed game trails and jeep roads past hunting camps empty since the previous fall. I camped where ever I wanted, not in a numbered, reserved site. This is nothing like Western Washington, where piles of branches cut off social paths, signs point the way, and you are reminded to stay on the trail-always!
To be fair, the impact of too many feet on wet ground is the reason for these restrictions. The dry side of the state has firmer ground and fewer lug sole boots treading the trail.
But confinement to a path creates a strange geometric mindset. You hike to a point and back, and hopefully the point has a view, a meadow, or a lake. If you’re lucky, you are on a loop so that you can go in a circle. Signs may point the way. Mountaineering gives some freedom, but you’re probably following a documented route, whether it’s drawn on a map or downloaded on a phone. There is little loneliness to be found: lines form on some hiking trails and volcano hikes.
You don’t just wander here.
So I felt like a refugee from a land of rules on my first trip to American Prairie Reserve. I waited to go there until there was an online reservation system to ensure a campsite. I made sure I had my America the Beautiful public lands pass for Charles Russell Wildlife Refuge.
And then I found out about public access in Montana. Campground full? There is dispersed camping on public lands, with a few guidelines to keep things clean for others. A ranger stopped to ask if I was okay when I was walking the road with a pack, not to check my pass. He thought maybe I left behind a car with a flat. He gave me his map and told me I didn’t have to walk the road and jeep tracks. If I wandered back in the hills, I could see lots of grouse, he said.
Montana felt like freedom writ large.
My first hike on Box Elder crossing was an exercise in removing training wheels. I stayed on the dirt two track for a way, then saw the smooth black face of a hill with golden grass catching the sun. Bison trails went that way. I followed their tracks across the creek and up the hill, and found another hill and another. A potpourri of rocks poked up from the dirt, inviting examination, sometimes on hands and kness. I sat on that hill and looked across the prairie landscape and realized I could keep wandering for days.
In May, I made three trips across Box Elder Creek, one to trek across to Reynolds Road, one to just wander, and another to field sketch. I followed bison trails and wandered off the jeep track. A couple snakes scolded me from the grass. I tiptoed around the bison bulls but couldn’t avoid scaring the cows. I found rocks and eggs and bugs.
Later in my trip, I met a friendly birding couple in the coin laundromat at Malta. They told me their freedom story. They lived in Texas, and had just purchased a home that would be their last. Then they visited friends in Montana. When they realized how much freedom there is in Montana compared to Texas, they sold the house without ever having slept a night in it, moved to Missoula, and never turned back.
Sure, wandering around the prairie means you’re watching for snakes. Bad weather can sweep in when you’re out in the open. You need enough water because it doesn’t stream off the mountains like home. But you are free to roam, relax, and explore. When you live in a place like my home- or Texas, apparently, you remember that.
Somehow I missed that stage in adulthood where people decide camping is too hard, and either stay in motels or travel in trailers with a compact semblance of home. I hit motels on long driving days, or when I need a shower and a real meal.
The memory of lying at night on a guest bed in my grandma’s screened porch stuck with me. Away from noisy, scorching inner-city Chicago, I watched fireflies in the cool night air, fell asleep with the sound of crickets, and woke to the sound of birds. To this day, I leave my windows open in summer, with birds as my alarm clock.
Buffalo Camp at American Prairie Reserve is my yard multiplied, with bison to boot. When I traveled to the Reserve in May, I woke up each morning to big skies and birdsong. As I was making coffee, a bachelor band of bison would wander by, taking a leisurely breakfast. Deer often tiptoed behind them looking like spies trying to fade into a crowd. A medley of colorful birds made the rounds, hopping from ground to shrub to sign or platform. Rabbits hopped, nibbled, and hopped again, ever watchful.
Any postcard picture has a few stories hidden behind the carefully crafted image. During last September’s trip, I woke one night to a terrible thumping under the hood of my car, and found a rabbit trying to turn it into a burrow. I am told they can eat wiring and hoses in the process, so I was lucky to catch it early. The trick is to move the car every day, which feels wrong when the stay is meant to be about hiking.
The first night of this trip, I woke in the night and decided conditions were right to view a universe of stars without the light pollution of home. I strolled to the bathroom without a headlamp, and stood outside afterward to gaze upward. Something caught my ear: the croaking of a bullfrog? Not quite awake, I thought it seemed odd. Then another croak, then another. Suddenly I realized that there simply wasn’t enough water for bullfrogs. Those sounds were grunts coming from bison lying around the bathroom. I carefully retreated down the path.
