“American Buffalo” by Steven Rinella, c.2008, Spiegel & Grau, $24.95, 278 pages, includes notes.
Have you ever played the lottery?
If you have, you know the drill: plunk down cash, pick your numbers and walk out with ticket in hand and the hope that you’ll hit paydirt. They say somebody has to win but realistically – statistically – it probably won’t be you.
It sure is fun dreaming, though.
Author Steven Rinella won a lottery of a different sort: in 2005, his application was chosen out of many, giving him a chance to hunt bison in remote Alaskan wilderness. In the new book “American Buffalo,” he writes about his adventure and the creature who led him there.
While on a hike nearly 10 years ago, Rinella stumbled over something unusual poking out of the soil. It was a buffalo skull, dirty and crumbly, but it piqued his interest. A few years later, when his brother, who lived in Alaska, told him that the state had openings for limited buffalo hunting in the wilderness in order to cull a too-large herd, Rinella filled out the lottery application and was astounded to get a letter saying that he was approved.
When most people think of buffalo, they think of great herds across the Great Plains, of Indian hunts and cowboy slaughter. The truth is that buffalo once roamed nearly the entire United States and Canada, from Alaska to Florida. It’s been suggested that they came from Russia.
But that, of course, didn’t last. Though they’ve made a comeback and are no longer in danger of extinction, buffalo were widely slaughtered in the 1800s. Some eyewitnesses report seas of sun-bleached bones following buffalo massacres. A worried Teddy Roosevelt signed legislation to create the National Bison Range to protect the remnants of what was once a herd that measured in the tens of millions.
These were the things Rinella kept in mind as he rafted down icy rivers, past private land and into a brushy area where buffalo roam. He battled hypothermia and his own paranoia; he saw bears (who love to steal buffalo meat) and he tracked – and bagged – an animal that had fascinated him for so long.
Part archaeology, part story-of-the-hunt and part history, “American Buffalo” is one of those satisfying books that you’ll want to savor, especially if you love adventures, western novels, or true cowpoke tales. This, despite (fair warning) a quite graphic section that details a butchering, which won’t bother hunters but may make others squirm.
Rinella eagerly takes readers on a winding, fascinating trip through buffalo biology and North America’s past, as well as popular culture, mythology and a few personal anecdotes. This is all skillfully woven in the thrilling story of wilderness adventure and a once-in-a-lifetime buffalo hunt.
“American Buffalo,” which could just as easily have the word “North” in its title, is perfect for hunters, archaeologists and historians. If you’re on the hunt for a great read, this one is just the ticket.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with her two dogs and 9,500 books.