Buffalo Sightings

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My parents came up for a visit last weekend, and although it is great to sit, chat and catch up on things going on in our lives, before long, we all felt like getting up and doing something! I’d been wanting to explore some of the areas west of here, and thought my parents might enjoy that too. Friday was their driving day, so we went for a walk but kept it low key that evening.

Saturday, I made breakfast for us, we relaxed around the house for a little while, and then went to a local bookstore where a friend of mine volunteers. We chatted, knitted, and moaned about our next big knitting project — the shipwreck shawl, which as we struggled to start with the “simple” loop cast on, we nicknamed “the wreck.” 🙂 We took my parents to the little coffee shop in town, where we got our fancy coffees, and had a light lunch. Then it was across the street to the Macleod’s hardware store, which my parents love to visit, because it’s a bit like a general store and has some of the strangest, oldest things around! My mom got quite excited because they had inoculant — a substance used to promote plant growth when seeding a garden — which is apparently quite hard to find.

The next day was cold and miserable, as May long weekends typically are, to spite everyone who’s been waiting all winter to go camping. Inevitably, the campgrounds are full and the people are shivering! We stayed around home and planned the big adventure for the next day.

You see, I thought it would be nice to show my dad some buffalo, in the wild. I figured he’d really get a kick out of it, and I’d been hearing about herds near Rainbow Lake and Assumption for a while and had not yet made the trip to either place. NOAB-CoverThis is a Buffalo Protection Area, and they roam wild and are not contained in any way. They are doing so well, the government has recently issued tickets for them, for hunters to shoot them. We only wanted to shoot them digitally, so off we went, with our cameras, bags of snack food and backroads map book, to find the buffalo.

We went first to the Chateh/Assumption native reserve, where I’d heard the buffalo were often seen roaming in town. We didn’t see any, but there were a few horses unrestrained. The reserve was fairly typical of those in this area, with gravel roads, smallish run-down houses, and as we drove past the grocery store, we weren’t sure if it was closed just because of the holiday or permanently (it looked pretty sad). We drove by the blackened shell of a house, the remains of a house fire. I’m not usually surprised by the use of ATCO trailers around here — they serve as hotels, restaurants, offices, everything! — but was shocked to see the provincial courthouse made up of 4 or so put together. I just wasn’t expecting that. We drove completely through the town part of the reserve, until the road changed from packed gravel to loose gravel-dirt. As I felt the road get softer and softer, I was a little nervous about going on, in my 2-wheel drive car, until we came to the end of the road, marked with green surveyor’s tape.

end of the road
End of the road

Then I was really nervous about turning around without getting stuck! I did it though, and we backtracked to the town, joking about going to the end of the line. We drove around until we found the RCMP detachment, where a friend of mine works, but the member we talked to said she was off for the weekend. He gave us a tip about where the buffalo probably were, then received a call and drove away, lights flashing. He had said to drive out towards the road we were just on, but look for one that went off like a “Y.” We’d seen that trail, and opted to head back to the main road and drive up to the Hay-Zama Wildland Lakes Provincial Park where we finally saw the buffalo.

The country around there is different than most places; it’s flat, marshy, muskeg, with short, scrubby trees giving way to poplar and sloughs. There aren’t many signs of civilization, but it was near an overgrown cutline for a pipeline that I glimpsed the buffalo. Since being shot at, the buffalo are more shy, and in the time between me spotting them and turning the car around, they had retreated into the bush. My mom got only a picture of two large brown shadows in the brush (see below)! But we all got a glimpse and my dad was quite impressed by their size and healthy coats; they are much bigger than the domestic ones. It only took 2 and a half hours to find them!

buffalo in bush
Can you see the buffalo?

We kept going to the Hay River and Hay Lake, enjoyed the sunshine and marvelled at the many hoof prints and shotgun shells near the shore. I doubt if that many buffalo were shot — people might have just been shooting off shotguns for fun. Fun is not the same in northern, remote places as it is in urban centres. After a little while, we drove back through the reserve to the highway and west to Rainbow Lake, a small oil-boom town near the end of the highway. Rainbow is on the side of a large hill, and has lots of tall pines and reminds me of rugged, foothills towns; the lake it’s named after is a widening of the Hay River, south of town. What a contrast to Assumption — white population, clean town, brand new hotel, golf course, new trucks, and large, rich, new houses with quads parked in front. I saw my first-ever quad speed limit sign! I guess they don’t want people going too fast, even if they’re wearing helmets. We saw quads on the reserve, too, as they seem to be an essential form of transportation and recreation.

So those were my recent adventures! Not everyone can say they have buffalo in the wild, almost in their neighbourhood, so I feel pretty lucky.  🙂

Hay Lake
Hay Lake (at the Hay-Zama Wildland Lakes Prov. Park)
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