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Hunting Buffalo Across Alaska, And Through History

Steven Rinella writes for <em>Outside</em> magazine.
Steven Rinella writes for Outside magazine.

In the late 1990s, while hunting elk in Montana, Steven Rinella stumbled over the half-buried skull of a buffalo. He dug it up, dusted it off and took it home, where it fueled an abiding fascination with the majestic bison that informs every page of his exhilarating new book, American Buffalo.

"At once it is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness," Rinella writes of our national preoccupation with the animal, reflected in the names of rock bands and cities, on coins and throughout our literature. "It's a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture; it's a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation."

Intellectual obsessions like this can make terrific reading, especially in the hands of a writer as skillful as Rinella, a correspondent for Outside magazine. In vivid, richly packed chapters he describes the evolution of the buffalo, the uses to which its bones have been put (baking powder, fine china), its sex life (rough). Above all, Rinella is intrigued with the ways humans have hunted the buffalo throughout the millennia, from the Native Americans, who drove massive herds crashing into ravines ("anyone whose sensitivities are disturbed by modern slaughterhouse practices would be utterly repulsed by the mayhem at the foot of a buffalo jump"), to the antics of gunslingers like Wild Bill Hickock, who picked off 30 animals a day and seasoned the meat with gun powder "for a peppery effect."

Rinella's riveting personal account of tracking, shooting and butchering a buffalo anchors the copious trivia and lore. In 2005, he drew one of only 24 annual permits that the state of Alaska grants to shoot a bison in the wilderness of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

The last time most readers followed an eccentric young man into the Alaskan bush, the story ended badly in an abandoned school bus. But unlike Christopher McCandless, the hapless soul at the center of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Rinella heads out with compass, rifle, bone saw and skinning knife, all of which he puts to use in the narrative's climax, a bloody, meticulously described and strangely beautiful catharsis. Rinella's obsession is magnificent; his writing powerful; his book, a jewel.

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Jennifer Reese