A couple nights later, I woke to a grunt and sniff right behind my head. The only thing between me and the bison was flimsy yellow-green nylon. I wasn’t worried about getting stepped on since the tent was elevated on a platform. The tent was tied down right on the edge of the platform instead of the middle, so he could stand there and investigate it. I wasn’t sure what – if anything- to worry about.
I could hear the animal lower himself to the ground, first one end, then the other. He lay right behind me, close enough that I could smell him. His head moved back and forth like he was grooming, and he leaned back on the tent. He may have been scratching off loose hair with his horns. Little gurgling sounds bubbled up from the digestive labyrinth that processes and re-processes food. He seemed to burp.
This was awkward.
I’m one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, like crowded train stations in foreign countries where unguarded, you can be robbed or killed. I’m usually awake and curious, but if I need sleep, I can get it. In this case, I fell asleep after awhile because I was tired from hiking and had no choice. I woke to a sigh, the sound of cloven hooves scraping gravel, and one slow step after another as he walked away.
The next morning, as on most mornings I was there, the sun rose on what looked like a scene printed on a historic postage stamp. Bison and deer, birds in the sage and shrubs and trees, pale yellow willow catkins lighting up in the sun.
There are no longer herds of bison, deer, and antelope stretching for miles. And I’m camping, but I have food and water with me, portable electronics and a high speed way to reach a doctor or grocery store if I need to. I’m housed in hi-tech fabric and poles. I’m sleeping swathed in synthetic fabric, not skins.
But here in Buffalo Camp, I could imagine myself as one of the early foreign travelers as I stepped out of my shelter to a dazzling variety of life moving across the landscape.
For more views of Buffalo Camp, watch the rough little video below. To check it out yourself, visit here.
Disasters aren’t disasters without images of people’s damaged belongings. After a flood, our screens scroll images of drowned livestock, crushed barns, mangled cars, crumpled roads and bridges. Earthquakes shear highways and splinter houses into junk piles with people trapped underneath. The awful feeling wouldn’t be there without us; it would just be an event.
Through our people-focused lens, the prairie is a vast nothingness. Farmsteads are few and far between down dirt roads that take the gloss off a car and wear on tires. Towns are small and spare, with trucks and trains roaring by. The wind seems endless sometimes, scouring uncertain settlers from homesteads. Ranch kids leave for something else and the population is declining. The people that remain are durable. They shoulder the weather and poor livestock prices without newsworthy anguish.
The speeding automobile smears the landscape into a monotonous panorama stretching for hours. We grow stiff from sitting and it seems endless. But speed did not create this impression of the prairie. Even settlers who rumbled along in wagons or on foot didn’t see the complexity of the landscape. There seem to be more books about hard life than prairie songs on the shelves.
Innocence is the culprit, aided by fear. Powered by animal or fuel, we travel the prairie as if in a foreign land. It looks different from our homes. The sky looms larger, with a hundred-mile view of circling weather and no hint what it means to us. Cacti lurk on the ground and rattlesnakes in the sage. The prairie has a different rhythm that enchants the curious or unnerves the timid.
Each journey to dry country fills my eyes with the richness of seemingly barren land. This trip is my first as an artist to American Prairie Reserve. As a hiker, I experienced the wealth of life and that occupies that flat, apparently empty space. This time I examined the land as an artist seeking themes. I found a vast history underground as well as underfoot. I imagined the northeastern Montana prairie in three rich dimensions.
A long drive comes before imagination takes over. I like these drives to separate from my daily life. This time, that regular life followed me down the road a way before falling back.
I traveled from First People’s Buffalo Jump toward American Prairie Reserve. I knew I wouldn’t make the whole drive in one day, having spent over half the day at the state park. I camped at James Kipp Recreation Area as a squatter in the empty float camp by the river, hoping that no rafting parties would show up.
The campsite was surrounded by trees and full of birds, including a flock of goldfinches that hopped among the grass and picked dandelion seeds.
The campground paths were a good place to walk off hip stiffness caused by mannequin-like activity required for work. Whether I sit or stand, I am tethered to a keyboard and don’t move enough. I have a lot of meetings and a long commute. The stiffness wore off through the trip, but required attention and anti-inflammatory topical gel at first.
My car also displayed the damage of regular life.
A few weeks before my departure, an inebriated young woman injured my car- though not me. With the addition of crash wrap and gorilla tape, my Subaru was fit to travel. We fit in just fine in a state with vehicles commonly held together with tape or baling twine.
