Tales of Tatanka

There is an old Rodger Miller tune that states, “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd”, that may be true but I found out that you can crap your pants in one.

Kyran Keisling, archery hunting,

I Should have been wearing a loin cloth rather than the camo.


So there I was……. In the Congo….errr……. I mean the Kiabab. In the moonlight we could see the herd of 170 Bison laying in a meadow twenty yards off the highway. Fellow hunters had also seen them and were nervously congregating on the roadside pullout no more than 400 yds from the Grand Canyon Park entrance. Daylight was half an hour away and everyone was jockeying and jacking their jaws about what was to happen next. Jacob and I drove straight by them and headed to the boundary road that would take us to the trails that we knew they would use to escape. We knew this because our good friend Richard Clark had showed us the area on a scouting trip the week before and more importantly because the day before Jacob had nearly been stampeded to death in that very spot. Jacob’s rendition of the experience was gut busting funny but in my mind I could only imagine the fear and adrenaline he must have felt standing in front of a tree as animals weighing a ton and running 30 mph peeled off at 5 feet in front of him. A bow seemed so miniscule and worthless. Now it was my turn and my stomach began to knot up as we bounced down the dirt road. Jacob was unable to get a good shot the day before and I thought that he was either brave or stupid to do it again because I hadn’t even experienced it yet and was already shaking like a dog shittin peach pits. We pulled over, jumped out and ran to get to our spots along the trail.

If it was done right everyone that had a buffalo tag would line up along the border fence like we were doing and wait for them to slowly wander out of the meadow. Once one is shot and falls, the others will mill about, wondering what happened to their fallen comrade and other hunters could come in and pick them off one by one. We knew this would not be the case because restraint like that would be impossible for a few of the impatient, selfish bastards at the highway. They would bum rush them, sending them on their way, screwing it up for everyone else.

It sounded like distant thunder. A low rumble. My heart pounded so hard I thought that it would bust out of my ribs. My mouth was as dry as lizard testicles. Suddenly the moment was broken by Cox’s Army ripping in from both directions on the road. Like a military operation the trucks came in at full speed slinging gravel and launching over bar ditches. Two white Fords came to a sliding stop behind me and 5 guys jumped out onto the road. In an effort to let them know where I was and in hopes of having them move along, I leaned out of my hiding spot and told them that the herd was coming and then dug back in. I had selected a nice little stand of spruce that I felt would require the buffalo to go around rather than running me over. The rumble was growing louder by the second. They were still 500 yds away but they sounded like they were right in front of me. And still the 5 men him hawed directly behind me. I leaned out again and said “I’m sitting here!” in a stern voice hoping they would disperse to their own piece of the forest. The rumble grew louder. They would be coming into view soon. I fidgeted, trying to play out every possible scenario that might present itself. The suspense was so thick I could have cut it with a knife. AND STILL the men stood within spitting distance of me. This time I let ‘er rip and barked angrily “You guys need to fan out and get out from behind me!”. With that, 4 scattered but one walked in front of me and began to sit down on a log twenty yards away. “Hey Dude, you are right in my lane! If I shoot and miss I’ll shoot you!” It was all the power I had not to finish with “you stupid son of a bitch”. It is amazing how inconsiderate, unethical, and self serving or just plain ignorant some people can be. He walked out of my lane and went right back to the road where he had been standing before. I was going to turn and yell at him again but the proximity of the pounding hooves readjusted my focus.

