When I finalized my internship over the phone with Brett in early August, he had mentioned I would be a part of the big bison move later in the year. I knew not what this meant or what it entailed, and whatever scenario I envisioned through piecing together stories of bison works past could not have prepared me for the incredibly surreal reality of my experience.
Preparations for bison works began slowly. The projects trickled in—fixing guard rails on a Saturday morning or cleaning an alley at the end of the day. Before I knew it, the chute was freshly greased, hay bales were scattered by the dozens, and as the sun set on bison works’ eve, Brett and I wired up one last panel.
The Ranchlands crew arrived later that evening, and I met some of the people I had been admiring on social media for years—the infamous father-son duo, Big Duke and Little Duke, photographer Maddie Jorden, leather shop manager Madi Hester, Chico manager Jake Meldon and 6-time Ranchlands intern, Fabio. As we said our goodnights, Big Duke gave me a shoulder squeeze and a mustached smile, and I went to bed more content with waking up at 4 am than I’d ever been.
The next morning, the living room smelled of brewed coffee and breakfast burritos while outside, motorcycles engines revved and helicopter blades whirred in preparation for the gather. After last year’s bison works, the crew was eager for a smooth move.
Brett drove the cake truck into the hay field where Madi, Jake and Big Duke followed behind on motorcycles. Fabio, Maddie, Callie and her grandmother, Gail, and I parked pickups at the north and south ends of the highway to block traffic. Little Duke had intended to fly the helicopter over the herd, hoping it would make for a quick and easy gather; unfortunately, the buffalo frantically took off running in the wrong direction so the helicopter plan was nixed. Once they calmed down, Brett slowly began drawing them back with the cake truck.
As they approached the highway, we stood on the pavement with bag whips in hand, ready to fend off any buffalo who decided to run our way (and equally as ready to jump back in the pickup in case of a stampede). We waited anxiously until the last buffalo had crossed over before heading back to the barn to begin sorting.
The buffalo were herded into the large alley that led to a series of smaller alleys and pens until they finally reached the sorting chute. Fabio, Jake, and the Dukes ushered buffalo into the maze, running around narrow wooden catwalks to throw gates open and closed like a well-oiled machine. The gates were made moveable by long ropes and steel rods, rigged to close with rubber straps and wheels.
I was stationed at the races, where I handled sliding metal doors to keep the buffalo from getting crowded. Madi was beside me keeping a tally of each buffalo that went through the chute that Brett controlled. Brett would shout up to Maddie, who was set up in what we call the “buffalo fort”, where she would open and close the doors leading to different pens based on what was coming through. Calves were sorted in one pen, yellow-tagged buffalo in another, and two more pens were set up for red and green-tagged buffalo.
The wind blew hard and dust ravaged our eyes, but no one stopped moving. We settled into a steady rhythm—counting one, two, three, four buffalo—tag colors shouted out like clockwork: “yellow, yellow, calf, yellow”. Dusk was upon us, and by 4:30 pm the sun had set. Big Duke pushed on—we worked in darkness, flashlights used only to reveal colors on tagged ears—and by 6 pm, the whole herd was sorted. At dinner that night, we looked at each other with pink, swollen, watery eyes, and I couldn’t have been happier.
The next day, after the calves were loaded and shipped, everyone left just as quickly as they had arrived. Perhaps it was the fact that those were the most people I had been around in one sitting since August, or maybe it was the sub-zero temperatures that day, but I was filled with both a gratifying fullness and sudden emptiness. In pathetically waving a bag whip on the highway and running around the sorting chute hoping I was opening the right door at the right time, I had felt purposeful. The people around me, although practically strangers, seemed close. I experienced a joy I hadn’t in a long time.
I came here struggling with a sense of direction. Now, I feel like I have one. It’s a small, wavering-needle-on-a-compass, winding-gravel-road kind of direction, but it’s there. And I intend to follow it wherever it takes me.
By Savannah Robar. Savannah is a horsemanship intern at the Wilder Ranch, SD.