A little over eight years ago I had most of a day of what remain the worst conditions through which I’ve ever traveled. The high valleys and gentle passes of the Greater Yellowstone gave me a dozen straight miles of travel above 8000 feet, which in May made for over a dozen miles on six or more feet of snow, which the heavy rain the night before and suffused and underlaid with water. My skis regularly sunk me deeper than my knees into whole meadows of slurpee consistency, and streams running unseen into the creek down which I was traveling made for multiple hundred yard stretches where feet of flowing water off the ground was in the process of erasing snow, bottom to top. I felt my feet tugged downstream as I extracted skis, step to step, and my shoe tops froze solid just beyond the reach of my body heat. That day ended in a vast, north-south valley with enough sun to bring things down to dirt, and while miles of postholing in timbered stretches remained, along with two creek crossings which remains amongst the most difficult I’ve done, my time out of the land of the living was thankfully limited to that one snowy day. A good thing, as my legs, spirit, and skis where all on the verge of breaking.
In the final ten miles of that trip I was crawling through deadfall between meadowed stretches, the night having been cold enough for me to walk atop the drifts, and began to notice thick tufts of middle-brown fur wedged into the flaky bark of old growth spruce deadfall. A few clearings in I saw one, an old, lone, bull bison, knee deep in barely thawed marsh, eating fresh growth, an aura of impurterbibility making it look eternal, as if another forest fire could burn through, engendering a centuries of erosion, all of which would leave the landscape unrecognizable and that bull unaltered and unmoved and in the same spot, facing south, as uninterested in a single human hiker as he was in a freezing spring morning.
Much has happened since, though releasing uphill fog into a cold morning through the zipper of a fleece coat is not one of them. Today internal temperature rose quickly because my second son, all 19 pounds and 5 months of him, was on my back, in a carrier strapped to a frame pack. A mile into our two mile walk home from the bakery human and ambient heat released bison from that pack fabric, a musty and durable funk which gives an ineffable, wild spin to the combination of used shoes and barnyard. For a rainy week after we came home and put a coda on the endless four days of bison hunt with a dark, 830pm meat sort, 600 pounds spread along 12 feet of table. The hide sat salted in a bin, 5-6 inches of fur along the shoulder, piled on the pavers. The smell lingered for a rainy week.
I’ve been obsessed with bison ever since.
I’ve seen them belly deep, islands twice the radius of their body leewards in a mid-winter valley. I’ve heard a hundred panic through the sage from 80 yards away, bushes seeming to vibrate in my peripheral vision. I’ve read about Ed Howell being stalked through a ground blizzard by a soldier armed with a revolver, how bison were 300 years ago perhaps the most numerous large mammal to ever grace earth, and how by 1902 the wild core had in Yellowstone shrunk to 23 animals. Today plenty of beefalo, and bison which are at least a little bit cow, exist on private ranches in every state and territory in North America, but the handful of genuinely free-ranging herds all have their origin in either those 23 animals, or in the couple hundred which spent a few generations as pets to the founder of Kalispell, before being used to seed the National Bison Range.
Our hunt started with a necessarily leisurely drive through the busy roads of Montana and Yellowstone, and the bison hewed to my previous experience; we saw a few scattered in low points above Garnet Hill, a few more in the flats near Slough Creek, and seemingly countless groups of a hundred or so once in the gut of the Lamar Valley. We didn’t stop, but of the numerous bulls visible from the road none had the rotund, stolid look of the bulls I had seen alone and in pairs on their way up into the high country back in July. Or those I saw in those meadows along the shores of Yellowstone Lake in May, or napping in the shade of Canyon Village in July, or back along the very headwaters of Shoshone Creek in a yet snowless October. Some are just off matte black tail to nose, while others let the mat of fur atop the shoulder jump to wet dirt brown before seguing back to black in time to meld with the black eyes and drop as lacunae into that head.
That head, as I learned once I shot just such a bull in just such a remote, small, calm place, is every bit the blurred stub of inhumanity it seems from a safe distance. The ears, barely visible save in the hand, are in fact six inches long, hidden in fur. The eyes remain to humans as blank in death as in life, glassy and subtle. Like us, a bison is covered with skin, and the band which spreads across the shoulders and spreads down the sides of the neck to the chin and dangling beard is over an inch of a pliant yet unyielding dirty white that dulls knives in inches and has me recalling scrapes and gobis from bike wrecks and rock climbing battles and the nick from that errant knife blade just now, as full darkness descends and the task numbness of the third straight hour of cutting meat comes and goes. Cutting the hide back from over the eyes takes 10 minutes a side, hacking the horns out of the finally bare skull 45.
