“A raised tail means they could charge or discharge,” says my friend James Page of the sniffing, snorting buffalo staring us down.
We are crouching behind a rock about 100 metres off – the safe distance park staff had suggested. But, apparently, they forgot to tell the buffalo. One by one, the beasts approach us. And I see no signs of flatulence.
The herd of 73 — including two calves – had just released into their new (or rather old) home on the range, southern Saskatchewan’s 55,000-acre Grasslands National Park, 110 kilometers south of Swift Current. For the past few decades, park staff has been working to restore the 55,000 acres of native grassland to its original state, when millions of bison, as the North American animal is properly called, roamed the prairies, grazing the grass, working up the land with their hooves and spreading grass seed with their dung. But until this re-introduction, park superintendent Colin Schmidt had told me earlier, the bison had been the missing ingredient on this landscape.
And that is exactly why I had come here, to see the prairie as the Assiniboine, Cree and Blackfoot tribes saw it 10,000 years ago. I had just not expected to see the bison this close.
The largest terrestrial mammals in North American (a mature adult can stand two metres tall and weigh 450 kilograms) close the distance between us to 40 metres then a mere 25.
The perimeter fence circling the park is just a few metres behind us, offering a quick escape. But rather than charging, the ringleaders seem, well, just curious.
And then it strikes me. Maybe this is why the nomadic tribes who once trailed the bison believed they possessed magical qualities: to be alone on the prairie and starving and have dinner approach you!
After snapping a few pictures, we back off, but the herd is not finished with us yet. As we cross the valley, we hear the roar of prairie thunder and turn to see the bison at full run, stampeding up the hill not exactly after us, but alongside us, hooves pounding the earth.
After our hearts stop snapping in our chests, James and I hike back to our home base, The Convent Inn, once a nun’s convent and school for the children of Val Marie — until the roof caved in.
Robert Ducan and his wife, Mette, bought it in 1996 and poured “thousands” into the renovation, turning the place into what is surely the funkiest inn on the Canadian prairies. Former classrooms now serve as dining and sitting rooms and comfy guest rooms. The nuns’ vaults (bedrooms) house bunk beds for backpackers.
The town was so thrilled by the restoration that they elected Ducan mayor for two terms. Now Ducan is similarly thrilled by the bison arriving here. “They’re a big sexy animal. They’re bringing a spirit back into this town.”
Indeed, James started hosting photography seminars in Grasslands, which have become more popular than ever with the arrival of the bison. While researching his book, Wild Prairies: A Photographer’s Personal Journey, he visited most of North America’s remaining grasslands. He tells me this one’s his favourite.
And it’s easy to see why. Grasslands features some of the most surreal landscape in Canada, the shockingly beautiful, semi-arid badlands that sweep across southern Saskatchewan. Nomadic tribes following the bison left behind tipi rings, medicine wheels and vision quest sites here. And the park, habitat for several endangered species, thrives with wildlife: mule deer, pronghorn antelope, hawks and the prairie rattler.
But seeing the bison in this vast park is no guarantee, so I made a backup plan – a tour of Great Divide Bison Ranch, run by Kim and Jackie Legault. With the re-introductions at Grasslands and also at Old Man and His Back Conservation Area in Eastend, the Legaults say interest in bison is such that they’re inundated with requests to tour their ranch.
Their breeding herd roams on 6,000 acres of stunning natural prairie in nearby Ponteix. As soon as we pull into the field, some of the most magnificent bulls in North America – Great Thunder, The Kid and Viagra – circle around Kim’s pickup. Then, the mammoth head of Great Thunder appears at my window, sniffing.
Later, we drive to a distant hill, spread out a picnic blanket and feast on roast-bison sandwiches that Jackie has made for the trip. Their daughter Cloe loves the beasts – and their meat. Apparently, Cloe’s first words were “Mom”, “Dad”, “buffalo” and “yum.”
And I have to agree: bison is superb, with a deeper beefier flavour than beef. It’s also healthier — lower in fat and cholesterol. “Bison,” says Kim, “is the true prairie cow.”
As we eat, the herd, nearly a kilometre away across a vast valley, mystically begins migrating towards us.
On Saskatchewan’s Buffalo Trail
The Convent Inn
Val Marie, Saskatchewan
Rates: $20 for backpackers to $65 for a double
2007 Wild Prairie Photo Seminar, July 5-9
For information, contact James Page at www.jamesrpage.com
Grasslands National Park
Val Marie, Saskatchewan
Park entry is free; for directions, visit www.pc.gc.ca/grasslands
The Great Divide Bison Ranch
For contact and tour information, visit www.greatdividebisonranch.com