Come Herd or High Water

When he landed a rare permit to hunt bison deep in the Alaskan wilderness, our fearless forager thought he'd be living out a childhood dream. Wild buffalo, hungry grizzlies, nearly fatal hypothermia—what more could a grown man ask for?

    Photo: Illustration by David Hughes

If you want to know what it's like to transport a buffalo carcass through the Alaskan bush in mid-October, imagine disassembling the appliances in your kitchen—refrigerator, range, microwave—then carrying them on your back down a snow-covered mountainside. When that's done, stack the parts on a piece of inflatable rubber and float them through three miles of whitewater canyon while suffering the initial stages of hypothermia. Then load the ice-covered parts into a large raft and paddle them down a 13-mile maze of braided river. Oh, and one last thing: A couple of thugs want the appliances, and they outweigh you by 300 pounds and have five knives strapped to each hand.

The "thugs" that wanted my buffalo meat were a pair of grizzly bears. I'd seen them a couple of days before, browsing rose hips on a nearby hillside. They left paw prints on top of my boot tracks and scratched the ground where I'd earlier sat. I was alone in the wilderness of south-central Alaska and not in a place where I could easily escape the bears' attention. Seven miles to the west was the Richardson Highway, running between Valdez and Fairbanks. The highway was on the opposite side of the Copper River, a massive flow of glacial runoff loaded with deep, swirling rapids. To the east, when the clouds lifted, I could see the distant peaks of the Wrangell Mountains, like paperweights of rock and ice anchoring the center of the 13-million-acre Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The park holds nine of the United States' 16 highest mountain peaks and is home to arguably the most free-ranging buffalo, or American bison, herd in the country.

A simple piece of paper had led me to this place: a buffalo-hunting permit. I was one of 1,304 people who entered the permit lottery and one of only 24 who landed an opportunity to hunt a truly wild buffalo. I'd been through seven days of hell trying to find one, and now, with a half-ton carcass at my feet, along with dozens of grizzly tracks, I felt more like I'd landed a rare opportunity to have my face removed in claw-size tatters. The smart thing would be to leave, I thought, but leaving at that point was like wanting back into the plane after you're halfway into a skydive.

NEVER MIND HOT DOGS and apple pie; the true American meal is buffalo meat. When I was a kid in western Michigan, I was obsessed with old stories about the nomadic Native American hunters of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, who traveled constantly in search of the animals, which numbered somewhere between 30 million and 60 million in the early 19th century. The hunters roasted buffalo tongues over burning buffalo chips, styled their hair with buffalo marrow,

waterproofed their moccasins with buffalo fat, sipped the digestive fluids from buffalo stomachs out of buffalo-horn ladles, and sat in buffalo-hide lodges while sewing undergarments from the skins of buffalo calves. I spent my childhood days in the woods, making desperate attempts to replicate that life. I built "buffalo hide" tents out of twigs and leaves, and cooked chipmunks on spits over open fires while pretending I was roasting a rack of buffalo ribs. That I was born after the passing of America's wild buffalo herds felt like some cosmic error, a mistake of the gods.

In 1996, when I finished college, I moved to Missoula, Montana. For someone who prefers free-range wild game to the hormone-injected, factory-slaughtered creatures sold in grocery stores, the place was paradise. I hunted mule deer, elk, antelope, and black bear and taught myself how to turn game meat into just about any product you can buy from a high-end delicatessen. I spent several months each year in the wild, often embarking into the mountains on meat-hunting trips that my girlfriend considered insane. To me, there was nothing more fulfilling than testing my skills in a wilderness setting that could provide sustenance to those who were willing to go all the way. But I could never shake my childhood longing to hunt a buffalo.

