The wilderness home where our Buffalo roam

There were only a few buffalo left when the government staked out this park and left them to live in luxury. Now they’re the biggest herd in the world and help feed hungry tribes of gourmets and Indians. But the trickiest job is rounding them up by plan

MAC REYNOLDS September 3 1955

The wilderness home where our Buffalo roam

There were only a few buffalo left when the government staked out this park and left them to live in luxury. Now they’re the biggest herd in the world and help feed hungry tribes of gourmets and Indians. But the trickiest job is rounding them up by plan

MAC REYNOLDS September 3 1955

ONE DAY last winter, a red-and-yellow de Havilland Beaver aircraft was cleared from the airport at Fort Smith, at the southern boundary of the Northwest Territories, on what seemed like a flight back through time. Ayliffe Pat Carey, a bush pilot, and Evan H. Essex, a game warden, were off hunting buffalo, as though it were the middle of the nineteenth century. Although almost any Canadian could tell them they might as well hunt dinosaurs, Carey and Essex, who knew better, weren’t after one trophy but five hundred. They couldn’t miss, for they were flying into Wood Buffalo Park, whose staggering mass of more than seventeen thousand square miles straddles the Northwest Territories-Alberta border like a giant carpenter’s square. And Wood Buffalo Park, besides being the most northerly national park in Canada, and the largest wild-life preserve on the North American continent, just happens to be the stomping ground of no less than twenty thousand wild buffalo, the greatest herd in the world.

It’s a fact that is not widely known. As superintendent of this park which lies immediately south and west of Fort Smith, Evan Essex receives the odd letter, presumably from someone who has read something in a newspaper filler, granting him at least a degree of recognition. Usually the writer requests five dollars’ worth of buffalo meat because he hears that it’s cheap.

Essex might be excused if he bristled at being classed as a mail-order buffalo butcher, for he bosses an empire so large that planes, helicopters, snowmobiles, motorized toboggans and dog sleds must be used to span its distances.

While it might seem hard to overlook a block of land one hundred and seventy-eight miles long and one hundred and forty-five miles wide, one that could more than comfortably wrap itself around Prince Edward Island and Vancouver Island, most Canadians do just that. And it’s not as though this animal sanctuary in the Mackenzie Basin has been sprung suddenly on the nation. The buffalo were old hands on the range when Sam Hearne, the explorer, passed through at the beginning of the 1770s. Moreover, the range has been a national park since December 18, 1922, and its one-ton, humpbacked, bearded crofters had been under the protection of the federal government for more than a decade before that.

Still, only one man who could even vaguely be called a tourist, and an American at that, has breached the comparative isolation of the park since 1949. He was a New York zoologist who blew in by plane because he’d heard rumors there might be a few buffalo around. Essex put him up, for there is no tourist accommodation in the park, and the zoologist became so fascinated that he stayed to help fight the midsummer forest fires.

In the narrow sense, the zoologist did not find any buffalo, for the only true buffalo are to be found in Africa and Asia. What he found at Wood Buffalo Park were really bison, the mammals with the high hump between their massive shoulders and the tufted tail, which once ranged a third of our continent. He found them far from vanishing.

The park’s twenty thousand buffalo—that is Essex’ estimate based on helicopter checks—are increasing at the considerable rate of eight percent a year, far outstripping the park’s original purpose— to serve as a “preserve for a small nucleus of wild bison in their native state” with provisions for “small slaughtering for relief purposes.”

To thin out this expanding herd as well as to provide meat for the north’s famine relief, twelve hundred of the buffalo have been slaughtered in the past four years. But since the herd is increasing so rapidly, it may not be so long before the range will be sheltering the forty thousand buffalo Essex feels it adequately can handle.