Doesn’t look bad from the back, and black gorilla tape blends in a little on the front.
Back at home, insurance investigations and legal actions were in motion. The activity caught up with me the next day on the final leg of my journey to the prairie.
As I traveled Dry Fork Road to American Prairie Reserve, my phone rang. I glanced at the number, wondering where those cell phone towers lurked. Since the area code was my own, I pulled over and answered the call. It wasn’t my neighbor with a sick horse call, though. I found myself talking to my county’s prosecuting attorney. He called to explain the restitution letter I had questions about. He let me know a subpoena to witness was in the mail, and a trial date was set. In a soft accent from somewhere else, he politely explained the process.
Parked on a road in open range country, my car attracted the attention of a fine-looking herd of cattle. They drifted closer and closer as we talked. Finally a drooling bull shoved his head into the window and bawled.
“Uh, I should probably explain where I’m at,” I said.
While the PA was apologetic for interrupting my vacation, I told him it was a good time to have that talk. I knew a trial could happen, just like it did when my mother died in pretty much the same circumstances. And I was going to a magical place where I could let the terrible irony roll off me.
In the end, he wished me a good vacation and I continued my journey to Buffalo Camp. I set up my tent and sat down for dinner, watching the sun set over rich barrens ripe for exploration.
I took photos of every piece of bone I saw. I knew from the ranger that burrowing animals would push them to the surface, but they lay everywhere. Water dug bone from the hillside and pooled shards in drying streams of dirt. What looked like rocks sticking out of the soil turned out to be bone. Below the cliff where the buffalo fell, the hillside weeps bone fragments.
“That’s where blood kettles would have been,” she said. “The Indians would line a pit with hide, add blood from the animals, and break bones to get marrow for blood pudding.”
I looked at the hillside, struggling to put myself in that scene. What was it like to process hundreds of bison for every ounce of nutrition and material possible?
Many Americans who eat meat know little about hunting or raising livestock. As travelers, we are sometimes disgusted by people’s diets- even in first world countries.
At First Peoples Buffalo Jump, gaze at the hillside weeping bone shards and reflect. What if we were Great Plains Indians reliant upon our skills and efforts to harvest our own meals?
Our two sentence education on buffalo jumps
My school education about buffalo jumps included the usual two-sentence sense of their nature and purpose.
“Indians chased buffalo off cliffs for food, clothing and shelter. They processed what they could use and left behind the rest.” That gets filtered into “they were lazy and wasteful” in modern conversation.
My inner scientist started questioning those two sentences after that first trip. I know that bison are dangerous, so any mechanical means of harvest reduces risk to people.
I knew the rifle reduced wildlife populations faster than bows or buffalo jumps. Despite communal hunting, 30-60 million bison still roamed the plains we began decimating the herds.
And I figured any leftovers from a kill would not go to waste. A broad range of wildlife and insects would appreciate the remains in spare sage country. The rest would nourish the soils for plants and other animals.
Living on the Great Plains before guns and combines, you would never take food for granted. Communal hunting and fishing would keep people fed and reduce danger. An infographic in this blog article says that one hunt at a buffalo jump could feed 400 people for over 3 months.
Plains Indians developed many uses for buffalo parts and pieces. They used everything from brain to sinew for shelter, tools, containers and clothing. You can experience this and even touch items at the superb First Peoples Interpretive Center.
And don’t call out food waste before reviewing your behavior. Nowadays, we are the pot calling any kettle black on food waste. We won’t buy “ugly food”. We toss 30% of the food we buy.
Food waste is a longstanding problem. A ranger at First Peoples said that white Americans considered buffalo tongue a delicacy. They would fell a one-ton animal for the tongue only- just like sharks today die for fin soup. We blew away bison from train windows for sport, then harvested dried bones when we needed fertilizer.
Eating off the land requires skill and community
We are losing the ability to feed ourselves. Like many, I am adapted to read at close range and to see by electric light. My eyes are becoming hard with age like everyone who lives longer than nature intended. Based on eyesight alone, I would be reliant on community for food.
I know I don’t have the right muscles or coordination for hunt or harvest. I spent hours as a child picking berries and processing smelt. I have grown vegetables and helped process deer and chickens. I eat meat, but my modern sense of smell means the odor of burnt feathers and raw blood turns my stomach for days.