The past 125 years notwithstanding, humans have stalked wild buffalo upon the North American landscape for the past dozen or so millennia. But in the years following the Civil War, when there was an insatiable market for buffalo hides, the animals were slaughtered by European-American and indig-enous hunters with astonishing swiftness. By 1885, fewer than a thousand remained. Thanks to captive breeding programs on private ranches and federal parklands, nearly 500,000 buffalo now live in North America. While the buffalo survived extinction, these days it faces the grim fate of domestication. About 96 percent of modern buffalo are domesticated animals living on private ranches and game farms. Wannabe hunters, eager to live out the ancient ritual of a buffalo hunt, pay to kill these animals on fenced pastures (taking down a mature bull at Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch, in southwestern Montana, costs about $4,000), but these guaranteed-success hunts require the skill it takes to gun down a dairy cow. The bulk of the remaining 4 percent, fewer than 20,000 buffalo, live on parkland in the western U.S. and Canada.

As a hunter who adheres to a fair-chase ethic, I always assumed that my chances of hunting a truly wild buffalo were, well, extinct. But a couple of years ago, I learned that I was simply looking in the wrong place. My brother Danny, a 34-year-old freshwater ecologist, moved from Alabama to Anchorage for a job at the University of Alaska. As he explored his new home state, he reported rumors about a wild herd of buffalo living in the Wrangell–St. Elias.

In 1950, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocated 17 semi-tame buffalo from the town of Delta Junction, Alaska, to a remote area in the heavily forested valley of the upper Copper River, where there would be no human influence on their movements and migrations. The herd ranged across hundreds of square miles of wilderness. The population expanded, and though it fluctuates periodically, it now stands at around 125 wild and free individuals—enough to allow the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to institute a limited hunt.

When I drew a permit, it was like getting my own dream in the mail.

ALASKA PRESENTS A PECULIAR dilemma: The wilderness makes it hard to get into the wilderness. In most of the United States, you can get almost anywhere by car. But in Alaska, cars are sometimes no more helpful than plug-in hair dryers. As Danny, who agreed to come with me, and I pondered ways to get into the Copper River buffalo country, we weighed the relative merits of bush planes, riverboats, walking, and even a cockamamie idea involving rappelling equipment.

In the end, we decided that a raft was our best bet for getting in and getting the meat and hide out (a bull can weigh 1,600 pounds). We had promised a load of meat to a couple of Danny's friends in Anchorage, Jeff Jessen, 34, and Matt Rafferty, 35, who just happened to co-own a 14-foot Sotar raft. Jeff is a hospital administrator who looks like a Russian hockey player—short, tough, with crooked front teeth. Matt works for the Alaska Conservation Foundation, an organization that coordinates the efforts of various Alaskan environmental groups. He's tall and lean and known for his cheery, unwavering optimism. Jeff and Matt spend so much time in the wilderness that they've become impervious to hardships and freak occurrences. They were primed for a buffalo hunt.

On a cold October morning, the four of us launched the raft into the Klutina River, a Copper tributary flowing beneath the Richardson Highway. Within minutes, the Klutina dumped us into the braided valley of the Copper. Our plan was to travel downstream to a network of ridges running north and south between the Dadina and Chetaslina rivers, two small Copper tributaries that drain glaciers in the Wrangell Mountains. A local bush pilot had suggested the area to me, because the buffalo use the ridges as migration corridors between their summer range in the high country and their winter range in the willow flats of the Copper Valley.

When we reached the Dadina River, almost immediately I saw the horizontal lines of buffalo paths cut into the hillsides like dirt rings in a bathtub, some wide enough to handle a full-size pickup. Tracks and buffalo chips were plastered every which way. "Damn, it looks like a herd of buffalo took laxatives and then had a hoedown up here," I said.

"Any minute now," said Matt, who suggested we set up camp and sit tight, "we'll be overrun by buffalo."

"Matt and I are in charge of being camp bitches," Jeff said to Danny and me. "Go get us some buffalo steaks while we get a fire going."

Danny and I climbed a mound of drift logs to get a better look around. We'd been sitting in slow drizzle long enough to be thoroughly soaked when four massive shapes lumbered across the face of a bluff about a mile away. The shapes were oblong and chocolate brown. I stared at the animals for several seconds before I could say, "Oh, my God! Buffalo!"