Some of the meat, such as the tongue and the tenderloin and the hump, goes east to the big hotels where there is something of a gourmet demand for it. Some of it goes to butchers in Fort Smith, a village of five hundred, where it enjoys no special popularity, and some of it is treated with poison and set out around the park as wolf bait. About half of it, however, is stockpiled in a large Fort Smith cold storage locker for relief. It is dropped by the RCAF and by bush pilots to starving Eskimos around the rim of the Arctic, and to missions. Buffalo skins from the park find their way to the eastern Arctic on the C. D. Howe, a Department of Transport supply ship, to serve as blankets, and Indians make handicraft products from the horns.

Without fanfare, Canada’s unknown park has become the meatbasket of an often needy north. And yet, even the Canadian government apparently underestimates its potential by seemingly hiding its potential, allowing it to remain in isolation, except by plane, for all but the summer months of the year.

Year-round the life cycle in Wood Buffalo Park is thrilling, frequently beautiful, often bloody and never dull. And no one senses its dramatic dimensions more than Evan Essex, a towering, boisterous, capable man of thirty-seven who once made his living running logs through the white water of British Columbia’s upper Fraser. Essex was a sergeant-major in the army during the war. Afterward, he got a laborer’s job slashing paths through the woods of Jasper National Park, and soon became the park warden. He arrived in Fort Smith, the administrative centre for the sprawling Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories, in 1949.

He didn’t have to dig too deeply into history to find he was lucky to have any buffalo to boss at all.

The massive animals that impressed explorer Sam Hearne were a different breed from the buffalo of the plains. They were bigger, healthier, rougher and tougher. They were called wood buffalo, and thus the name for the park. There were one hundred and fifty thousand of them in the rangeland on which Fort Smith fringes and the rangeland then was ten times larger than Wood Buffalo Park is today. Hearne said he saw wood buffalo with heads so heavy they could hardly lift them. One wood buffalo shot in 1909 weighed twenty-four hundred pounds and stood almost six feet at the shoulder.

For a time the range was in something of a no man’s land and escaped the blood baths of the early 1800s when groups like Manitoba’s Red River hunters marched against the buffalo in military formations, with officers and chaplains and even flags flying.

Then came the wood buffalo’s turn to be slaughtered, often for their delicate tongues alone, when the fur traders invaded their rangeland around 1850. The new Canadian Pacific Railway couldn’t run buffalo hunt excursions through the range, as they sportingly did on the prairies, with passengers madly shooting at buffalo through the windows of the moving trains. And there were few cliffs over which the animals could be driven to their death. Still, it was bad enough. By 1893, when the government told the North West Mounted Police to blow the whistle, the original herd of one hundred and fifty thousand had shrunk to three hundred.

By 1906, the year the people’s cries against the senseless extermination of the Canadian buffalo reached Ottawa and some constructive measures were taken, the wood buffalo’s number still did not exceed twenty-five hundred.

It was in this year that Canada bought some seven hundred plains buffalo from a private domestic herd in Montana. These were brought to Alberta and placed in enclosures near Wainwright and in Elk Island National Park, where there still are two or three thousand head.

The plains buffalo prospered in their new home and the government took a gamble on mingling them with their tough country cousins in Wood Buffalo Park. They were loaded into boxcars— more than six thousand of them in the years between 1925 and 1929—and transported to Waterways, Alta. There they were driven onto scows and floated down the Athabaska and Slave rivers and turned loose in Wood Buffalo Park.

They had lived a soft life, for buffalo, and at first they died like flies, then eventually adjusted. The two breeds mixed, multiplied and produced the impressive hybrid buffalo that Evan Essex found upon his arrival at the park in 1949.

Canadian Pacific Airlines’ passengers who pass over the park in winter on the DC-3 service between Edmonton and Yellowknife see the park as a forbidding place. Its cold mossy bogs, runty trees and bleak stretches of rock hint of the Arctic. There’s permafrost too, a reminder that the park is only three hundred miles southwest of the treeline. In summer and from the ground, Essex saw a more varied picture, and it was easy to understand why the buffalo —all but some three hundred with itchy feet by last count—are content to remain within the park boundaries.

