The big lone bull stepped out of the aspens near sundown. “What do you think?” asked my friend Phil Despins, wondering aloud whether I shared his hunch that this animal might be dangerous. One thing was clear to us: we were not in a good position tactically for a sudden encounter with wild bison here on the southwest apron of isolated Prince Albert National Park, three hours north of Saskatoon. Not 15 metres away, and staring straight at us with obvious signs of agitation, he certainly looked every inch the malignant brute. Heavy, dark, unexpectedly massive and muscular, with a great shaggy cape and upward curving horns, the big bull was rocking back and forth, silhouetted in the declining light.
A safe retreat seemed out of the question – but there was an upside. Close-quarters experience with Saskatchewan’s major free-ranging bison herds was what we were after. And with this straggling member of the Sturgeon River herd, known to roam in and out of the park at will, up-close and personal was exactly what we were getting.
We’d spent the earlier part of the day following false leads through a maze of grid roads in and around the heavily forested 4,000-square-kilometre park, fielding ghostly reports concerning the whereabouts of the herd before we finally learned it tends to stay in the Amyot Lake area. Locals call this the “wild west” side of the park, which is, for the most part, inaccessible by public motorized vehicles. How to get there was the question. And with just a few hours of daylight left, we finally did the unthinkable: stopped at a gas station in the nearby village of Debden and asked for directions.
Overhearing our questions put to the clerk, a female customer offered a suggestion: “I’m not sure myself, but I’ll look up Ruben Vaadeland’s number for you. I bet he’ll know.” And he did.
Ruben is the 77-year-old patriarch of the Vaadeland family, a cowboying clan that has ranched along the Sturgeon River watershed on the southern border of the park since 1929, raising shorthorn cattle and children on the Lazy SV ranch. His countrified but otherwise precise directions to “stay on the speed curves” (the sweeping bends of gravelled Parkview Road trending northeast from Debden) put Phil and I within a kilometre or two of the park’s isolated west side warden’s office just before the day drew to a close.
The Sturgeon River plains bison herd was reintroduced to the area in 1969 as a supplementary meat source for First Nations people. Initially, 50 head were brought here from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park and released into the Thunder Hills, north of Prince Albert National Park. The herd made its way south and, by 2006, had grown to an estimated population of 400.
But even though the group flourished, its relationship with local ranchers has not been an easy one. At times, the bison have been guilty of hooligan behaviour: smashing fences, competing with cattle for graze and even challenging male bovines for the cows at breeding time. “The cowboys have been hazing the herd out of the fields for the last couple days,” Ruben told us. “I’m sure you’ll find them around there.”
So, with some persistence, we’d finally manoeuvred ourselves into this tension-filled predicament despite the obvious warning signs: steaming clods of dung amid hammered-down clumps of trees where the massive creatures had barrelled upslope from the Sturgeon River. Though the rest of the herd had already moved deeper into the thicker woods surrounding Amyot Lake, this lone male had lingered on the threshold between ranchland and parkland, seemingly awaiting our arrival.
But suddenly, with the same ethereal speed with which he’d materialized, the menace was gone. He simply bolted with a kangaroo leap up a short incline and feathered into the darkening woods that closed behind him like a curtain. The show was over. “Now that was real,” said Phil, his voice filled with both relief and admiration. It was the vanishing act that startled us the most. We simply had no idea a creature weighing close to a ton could move like that.
“We call them ‘bachelors’ and they can run at about the same speed as a horse,” Ruben Vaadeland’s son Gord informs us later of the aging bulls who choose solitary lives, and who can often be more aggressive and unpredictable than the other males. The younger Vaadeland recently splintered off part of the family’s Lazy SV to start the Sturgeon River guest ranch, which takes clients by horseback to within spitting distance of the herd. “Bison seem to have an extra level of tolerance for horses and we’re usually able to ride within 50 yards of them,” says Gord, who has hosted university researchers, grade-school education experiences and even Terry Grant, the steely-eyed star of OLN’s Mantracker series in which Vaadeland appears for an episode as “sidekick.”
“A favourite time for me is in August when the rut starts,” he says. “The young bulls are getting tossed around and there’s dirt flying everywhere. Plus, it’s loud: you can hear them grunting from the other side of the river.”
Gord Vaadeland is also the executive director of the local Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards whose short-term goal is to create an environment where co-existence between ranchers and bison is possible. The herd’s presence here is a direct connection to a traditional cowboy way of life that Vaadeland reminds us “is in jeopardy too.”
If you don’t appreciate the romance of the Old West, you probably wouldn’t bother rambling around the province for a glimpse of the free-ranging herds that have been so recently reintroduced to sprawling Saskatchewan. For those who do, there are options. About seven hours south of the Sturgeon River herd, another 70 bison live in a fenced-in 180-square-kilometre area of Grasslands National Park. A herd of 50 takes up residence in the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Conservation Area, an hour west. A further 35 mosey in a secure paddock with a viewing tower at Buffalo Pound Provincial Park, 25 km northeast of Moose Jaw in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Still another unmonitored herd free-ranges in the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range north of Meadow Lake.
The term “free-ranging” is a relative one. It would be a stretch to say that even the Sturgeon River herd can come and go as its ancestors did when an estimated 60 million roamed as far south as Texas. And as committed as westerners are to the iconography of the legendary buffalo, history was hard on its species. An industry voice for domestic growers, the Canadian Bison Association reckons that by 1899 less than 1,000 remained in the aftermath of one reckless century of western expansion. “The complete loss of a species was prevented by the efforts of ranchers and conservationists in both Canada and the United States,” declares the CBA’s website.
