(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in January 2009)
In his thrilling debut nonfiction book “American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon”(Spiegel & Grau,$25), the writer and hunter Steven Rinella weaves his hunt for a buffalo in the Alaska with the bloody history of the beast in North America, where Native Americans and white hide hunters slaughtered millions of buffalo into virtual extinction by the 1880s.
In 2005, Rinella won a federal lottery that allowed him to shoot a buffalo in the wilds of Alaska. Rinella was dropped off by raft on the shores of the Chetaslina River and wound up tracking a small buffalo herd in a national park. Rinella muses over the ancient Native American practice of driving thousands of buffalo at a time over cliffs, while post-Civil War hunters shot them for their hides and tongues. The glorious animals’ bones were ground to make fine china and ink. In 1881-82, a large group of white hunters killed 500,000 buffalo in Montana, nearly destroying the species. Meanwhile, in modern Alaska, Rinella fends off wolves and bears to kill and dress a 1000-lb buffalo cow. Rinella almost dies of hypothermia floating the meat down a glacial river, but lives to tell his wild tale.
Rinella, 34, was raised in Twin Lake, Michigan and is a correspondent for Outside Magazine. He splits his time between Alaska and Brooklyn, New York. Rinella spoke from Michigan by telephone with freelance writer Dylan Foley.
Q. What is your hunting background?
A. I grew up in Western Michigan. My father was a very avid bow hunter. I was fur trapping for muskrat, mink and raccoon at the age of 10. I started hunting deer with a bow at 11, and killed my first one at 13.
Q. It was a difficult, almost fatal expedition to shoot this buffalo. Why’d you do it?
A. I like to do things that are very involved and engrossing. I am drawn to more extreme kinds of hunting and environments, where it means you always have to be paying attention. I like strange experiences in the outdoors, to see things that will blow my mind.
Q. In Alaska, you were circled by bears and met a wolf. What dangers did you face?
A. When people think of the wilderness, they jump to bears and wolves. The things that happen more are simple accidents or acts of stupidity. When I look at the closest I came to death on that trip, I think of the time I was in the water. After a point, you don’t even register the coldness. In the initial moments of the hypothermic state, you can tell that you are losing your abilities to make decisions, but there is nothing you can do about it.
(19th century photo of thousands of hides from slaughtered buffalo outside Dodge City, Kansas)
Q. Is it common to float down a glacial river with two rafts carrying 700 pounds of buffalo meat?
A. It was a bad decision after a bad decision. (With two friends,) I thought we could guide the two rafts from the shore like you were walking a dog. I wound up in the water and I thought the best thing was to carry on.
Q. You have horrific descriptions of Native Americans killing thousands of buffaloes in one hunt and white hunters killing them for hides. How did you view the historical slaughter of the buffalo?
A. I struggle with my own relationship with hunting, so I try to understand things deeper than the simplistic views that whites have always been wasteful with buffaloes, and that the Indians were reverent to them. The real answers are much more complicated and more interesting.
Q. You had some moral qualms after you shot the buffalo. Could you explain this?
A. When you kill a buffalo for the first time, you can’t escape that our species has committed immeasurable harms against the buffalo, including ecological atrocities. The act of killing a buffalo, multiplied by millions and millions, almost wiped out the species. It is not something to take lightly.
Q. You write a long, riveting section on gutting and cleaning the buffalo. Why did you include this?
A. That was deliberate choice in writing the book. I’ve taken many inexperienced people hunting. What most are shocked by is the field dressing of an animal and the vividness of what makes up life. Dressing an animal is something I know how to do well. I felt I could put the realness and the shock of what it takes to make a piece of meat into the book.