Magic With Every Matchbox

Prairie land which covers perhaps half the area is thick with buffalo food, wheat grasses higher than a man’s head, wild oats, broom, wild rye, vetch and pea vine. There are salt licks fifteen feet across and two feet deep, the residue of salt springs. The salt is so pure that storekeepers from Fort Smith sometimes carry it away in gunny sacks. On every hand there are forests for shelter, rolling needle-carpeted acres of Banksian pine, ridges of rough-barked jack pine (the bark rubbed smooth where the buffalo scratch the skin at the base of their horns in the fly season), even glades of dwarf dogwood with wild strawberries growing at their margins. And there are countless natural wallows, shallow sandy depressions, where the buffalo sand bathe with buffalo ecstasy.

Even if every buffalo should vanish, Essex saw, this thirty-three-year-old park would rank among the wonders of the north. For there is beauty, in the boiling rapids, in islands shoulder-high with fireweed, in numberless lakes of crystal water and white sand beaches, in summer pastures wild with buttercup and mint and bluebell and wild roses. The park responds to the seasons like no other park in Canada. Summer brings the midnight sun, and in the short season, potatoes in the wardens’ gardens grow to two pounds and cucumbers stretch over a foot. In winter there is a dazzling aurora borealis, which the park Indians believe they set "dancing” on the horizon by such advanced hocus-pocus as rubbing together the abrasive strips on penny matchboxes.

A price must always be paid for northland beauty, of course, and in Wood Buffalo Park the price is the seasonal scourge of bulldog flies the size of bumblebees, black flies and mosquitoes, all of them ravenous. The park buffalo have a staunch little chum in fly time, the buffalo bird, which whiles away hours eating insects on their backs.

There are many varieties of wild fowl in the park, and it is now established that probably the majority of the twenty-odd whooping cranes known to exist, nest here during the summer months. Whitefish, pickerel, brook trout, and even Winnipeg gold-eye swarm the lakes, rich in fresh water shrimp and plankton. The treaty Indians in the park won’t eat the goldeye, considering them distasteful, and throw them to their sled dogs.

Here is a seventeen-thousand-square-mile stage and the principal players, the wood buffalo, know their lines and play their roles to the hilt. They graze with easy nonchalance, thunder about majestically when aroused and engineer endless trails with such logic that these are invariably found to be the shortest routes from point to point throughout the park. The bulls, too, have all the grand physical elegance of lead actors. They are monstrous in their front quarters, slim in the rear. Their horns are thick, curved and needle-sharp. Their humps are high and forbidding, their collar hair is almost as shaggy as a lion’s. Their long beards make them look wryly Confucian, and their tufted tails stand angrily erect when they are alerted.

Deceptively, they are apt to play shy and timid most of the year, waiting until the early August rut to catch up on rampaging. After hardly uttering a peep for months, the bulls summon up booming roars and hoarse bellows. There are battles in which the young bulls challenge the old bulls for the lady’s hand. Nobody seems certain whether buffalo are polygamous or monogamous, but after the battle, if the old bull has lost, he shuffles off classically as an outcast and usually remains a sorry, solitary figure until his death. On occasion, two such patriarchs will become cronies, stake out a small pasture that nobody else wants, and never leave, breathing fire on all comers like a couple of testy old men holding down favored seats in a public reading room.

The wardens and patrolmen try to avoid the crusty outcasts and the bulls in rut. Both are unpredictable, and in the old days gored several saddle horses. No human has yet been fatally gored but there have been some close calls. Recently, a bull rammed its head through the grill of a truck on the park road. Another time, a bull chased a warden right onto the camp’s cookhouse porch. And almost all the workers in the park tell of being treed at one time or another.

If the bulls are geared for attack in the fall rut, they are on the defensive in the spring. That is when the cows come out of the glades with their dewy newborn calves. Apparently to fend off wolves, the bulls parade in a circle around the cows and the sepia-and-yellow offspring, stamping down thousands of fairy rings to puzzle airlines’ passengers.

