An Alaska hunter chases decades of buffalo dreams

The prairie wind came in gusts, driving crystalized snow bit the exposed surfaces of my face, like needles seeking subsurface nerve endings. The brilliant sun setting in the west provided no warmth in the painted canyons as it dipped toward the distant horizon.

Shoving the heavy single-shot rifle through the sage brush, I kept my face down lest the enormous beast that I figured to be just over the next rise would spot the out-of-place intruder and flee before a shot could be taken.

The stalk started two hours earlier, after spotting the big bull meandering his way down a frozen creek bed a half-mile distant. The course to approach using wind and sun in my favor was long and, at times, difficult. Snow drifts hard-packed on one side, sunk to the waist on the other, at least provided plenty of body heat under my buckskin leggings and my beaver-lined anorak parka.

As I peered over the sage-covered ridge top, a wind gust spiraled snow up and covered my final movement to place the rifle in a sage-brush cradle. The shaggy beast stood facing away, a bit over a hundred yards off.

I dropped the block of the single shot and shoved a cigar-sized .45 caliber cartridge, sporting 110 grains of black powder and a 500 grain cast lead bullet, into the breech. The wind would muffle any sound, but still, I closed the action ever so slowly and settled in to wait for the opportunity to shoot.

It began to seem daylight would run out before the old bull turned to present a good shot. I’d worked too long to give up, and my belly wasn’t going to stand another meatless night. I waited for the next momentary calm in the wind and gave my best piercing whistle.

Slowly, as if the effort may not be worth it, the big bull turned, his burly head crusted in blown snow, and as he presented his shoulder, I sent the big slug on its way. The wind whipped the black powder smoke away and I saw my meatless nights were over for a bit.

Buffalo dreams.

Over 50 years have passed since I saw my first bison. A lone animal that scrambled out of a draw in the badlands of western North Dakota. The giant animal stopped and looked back at the troop of Boy Scouts that had interrupted whatever it had been doing. After a moment, the enormous head dropped to forage through the sparse grass, its tail with the tuft of hair at the end slapping at swarming flies.

Having read of Teddy Roosevelt’s hunts for the animal that would later become a western icon, I thought we might be standing on the same ground where he repeatedly missed one of the enormous animals.

For all his bravado, the 26th U.S. president had no problem admitting his failings, particularly in the marksmanship arena. At times while reading his exploits, I feel embarrassed for him. His eyesight was awful, but that didn’t stop him from the relentless “manly sport with a rifle” that he championed. And, he did eventually take a bison.

When I saw the first one, I had no real illusions that I would ever live out the childhood fantasy that started this story. In Roosevelt’s time, the nearly extinct bison hung on by a thread. Prospects for hunting them were dismal. Never-the-less, their history, the role they played in the invasion of western America, fascinated me.

As a kid, I had trouble imagining some 40 million to 60 million of the beasts roaming the great plains in the early 1800s, all but annihilated 100 years later. I still do.

Thinking about the enormity of killing that many animals when industrialization was in its infancy, transportation still primitive, and the prairie still so seemingly endless that it at times drove folks to insanity, is as remarkable as it is tragic.

Hunting, at least in the terms we know it today, had little to do with the wholesale slaughter. The commercial aspects and government urging the killing along drove the force of loathsome buffalo killers.

Rid the continent of buffalo and the Indigenous people who were viewed as a stumbling block to settlement, would, too, disappear, and progress could then go unimpeded. In the end, it was as much about civilization and the railroads and cattle ranches it brought that doomed the bison herds of the time.

A simple case of the western European propensity to greed, lust, and little thought for the future steamrolling across the Great Plains.

In another twist of irony, hunters were responsible for saving the bison from extinction. Notably, the same Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and his tireless efforts to do what he believed was right, drove the movement to save the bison.

Those efforts from over a hundred years ago bring folks the annual opportunity to try for a chance at permission to hunt one of the iconic beasts, and fill their freezer.

Every year when the Alaska drawing permit hunt supplements come out, I, and I imagine many others, go straight to the page with bison hunts to see if anything has changed. Maybe more permits, most likely not, but there’s still a chance.

This year I’ll once again join the some 55,000 plus folks who will throw in their $10 for a chance to hunt one of the 150 plus or minus bison available for harvest during a given year.

I no longer wait to exhale anticipating the announcement of the winners. I haven’t put in every year of the 50 years I’ve been in Alaska, but I imagine at least 40 times I’ve played the lottery, to no avail.

I had always thought that if I drew a bison permit I would have to have a proper buffalo rifle. A falling-block single-shot of some type, chambered for one of the various .45 caliber black powder rounds of the 1800s. A few years ago, I thought maybe if I bought the rifle, it would change my luck. It hasn’t.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if I draw or not. I have lived out the hunt in my imagination so often, it’s as if I’ve done it. What matters is that these beautiful, rugged, iconic animals are still out there and while they will never number what they once did, at least they will continue to survive and to remind us what a lack of foresight can bring and what a chance of seeing these wild creatures can bring back.