I know that without the modern food industry, I would not be here. But even the most fit and keen-eyed among us would have a hard time gathering and processing all our food. In a post-apocalyptic world where rats, pigeons, and cockroaches still roam, it won’t be easy.
It was about culture, too
The Plains Indians recognized the blessing of animals and plants. Like the Inuit, they developed rituals that included a conversation with a food animal. The book title, “I Will Be Meat for My Salish” describes that conversation.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, “Because the bison provided many gifts—from tipis and clothing made from hides to soap from fat and tools made from bones—they were honored as relatives and paid tribute to through songs, dance and prayers.”
Now, my neighbors say a blessing for each meal, whether it is home cooked or take out. They are rare. Most folks in the U.S. take our food for granted. We assume it will always be there. Eating is either perfunctory, or a fitness-enhancing project.
To be fair, it’s hard to connect processed, shrink-wrapped food to the earth. Eating over work at a computer, as I and others often do, means you’re absent-mindedly putting calories in your mouth. A foil-wrapped energy bar or vitamin drink seems more appropriate for the lab than the land.
We don’t have rituals to recognize the blessedness of food in our lives. We don’t create a structure where our food can agree to be part of us; we presuppose it.
“In addition to the use of their physical body, American Indians modeled social behavior from observing bison, such as how to live in a healthy and productive manner. Some of the important lessons were breastfeeding offspring, valuing both young and old, being physically active, respecting both the female and the male, healthy eating and using resources wisely.”
In this country, we grow increasingly weighty. We revere celebrity on dubious merits. We fear marginalization and even abandonment as we age. Enough said. Maybe we need a few chats with those bison.
Moving past those two sentences
Our old school books were likely colored by hypocrisy, historical guilt, a tinge of racism, and almost complete separation from nature.
It is well worth a visit to a buffalo jump to challenge that education. Stand there and imagine what it is like to rely on yourself, your community, and the land for sustenance.
If you spend time at a buffalo jump, you begin to see the landscape differently. You find yourself gazing over the plains at hillsides. You think “Hey, couldn’t you chase a bunch of buffalo over that cliff, too?” You begin to recognize grazing and driving areas, and good features for a jump- flat space below, and water.
You see beyond those two sentences you learned in elementary school. Now you understand why some hillsides weep bones.
The 350 or so bison at this US Fish and Wildlife Service-managed site must feel like refugees with no real country. When the great herds were gone in America, people brought a few animals here to thrive in the rich Mission Valley. Homesteading displaced the bison a quarter century later. They were sold to Canada because Congress was too cheap to save them. The U.S. reacted to publicity around the sale by creating the National Bison Range and herds. The bison is now our National Mammal, its place in the Mission Valley isn’t guaranteed.
Native Americans lobbied to take over management of the Range and the herd. They said the government acquired the land unfairly. Their culture and lives were once shaped like skin around bison herds.
The Secretary of the Interior halted that transfer. Now, the federal government retains control but underfunds the Bison Range. Its future seems uncertain.
The history of bison in the U.S. turned tragic in the 1860’s. In about 20 years hunters and the U.S Army reduced wild herds from more than 30 million to 100 animals. This iconic animal, a foundation for Plains Indian cultures and lives, would go exctinct without rapid action.
In Montana’s Mission Valley and a few other areas, people saved small groups of animals that became the core of today’s herds. Saving the bison from extinction later became a badge of honor. Storytellers lined up with their heroic tales of sheltering the last few animals. Researchers spent decades unraveling the truth, which may never be fully known.
Conservation happened as much by happenstance than vision. In one case, the romantic woes of a Flathead Indian spurred him to gather four bison calves as penance. These calves expanded into a small herd of 13 animals that partners Michel Pablo and Charles Allard purchased. Depending on the story, Pablo was either a visionary committed to bison conservation, or an exotic animal collector.
The Pablo-Allard herd wandered the lush Mission Valley. They grew to 700-800 animals before the U.S. government decided to sell out the land to homesteaders in 1910. After Allard died, Pablo tried to sell his part of the herd to the government. President Teddy Roosevelt expressed enthusiastic support, but Congress wouldn’t appropriate funds for the purchase. Pablo sold them to Canada. After a two year, dangerous roundup to shove them in rail cars, most lived in Canada and founded today’s herds in that country.
Media covered the spectacular roundup. Our government was embarrased into bison conservation by the coverage. Roosevelt signed legislation in 1908 for the National Bison Range. The American Bison Society raised money for 34 bison acquired from a private herd. Private owners donated six other animals.