It is the calves, and the odd feeble outcast, that attract Wood Buffalo Park’s ninety-pound grey-and-black wolves. Essex, for one, believes the wolves take a serious toll. He has seen them working in family packs, using teamwork to flip the calves on their backs and rip out their bellies and throats. He says buffalo cows seem unable to comprehend this murder, and he has seen cows watch placidly from twenty feet away while the wolves tore apart their calves and glutted themselves until they could not move.

In their fight to cut back the wolf population in the park, Essex and his men use planes and dog sleds to scatter eighty-pound chunks of poisoned buffalo meat at points where wolves are known to gather, and in the path of caribou in the years when these animals come through the area. The caribou trails are spiked on the safe assumption that the caribou will be followed by wolf packs. These bait stations are clearly marked with signs on which are painted skulls and crossbones and warnings written in Cree, Chipewyan and English, so that rangers and trappers can protect their sled dogs. It is an effective program: recently, the bodies of fourteen wolves were found round a single bait station.

As if Wood Buffalo Park hasn’t enough raw materials for one wild life preserve, it claims mineral deposits too. Legend has it that a Roman Catholic missioner, on his way south from Yellowknife, stopped at a point in the park called Fifth Meridian and passed some time panning the Caribou River. He found gold, the legend goes: But he blamed gold for the sinfulness in Yellowknife and swore his Indian guides to secrecy. Obviously, they blabbed all over the place once they got the chance but the source of the gold, if it existed, has never been found.

Far closer to reality is the widespread belief that the park is loaded with uranium. Essex, for his own interest, has prowled over many miles of rock areas and swears his geiger counter crackled like grease in a hot pan. As a national park, Wood Buffalo is not open to prospecting, but the surrounding country has been a hotbed of prospecting flurries. And in Fort Smith, there is, significantly, a Uranium Café.

Mining excluded, there are several ways people make their living in the park. There are Essex’ twelve full-time wardens and patrolmen, of course, and for the slaughter, twenty-five or thirty others are hired. The regulars live a remote life in far-flung cabins, patrolling registered trap lines, sharing a park dog-team pool of about a hundred dogs.

Three hundred and thirty hunting and trapping permits are allotted the Crees and Chipewyans who continue to live within the park, but there is little danger of the hunters stumbling over each other, for this works out to one hunter for every forty-six square miles. Although bear paws still are found drying outside the Indian tepees, the tepees themselves run more to canvas than to moosehide these days, and civilization, of a rather dated nature, has touched the natives in other ways. Many of the chiefs’ and councilors’ tepees have radio aerials rising through the smoke vents, and the wives work on old hand-operated sewing machines. Every July the Indians paddle their store-bought canoes into Fort Smith, pitch tents, drum day and night, on empty Klim cans, play stick-and-button games, collect their treaty money from the Mounties, and return to the park to their battery radios and another year of broadcasts in their own tongue from the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, and to the mink and muskrat and beaver and otter along their trap lines.

The jamboree is about the closest little Fora Smith gets to the boisterous periods of its past.. The last such period was when it served during World War II as a staging post for Canol pipeline supplies. Two thousand American soldiers — all, perversely, from deep South units—arrived in the village, complete with dismantled Mississippi River boats. Then one day they bulldozed a huge hole, buried their power generators and their stocks of Spam, and went back home.

How to Trap a Buffalo

In addition to park employees and treaty Indians, some fishermen and loggers work the area on and around sizeable Lake Claire. The lake itself is fished for pickerel and whitefish and a lake-side sawmill handles the logs cut in the surrounding forest.