Though it may be hard for die-hard conservationists to credit commercial bison operations with the resurgence of the species, Gord Vaadeland takes a conciliatory view. “Domestic growers have restored the relationship between man and bison,” he says. Indeed, a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture survey found that the number of bison in the province had risen from less than 35,000 in 2001 to more than 57,000 in 2006 thanks mostly to the efforts of producers. The few hundred “free-ranging” bison must be seen in the context of the domestic growers’ success story. Saskatchewan’s bison population represents a quarter of Canada’s national herd of 220,000.
Most official sources, including the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which now manages the Old Man on His Back herd, trace this repopulation back to two Metis men named Charles Allard and Michel Pablo who, in 1884, dismayed by the diminishing numbers of bison on the prairies, bought a small group of calves and nurtured them along until their numbers reached 800 by 1906. In 1909, members of the Allard-Pablo herd were shipped to Alberta’s newly created Elk Island National Park. Most of today’s purebred plains bison originate from that lot, including those at Sturgeon River, Grasslands and Old Man on His Back.
“If you hurry, you’ll see them just down the road,” says site host Sue Dumontel of the resident bison herd as we arrive on another crisp, sunny day at the interpretive centre of the 5,200-hectare Old Man on His Back, south of Saskatchewan’s storied Frenchman River valley. With its sweeping, wide-open vistas, pronghorn antelope and views of Montana’s Bear’s Paw mountain range rising on a clear day, this is quite literally a place where you could watch your dog run away for three days. It’s also a region steeped in the lore of Canada’s Old West and in a semicircular arc from this point are some of its most dramatic touchstones: Fort Walsh at Battle Creek, the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre; the Red Coat Trail, the pipeline for the arrival of the North West Mounted Police; Eastend, home of the T-Rex “Scotty,” and his fossilized remains; Grasslands National Park, and nearby Wood Mountain, where Sitting Bull led the remnants of his Sioux nation after Little Bighorn. Even now, it’s not difficult to imagine that there was once a time when the rising, falling swells of this still sparsely populated mixed-grass prairie were black with bison.
Signage makes finding the Old Man on His Back centre, a few miles of gravel off Hwy. 18, straightforward enough, though only 336 people visited last year. The gravel roads can turn slick and impassable in the rain, but it’s mostly the isolated feel of this country that takes it off the tourism mainstream. Yet here, under the dome of an endless blue sky, and on this vast stretch of open grass, the buffalo seem timeless and perfect.
Sue is right, the herd is on the road, where it seems content to stay. With Phil and I on this prairie tableau is a member of the Archaeological Society of Alberta, Marlin Sercombe, who shares our reverence for the western story. We approach the herd with caution, although Sue has advised us that we’re past the spring calving season, the most dangerous time to be near the animals.
Because we need photos, Marlin and I advance on foot toward the watchful herd, while Phil mans his big four-by-four for a quick pickup, just in case. One of the ground rules is that you stay in a vehicle at all times, and we heartily endorse this. After Sturgeon River, there’s no doubt in our minds that a pursuing bison could quickly reel in a man afoot – especially here in the open. Our next moves come unrecommended.
Step by step we draw nearer to the herd, which is now perhaps 100 metres away. That’s close enough, says the body language of two adult females who, with tails swishing, turn their full attention on us. We back up slowly toward the truck and watch the herd depart the road, plotting a quick-stepping course onto the yawning prairie.
Undaunted, we follow behind, gingerly picking a tacking approach. The herd is now definitely on guard, and we know we’re pushing our luck. Still, astonishingly, the herd temporarily disappears from view in the folds of the land. Now it’s apparent why buffalo hunts were not always a success. The enormity of the land can swallow whole even North America’s largest land mammal.
When they re-emerge, we again press forward in an angling manoeuvre. Gradually we close the distance, realizing that what we’re doing is dumb, but relishing the primal joy of stalking an Ice Age survivor. Then, without notice, the herd makes an abrupt U-turn and within moments we find ourselves corralled. With deft skill, Phil eases his truck to our position and we clamber inside, seconds before the big, brown forms completely surround the vehicle.
The herd tolerates the truck as Phil gingerly picks a line through their mass and takes us out onto the main road. Once we’re clear, he pulls over to inspect his vehicle. “You know you’re having a good day when you get buffalo crap on your tires,” he says with a grin.
Alberta Bison Spotting
Wood Buffalo National Park
Established in 1922 and straddling the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories, the 45,000-square-kilometre Wood Buffalo National Park is both remote and alluring. Park officials caution visitors that weather, wildlife and road conditions all require preparation, but the rewards for the hardy explorer are immense. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, Wood Buffalo is home to bears, wolves, eagles and at least three “at risk” species: the peregrine falcon, the whooping crane and the wood bison.
Larger and darker in colour than their plains cousins, the wood-bison herd in this park numbered 5,600 as of 2005, which officially makes it the largest free-roaming herd left in the world.
Elk Island National Park
Just a one-hour drive east of downtown Edmonton lies the opportunity to see, not just one, but two unique groups of bison co-existing in Elk Island National Park. The park has maintained a wood bison herd since 1965 — when a group of 18 was brought south from Wood Buffalo National Park. The plains bison arrived much earlier, during the park’s formative years, between 1907 and 1909.
What’s the easiest way to tell these hulking relatives apart? Just look for the plains bison’s telltale drooping beard, its full cape and thick chaps. The wood bison, meanwhile, is bigger as a breed, but its beard is straggly and short, its cape tight to the shoulders and its chaps notably absent, the poor fella.