"Grab your packs, grab your knife—we're going up to butcher us a buffalo!" I yelled to Matt and Jeff. The four of us plowed into the alder thickets along the river. But after an hour of struggling, we'd gone about as far as you'd get if you decided to take a stroll through the halls of San Quentin. Even if we got to a buffalo, we'd never get the animal out of there. We retreated.

Over the next four days, again and again we had adventures like this: See buffalo way out there; head off on a wild chase through swampy tangles of alder and spruce; get there too late or not at all.

On the fifth morning, the moment I'd been dreading finally arrived: Matt, Jeff, and Danny all had to head back to work. We'd moved our camp down to the mouth of the Chetaslina. Jeff agreed to meet me there in five days.

"I'm sorry to say this, but I pity the hell out of you right now," Danny said as they shoved off. There were no illusions about what I was up against: too much ground, too many obstacles, subfreezing temperatures. I was only half joking when I waved goodbye and said, "It's been nice knowing y'all."

I CAME DOWN WITH A FEVER my first day alone. Chills and nausea worked their way through my body. I didn't know what was wrong, so I settled on calling it buffalo fever. At one point, I was walking along the Chetaslina, soaking wet from having just fallen into it, when a black wolf cut across my path. Before trotting off, he actually looked me in the eye and licked his lips.

One night, I wandered about four miles away from my main camp. Carrying a buffalo that distance alone would be a backbreaking nightmare, but I was feeling desperate about my prospects of ever finding an animal. I'd seen some buffalo in the area a couple of days before, and I thought I'd return to look for them again. Toward dusk it

started snowing like a bastard. Visibility was nil, so I climbed to the crest of a small ridge and found a buffalo wallow sheltered by an overhanging spruce where I could get out of the weather. Buffalo use the wallows, which look like shallow-sided bowls ten feet in diameter, to coat themselves in dust and mud. I could smell a buffalo; it had been here, but it was gone now. I spread out my tarp and sleeping bag, then stoked a small fire using dry buffalo chips. The chips emitted a bluish smoke that smelled like a bathroom after someone had smoked a joint. I dipped my face into the heat of the smoke, as though it might metaphysically convey information concerning the whereabouts of the herd, and dozed off as the snow fell.

There's a Comanche legend that the earth replenishes buffalo by spitting them from the ground. I became a believer when I woke up in the snowy wallow and peered over the crest of the ridge. A herd of buffalo was there, not 30 yards away. They were traveling below me in a long broken line, maybe 20 in all. Excitement does a hunter no good, and when your quarry arrives you've got to focus on the pure mechanics of making a clean kill. I picked a large cow, centered my scope's crosshairs on the rib behind its shoulder, and squeezed the trigger. A fury of hooves and fur followed. A buffalo fell from the fleeing herd and slid down the mountainside.

The momentary joy I felt about killing a wild buffalo was dulled almost immediately by the massive amount of work I had in store. I've butchered more than 100 big-game animals in the field, but the immensity of the buffalo made an elk seem like child's play. The carcass had come to rest in a stand of aspens. Usually I start by gutting an animal, but the only part of the buffalo that I could roll from the tangle was a front leg. I skinned the leg and cut it free of the body. With the severed knee joint resting on the ground, the leg reached up to my chest.

For three days, I worked on butchering the carcass and hauling the meat down to my makeshift camp on the Chetaslina. That's when the grizzlies began showing up. Every morning, I'd notice more and more tracks. I tried to enhance my human presence, thinking that I could keep the animals at bay. I pissed on trees, then drank bladdersful of creek water and pissed some more; I draped dirty clothes over the meat and constructed a scarecrow out of long johns. Finally I was ready to head to my main camp at the Chetaslina's mouth, about three miles downstream. When I walked up, I was thrilled to see Jeff waiting for me.

He had brought along one of his most trusted mountaineering partners, Hardcore Jeffy. Hardcore looks like the actor Willem Dafoe and is about the same age, 47. True to his nickname, he was amped to go up the Chetaslina. "We've got to retrieve that meat before those bears do it for us," he said.

"And we've got to get the hide out, too," I said. "I'm going to make a queen-size comforter for my bed out of this."