But, primarily, Wood Buffalo Park is a buffalo range and Essex’ job is to see that the animals survive, pruning the herd annually to keep their numbers within limits. When Essex took charge six years ago the annual roundup of buffalo was on a small scale, and although the herd was increasing and the north needed the food, hardly more than two hundred animals had been slaughtered in all the preceding years of the park’s history. Essex found hunters on dog sleds mushing deep into the winter pastures, cutting out individual animals from the freewheeling herds, butchering them on the spot and then laboriously hauling them back to Fort Smith. He thought this slow and costly, and fifty miles from Fort Smith he began building a corral. The location was called Hay Camp because of the bountiful meadows at its front door.

Stealing a trick or two from the Indian buffalo pounds of the last century, Essex enclosed one hundred and fifty acres with a high log fence. He left five openings at the prairie end of the corral and hung on them sturdy log gates. He built guide fences, yawning out in a great V for two and a half miles. In theory, whatever entered the two-mile-wide mouth of the guide fence must, if forced, funnel into the corral.

A short airstrip was cleared on one side of the corral and on the other side a camp was built. Today Hay Camp is quite a bustling community. It includes a spacious abattoir where the herd’s excess buffalo are slaughtered, a wireless station, a motor transport depot, log bunkhouses, a mess hall and the handsome white house of Herman Pieper, the camp manager, who came to the park from Aklavik.

Essex decided to gamble on rounding up his buffalo by air, with Pat Carey piloting the roundup plane. The park’s fire fighters have a nickname for Carey, the resident pilot at Fort Smith. They call him "Wet Handkerchief” Carey, because they say he will land his pontoon-equipped Beaver in a puddle—or if there is no puddle, on a damp patch of grass—to deliver them fire-fighting equipment.

Unlike most bush pilots, a rollicking crew, Carey is serious and methodical. He doesn’t smoke, seldom drinks, and blisters the north country with such expressions as "rang tang” and "Jimminy Crickets.” He flies his share of mercy missions, bringing out sick and wounded, and carrying in buffalo meat and medical supplies. And he has been known to take the initiative of "steering” the caribou in the direction of starving Eskimo bands.

It was just this steering technique that Essex was after. Through trial and error, the two evolved a hundred-and-twenty-mile-an-hour Beaver aircraft into an airborne buffalo pony. The four-hundred-and-fifty-horsepower engine became a war whoop when gunned. When the propeller was thrown into semifine pitch, it produced a penetrating banshee wail. The manoeuvres involved were so hazardous that even Essex looked behind him during his first hunt with Carey to see if they had left a trail in the snow.

It is known that a fairly concentrated three thousand of the park’s twenty thousand buffalo winter on a prairie that stretches twenty or thirty miles from Hay Camp. Carey goes after this herd, first circling and quartering the plain in order to spot the larger groups, then stampeding them into a single mass headed for Hay Camp corral by using his plane as a club.

"We learned that we couldn’t shock them too much at first,” Carey explained during last year’s roundup. "If we got too close at first they’d scatter and we’d have one rang tang of a time getting them together again. And if we were too far off on a flank when we dived, they would swing in a complete circle.”

It is true that the radical Carey-Essex aerial roundup cannot compare, say, with the murderous effectiveness of hunters on horseback in the past century, although few other factors relating to the hunts are comparable either. For instance, the Beaver rents out at seventy-eight dollars an hour, somewhat more costly than Buffalo Bill at his greatest glory. And the few hundred animals the Beaver brings in for slaughter cannot, of course, measure up against the more than four thousand that the old master bumped off in a single engagement. Still, mindful of the unusual conditions of hunting buffalo in Canada’s most northerly national park, Leonard Arthur Charles Orgar Hunt, administrator of the Mackenzie district of the territories, is a staunch Carey-Essex-Beaver booster.

Known to his wife and to the rest of the north as Laco—the sum of his initials—Hunt is a hefty and gregarious ex-Londoner who used to be a Hudson’s Bay Company trader in the Arctic. For over-all administrative purposes, Wood Buffalo Park comes under his jurisdiction, although its bulk lies in northern Alberta and only some thirty-six hundred square miles out of the total of seventeen thousand topple into the territories. It was Hunt who gave the order for last year’s slaughter of five hundred buffalo.