Bison carry brucellosis, a bacteria which can cause miscarriage in cattle, and is rarely spread to humans, these days via raw dairy products. The government reports 112 human cases in 2015, symptoms include swelling of the heart and liver, and recovery can reportedly take many months. These specifics linger in my head as I stand back from the carcass into the fire light and watch my blood lingering, via fresh hole, with the lurid smears of bison fluid which have over the past hour grown on my latex glove. That morning we’d followed the Yellowstone River upstream for hours, truck covering in two hours what bison would have, two centuries ago, covered in a season. Closing in on the park boundary the highway takes river right along a rocky canyon, and if you’ve come this way often enough you might steal eyes away from the hint of rapid below, or the bighorn winter range above, or the erratic rental RV just ahead, to see the fence and road stripes which connect cliff wall to river in the narrowest spot. If you’re looking even more closely, and driving the other way, you’ll see the metal grates stacked in the ditch; those paint stripes can be replaced, made into a genuine cattle guard, and with the fence and cliff wall form the barrier against which bison ram and mill during winters deep enough to send their instincts downstream.
Like all the rest of the megafauna who bedrock as icons of the American west, the mountains were likely peripheral niches in the bisons world. The big plains hundreds of miles downstream were low and windswept and sunny enough to make good winter territory, and close enough to the mountains to enjoy the summer fruits of snowmelt. Today bison, like elk, are presumed to carry brucellosis, and unlike elk they calve in places cattle also like to eat. This is the primary reason they are embargoed in a way no other wild herbivore is, though the way in which they trample fences and indifferently stare down cars who would also like to use the road has at least as much to do with their high status as ingrates, in ways more profound than the calf and lamb and occasionally people eating Grizzly.
The hunt had taken 3 hours, if you count trailhead to dead animal, though the hours of driving, emails of planning, days spent scouting and researching, and years accumulating experience are as relevant as they are hard to add together. Taking the relevant parts back to the edge of the Wilderness took a further two days. Meat wise a bison might be described as thrice the equivalent vintage of elk, but the work scaled exponentially. The rear legs, once separated, could not be lifted by one man, so we skidded them clear on garbage bags and removed the meat, muscle group by 50 pound muscle group. Working the hide clear required one to two assistants yarding handfuls of bloody fur back for minutes at a time, while a person with a knife and headlamp knelt to understand where skin and flesh distinguished themselves. That hide spread beyond a 10 foot square once free for the flat grassy meadow, and it took at least three of us to skid it away to somewhere the assumed, scavenging Grizzly would hopefully not find it.
That bear never did appear. We hung the meat in trees with a maze of cord, snapping limbs and ripping game bags on limb stubs frequently. Each trip we approached the trees, selected for both their size and separateness from surrounding brush, with cautious weapons drawn. Each time nothing had come in interest to them, and remarkably, not to the carcass, even on the second morning after. I shot the bison four times before it had enough cause to decide it was dead, the first two shots given to the heart and lungs in visualized deliberation, the last two to the head as past precedent was bucked away by a ever more wounded animal rebounding off the ground, threatening to saunter away in immortality and die somewhere less convenient. Between the third and fourth bullets the bison, seemingly blinded by impending death, rammed full into a 70 foot spruce. A few newly loose pinecones, which squirrels had not in their autumnal frenzy yet attended to, fell free, and sprigs and loose needles clung to the fur through the dragging and packing and driving and salting, and were delivered to the taxidermist along with all the hurried memories. Which will return to endure, hung on the wall or thrown across the floor?
The bison did die for us, and it died no more than 40 yards from where it had been eating grass when I crouched close enough and shot it. Unchewed grass stayed between teeth streaked brown as we worked, 28 person/hours from first knife stroke to meat in the trees and us headed off to make camp. The flank of black, close and tight fur began thigh height, and the dead belly swelled to our navels as that 2000 pound body began to quickly and at last, change into something other than a sentinel of green edges. After minutes of swelling the bull began to deflate, a low and unchanging grunt and sigh which left the hidden throat, unchangingly beyond the scales of human orchestration, for over an hour, continuously, and began again when having dealt with two legs and one side of the hide, we five all pitched in to roll the bison over. Those who have sat along the road in the Lamar, Hayden, or Madison, or Firehole in early summer have heard the bellow this approximated in disembodied monotone.
Only a few years ago my time had built, far enough and in the right way, to be able to imagine killing a bison like I wanted to. I had specific ideas, which turned into deliberate visualizations once I drew this Absaroka-Beartooth tag. They concerned what the bull would look like, where he would be standing, the circumstances under which I’d first see him, and how I would approach and make the shot. All these things hewed to dreams with a precision that still remains ethereal. I also envisioned walking up to the dead bison, relief and gratitude spilling into being overwhelmed with tears and grand gestures. This did not happen. Even after throwing a trekking pole at the carcass, and then poking the eye first with another pole and then my rifle barrel, it took a further quarter hour to stop worrying that the bull might spring back up, as he had three times already, and this time gore us all. When the fear subsided photos were over and light was fading and pre-planning flooded back. Wood, for a fire. Trees, strong enough, found and cord hung. Water gathered and drank. The occasional snack. Back, stretched, and hands warmed as needed. Soon enough evidence of the bison had been erased as far as we were able, his animalhood left to feed the birds and burden our packs, the abstraction of memory all that would be left of the intimacy of looking at such a thing, so up close.
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