According to the USFWS, “It was the first time that Congress appropriated tax dollars to buy land specifically to conserve wildlife.”
Managing the Bison Range requires money and labor. The US FWS partnered with the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes to support this effort. Then, a court overturned the partnership. Tribal rangers were stripped of their gear and sent away.
The National Bison Range was my first stop on a bison-focused road trip to Montana. I support the Range and the desperate efforts for 130 years to conserve our National Mammal. I would visit again. But this site was a painful illustration of the challenges to bison conservation.
The National Bison Range’s lush grasslands, trees and hollows are critical for the animals’ health, but it is a landlocked site. Rotational grazing in fenced areas is necessary to keep forage healthy. There isn’t enough land for the bison to keep reproducing, so there is an annual roundup and herd reduction. No longer does the Pablo-Allard herd roam free on the Flathead Reservation.
All public lands seem to be up for sale for resource extraction right now. The bison on this range must hear the winds of change once more. They can only hope that dedicated people will work to preserve their small population into the future, whether here or elsewhere.
Animal and human refugees are fundamentally different. Animals can thrive in an appropriate environment, without concern for loss of culture, language, and place of origin. Bison need food, water, shelter, and space to roam and raise offspring.
The confines of a zoo are not the best home for a large, migratory herbivore. If we can preserve enough good land for bison, they will flourish- along with the many other plants and animals that once flourished alongside them.
May 2017- The road trip is my salvation. I live a typical West Coast life, with long work days peppered by emails or filled with meetings. Every day I commute for a long time on a slow train, having long ago tuned out the automatic announcements about feet on the seats and unattended packages. There is always something undone at work or at home.
Driving a big, lonely interstate across three states means a chance to unwind in the continuim of big scenery winding by. I can mull over my life, let the daily chores go, shed the herky jerky of everyday life.
Of course it would be quicker to fly, and maybe more sustainable, in the parlance of green guilt. But the airport experience would mirror my everyday life and I would arrive too quickly, as preoccupied as when I left home.
And if I flew, I would miss humanity’s roadside expressions. Displays catch the eyes of passing travelers, whether to declare a position, share history, prompt a laugh, send a greeting, or mourn a tragically departed loved one. You may be just a make, model, color, and license plate passing by, but everyone knows that for the near future, there is still a human being in that vehicle.
So I drive for two days each way to visit Montana and Wyoming. For some distance, I take Interstate 90 to cruise through spacious, sunny Eastern Washington, unraveling. By the time I hit Idaho, I’m gone. I’m just an anonymous person with no real concerns except good tires, a reasonably full tank, and a place to sleep that night. I have food and camping gear if the last part of the equation falls apart.
On the first day of my May road trip, hardware worked into one of my dealer tires on their last jaunt before an upgrade to better tread. I ended up at an Osburn, Idaho gas station on a Saturday evening by the air hose, listening to a faint hiss. A nice gentleman in a worn truck, worn coveralls, and beatup work boots kindly offered to show me how my can of fix-a-flat worked. He said he would drive on the stuff for weeks and I believed him.
Within 1/3 mile rolling forward, the gel expanded, the low tire light turned off, and I was back on my way 100 miles at 70 mph to Missoula. At Walmart on Mothers’ Day, I cooled my heels over an atrociously salty and fatty breakfast while the tire shop repaired the breach. I wondered which rocket scientist though biscuit gravy went well with eggs, brilliant orange cheese, and tater tots. I wondered why I ordered it.
The repair cost me $10, I never got to meet the tire center manager- apparently Johnny Depp.
Real life intruded once more on a remote gravel road in Montana. My cell phone started ringing, a surprise considering my location; apparently cell phone towers really are everywhere. I answered it because the area code was home, hoping my horse was not in trouble. Instead, I found myself on the side of the road talking to my county’s prosecuting attorneys office about the upcoming trial for the young woman who, inebriated and traveling at high speed, clipped the plastic bumper cover off my car. The accident was a lucky miss- if she tried to navigate the corner I would likely be dead, not parked among curious cows in open range country discussing trials and restitution.
I finally got back on my way to daydream and to get used to being a human being again. I had two weeks to be that way before the long drive home, and re-entry to the universe.
When I re-enter, I am not the same person who rocketed away. The road trip shapes and shifts me a little bit each time, and I come back subtly transformed. One day, maybe, that transformation will be a complete shift into another universe. Forever on the road, thoughtful and watching humanity reach out from the roadside.