And it was to fill this order that Essex and Carey were cleared from the airport at Fort Smith one day last winter on a flight to Wood Buffalo Park. The weather was uncommonly mild, and this made for overcast and difficult spotting. Therefore it was not until the fourth day of the roundup that Carey and Essex properly hit the jack pot. Below them were a thousand buffalo.

Carey dived, looped and sideslipped. Flying much of the time at right angles to the ground, he reversed his controls, used his rudder as tailplane, his tailplane as rudder. His turns were so tight he jarred hard into his own slipstream. Ahead lay a long swathe through the prairie and bush, cut a few days before by a caterpillar tractor. It led to the gaping guide fence leading to the corral. With the red-and-yellow Beaver on their tails like a buzzing mosquito, the buffalo, Essex had reasoned, would follow the swathe, taking the path of least resistance. Essex, wearing headphones, was directing three vehicles riding herd on the buffalo flanks—not the steel-blue bombardiers he usually employs, for they were out of action, but a motley trio made up of two trucks and a grader. The men in the vehicles carried rifles.

Carey, with the great herd stampeding before him, made a low-level, blade-screaming pass at a solitary bull standing stock-still, legs wide apart, in a small meadow. The hoary old outcast could almost have hooked the underbelly of the Beaver with his horns. But it wasn’t until the plane had passed that he budged—and there he was, four feet off the ground it seemed, his legs already pumping and his tufted tail ramrod-erect, and charging, of all things, the place where he last saw the plane.

The Beaver returned to the stampeding herd and bellied in low on a flank to change its direction. What happened was like a game of crack-the-whip. The buffalo had been pitching forward, snow spraying from their hoofs, in almost Indian file. The whip cracked, as the plane buzzed by, and instead of a thousand lumbering buffalo below, it might have been a thousand nimble ballet dancers, for the animals pivoted as one and charged at right angles across the plain in a line abreast.

It was a twenty-mile drive. For a short distance, the buffalo had burned up the ground; ungainly as they appear, they have been clocked by the Wood Buffalo Park bombardiers at thirty miles an hour. But they soon tired, and the Beaver became more the mother hen, shooing the stumbling animals into formation, nagging them through thicket and clearing and over creek and bog. Behind the stampeding herd lay a tortured trail of broken six-inch saplings where the buffalo had crashed head down through the bush.

When the last cow had worried the last calf into the corral, Carey brought the plane back to the airstrip. "Well, how did we do?” he asked. He tugged at a branch picked up in the tailplane during his treetop aerobatics.

"The boys on the gate say there were more than five hundred all right,” replied Len Heron, a Cree and the lord high executioner at Hay Camp.

The following day Heron led a small armed work party into the corral. Buffalo moved stealthily through the thickets of reddish alder. Myopic, confused by too many man smells, the buffalo seemed unaware of the party’s presence. A Cree called John Baptiste whistled thinly, then bleated through cupped hands. A bull swung its ponderous head. Heron fired his .303 Lee Enfield. The bull fell; a soft-nosed bullet had found the target, punching a hole right between the horn and the neck. The bull’s coat was a rich brown, darker over the head, bleached almost yellow around the hump. Two skinners slipped it off as though it were a rabbit skin and a truck hauled the carcass off to the abattoir for butchering.

There were four hundred and ninety-nine more to go; the calves would go free.

Touched with the tragic, like all killing, the slaughter soon must be repeated again, for the cycle of Wood Buffalo Park does not stop. Few plans seem to be mapped out for the rangeland. Evan Essex and Laco Hunt say they would like to see it become self-supporting. One suggestion is that this might be accomplished by issuing licenses, for a stiff fee, for the controlled hunting of those wandering buffalo now beyond the park.

Whatever comes of this, the phenomenal fact remains that Canada’s mighty buffalo, after almost being exterminated by man, once more are warming his back and filling his belly, whether he deserves it or not. ★