"We'll tie it to the top of the load," Hardcore said.

"What about the skull?" It weighed as much as a small child and had a sharp, raft-poking horn coming out each side.

"We'll tie it up front, like a Viking ship," Jeff said.

Jeff and Hardcore had each brought along their portable 70-inch Alpacka rafts. Jeff thought we could fit all the meat in the rafts and then float it down to camp. When I looked at the mound of buffalo next to the dinky little rafts, the plan seemed as reasonable as floating out 500 pounds of meat on a pair of water wings. But we loaded them up and pushed out at dusk.

Jeff and I donned drysuits, figuring that we'd guide the rafts downstream with ropes while Hardcore followed on the bank with a headlamp. A good idea in theory, but the overloaded rafts quickly took on water and floated like pieces of wet bread. I was damn happy to put the grizzlies behind me and leave them with whatever buffalo guts and bones they could scrounge from the kill site, but I immediately discovered a new nemesis: My alleged drysuit was filling fast, and my legs were going numb. They quickly stopped working properly, so I just lay in the water, hanging on to the load of meat as if I were holding a life ring.

The river got faster and rougher as we went downstream. I knew I was hitting the early stages of hypothermia. I was obsessed with the idea of how thirsty I was, but I couldn't think straight enough to do anything about it. I'd lost track of Hardcore on the bank, and I knew only that Jeff was out in front of me somewhere. Earlier, Jeff and I had discussed what might happen if we blasted out of the mouth of the Chetaslina and into the Copper. We joked about how they wouldn't find our bodies until we floated down to Prince William Sound and got snagged in a salmon net. This image was stuck in my mind as I became aware of a great rushing noise, like two rivers colliding. From somewhere in the dark, Jeff was yelling at me to get over to the bank. I focused all my energy on my legs, but they banged lifelessly against the rocks, like two pieces of firewood suspended from my torso.

Then, suddenly, the sound of the colliding rivers vanished. It was pure darkness. "Man in the Copper! Man coming down!" Jeff screamed. I thought, That's me! That's why everything's so quiet. I'm in the middle of the goddamn Copper! Jeff's voice receded. I had this strange sensation, not altogether unpleasant, that I was almost done living. I was so busy thinking about how thirsty I was that it took me a minute to remember I still had two arms. I started paddling with one while I held on to the raft with the other.

And then a miracle happened. I felt a dull thud on my feet—thump, thump, thump—and I stopped, beached on a gravel bar. The silence was broken by Jeff laughing and splashing his way into the river to help me out. "What a ride, man. You looked like you were going to die. We should come back here and try to kayak that thing. You all right?"

"You guys didn't bring any beer down, did you?" I asked.

THAT NIGHT IN MY SLEEPING BAG, I endured the slow, painful thawing of my legs. We were still a day's trip upstream from our take-out, but there was no stopping us now. In the morning, we loaded the big raft and launched into the same river that had nearly killed me the night before. As we made our way down the Copper, I found myself glancing again and again at the frozen cargo. For obvious reasons, floating down a remote river with a buffalo skull onboard conjured the feeling of a bygone era.

Months later, after packing away meal after meal of delicious buffalo steaks and burgers, I'd mostly forgotten about the hardships of the trip. But I did spend a lot of time dreaming about the buffalo still up in the Wrangell–St. Elias. One afternoon, I phoned Becky Kelleyhouse, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to find out how the animals were doing. Kelleyhouse grew up in Alaska, and her father was also a biologist for Fish and Game. She told me that only three other hunters out of the 24 permit holders had managed to get a buffalo. The future of the herd, said Kelleyhouse, is wide open. "The herd could expand and stay where it is," she said, "or it could split, and an offshoot herd might move away and establish itself in an unknown area. Or the herd could shrink. There's no way to know. We just wait and watch."

Later that evening, lying beneath my buffalo-hide comforter, my feet still faintly tingling from frost damage, I let myself imagine the wild American buffalo living as gloriously as it had in the past. Dozing off, I said a prayer I'd been repeating lately: Let the buffalo roam.

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