Many metaphors could be used to describe the sound, a locomotive, Lava Falls in Grand Canyon, a massive Monsoon storm but none come close to what it was like sitting there in the silver of daybreak, listening to the crashing crescendo. The suspense was suffocating. Any second they would come into view, then seconds would go by and the sound would only get louder….. How loud can it get? Jesus these beasts are powerful I thought and I, on my own free will, am waiting for them to run headlong into me. It felt like I was treading into a tidal wave. Just when I thought I would keel over from an aneurism, the thudding hooves veered to my left and gradually disappeared over the hill. The stampede was no more than 75 yards away but the spruce and fir jungle I was surrounded by, hid them. I didn’t know whether to shout for joy and relief or throw my hat down in disgust. “If I find the ass clown who jumped them out of the meadow I’m going cut his balls off!!! What a selfish cockknocking chicken f*!@er!!!” Jacob screamed into the forest. A few other hunters up the road shouted in agreement. I half expected a lynch mob to gather and storm out into the meadow looking for blood. Chuckling, I walked out of my blind and headed back to the truck. Although I was disappointed I didn’t get to actually see them, it was still an incredible experience. I was just getting into talking distance of Jacob when the rolling thunder began again. Unbeknownst to us only half the herd had passed. The other half was on its way. I spun and sprinted down the hill to get into my blind before the dill holes in the two white fords could swipe my spot. Luckily I swooped in an instant before they could snake me and believe me, they tried. It was a sequel. The same sound, the same adrenaline. This time I could tell they were headed more in my direction. Through the dim light I finally got my first glimpse of them and froze. Trees the size of my thigh, pine cones and critters were being tossed in the air as if they were whirling in a cuisanart. The stomping hooves sent vibrations through the ground and I remember thinking that it felt like I was standing next to railroad tracks as a train passed. I could smell the pungent musk they emitted. The bile from nearly tossing my cookies coated my tongue. Every sensory organ in my body was red lining. But again they flanked me and passed 40 yards to my left. They slowed to a walk for a moment and I thought I may be able to make a move to cut them off but no sooner had the thought crossed my mind, they broke back into a run. This time I jumped out of my blind to watch them pass out of range. At probably 25 miles an hour the herd broke out into the clearing of the road and split around the two ford trucks missing them by no more than two feet. The five men behind me had already moved down the road. They waved their fully drawn bows like they were doing the “sprinkler” dance at the passing Tatanka. I hoped that they wouldn’t be foolish enough to take such a risky shot.  And then all at once they were gone. This time there was no doubt, I was pissed. I wanted to kick the living crap out of those cheese dicks that had parked behind me and I thank god for my quality upbringing because a lesser man would have. But suddenly through the steam coming out of my ears I heard some more coming. This time it was not as loud and I could tell it was some stragglers. Without a thought I headed into the thick timber hell bent on cutting them off. I paced directly toward the sound.

I have been an adrenaline junkie my whole life. I have climbed 1400 foot backcountry cliffs that have taken days to ascend, I have run some of the biggest whitewater in North America and rappelled blindly into deep chasms but I can honestly say that when that Buffalo came barreling around the tree in front of me, I have never been so scared. It was at 10 yards and coming in hot. I drew my bow but in the two seconds it took me to do it the buffalo had cut the distance in half. Obviously I beat a hasty retreat backward, stumbling over my heels, still at full draw. I could have shot but I wasn’t sure if it was a cow or bull (my tag was for cows and yearlings) but more importantly, all I had to shoot at was her thick skull. The only thing that kept me from being pulverized was a log laying about 3 feet high across the trail. She looked up momentarily to jump the log and our eyes met. She snorted a very loud grunt and exited stage right even. Trailing her was a yearling. I was still at full draw and he made the fatal mistake of pausing. I drilled him in the bread basket. The sound of that arrow hitting home was the sound of heaven. He ran a little ways into the woods and stopped. A few finishing shots and I had my once in a lifetime Tatanka. He was tiny. I didn’t care.

It was weird though. Normally when you kill you are in the woods all by yourself. When I kill, the excitement causes me to scream a mighty war whoop of thanks to the hunting gods and I do some Tiger Woods fist pumps. This time however it was like time square with peeps crawling everywhere and I felt it would be inappropriate to celebrate. I walked up the hill and met Jacob and in the calmest voice I could muster said, “I just killed a Buffalo, Holy shit I just killed a Buffalo with my bow. That was the coolest thing I have ever done in my life.” He gave me a big hug and we walked down to admire him. Even more weird than the throngs of people was when Jacob grabbed a customary kill beer and threw it to me. Normally having a beer at 5:30 am after a kill would have been child’s play (hell, I’ll have a beer at 5:30am even when I don’t kill sometimes) but the adrenaline coursing through my veins caused me to dry heave and I had to put the barley pop down. It took two days for me to come down from the high. As I sit here writing this I try to think of ways I might be able to catch that high again. I can never kill a buffalo in AZ again so maybe I’ll put on my roller skates and prove ol’ Rodger Miller wrong.

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