Buffalo in Iowa

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Buffalo in Iowa
by Chris Wilbeck

Oct 2010

It was one of those days.  I had a lot of work to do to close up the camp for the season.  I also had a lot of work to do around the house.  I just didn't feel like doing any of it.  So, I asked Kevin and Jacob if I should "clean the house or feed my soul."  Luckily, Jacob was on my same wavelength and said that I should "feed my soul."  (Ok, maybe he realized that cleaning the house might mean he would be asked to help.)  Kevin wasn't - he was geared up for camp clean-up work. So, I asked Jacob if he wanted to go see some buffalo with me. He enthusiastically agreed.  Our Saturday plans were underway.

He grabbed his critter books (books with photos and descriptions of native Iowa wildlife) and his binoculars.  I grabbed a cup of java to go.  Then, we headed out for a drive to see some buffalo at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City IA, just a short drive east of Des Moines and just over an hour's drive from our place. 

I had heard about the refuge and it's expansive restored prairielands, but hadn't yet visited.  I really didn't know what to expect. When we reached the entrance and started driving into the interior of the 5000 acre property, Jacob said, "This isn't what I expected."  Fearful that I might have overstated my enthusiasm and particularly fearful that my child was already ruined from expectations formed from seeing too many wildlife shows on TV, I asked, "Is it better or worse than what you expected?"  Fortunately, he said, "Better.  Much better!"  Whew.  He wasn't ruined yet. 

We soon reached the Prairie Learning Center, a low-slung, large building seated in the center of prairie. A very prairie-style looking prairie center, I thought.  Jacob said he thought it looked like a high school.  He's half-right, it is a school for prairie learnings.  We decided to go in and ask where we could expect to spot some buffalo.  Inside, we were warmly greeted and soon became enamored with all the wonderful exhibits showing prairie wildlife and prairie plants.  We saw a large stuffed buffalo (kids could touch it, a plus) and a small stuffed coyote (very interesting for us to see, since we are the owners of Camp Coyote).  We learned a bit about the benefits of a prairie burn.  We saw a wonderful Native American exhibit that I learned later was secured with the help of our friend Robin Fortney.  The center's greeter took us to a large north-facing window and pointed out two roaming buffalo in the distance.  We talked to a couple of rangers who told us that we may see some buffalo and elk at closer range on the refuge's driving tour.  We bought an inexpensive CD that provided driving-tour facts and left the center for our adventure drive.

Jacob in front of the Prairie Learning Center sign.

Jacob suggested we pretend that we were on a nature show exploring the region.  It wasn't hard to do.  On our way out, we stopped by the butterfly garden that was surely gloriously populated with Monarchs a few weeks earlier.  We need to come back to see it next year.  We got into our car, started the CD and began our quest to see a buffalo.

I knew that it wasn't a given that we'd see a buffalo up close. They are wild creatures roaming an expansive prairie, not zoo animals.  But, I was hopeful.  As we entered the fenced-in portion of the reserve, we anticipated our encounter.  Jacob got out his binoculars and scanned the horizon.  I don't know why - I'm no buffalo scout - but I instinctively felt that a certain spot would be a perfect place for a buffalo to graze.  So, we slowed the car down a bit and searched for signs of the massive creatures.  I saw a large brown rock.  Was it a buffalo or brown shrub?  We stopped the car and watched.  Rolled down the windows and listened.  Something twitched.  It was a buffalo!  Soon, it turned on it's back, feet up in the air, then stood up and stared right at us.  It wasn't really that close, but close enough to elicit a reaction from us!  We decided it was time to move on.  Buffalo can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. Close enough to reach us quickly, if startled.

As we drove down the hill, we saw another car coming our way. We waved at the driver and told him we saw a buffalo. He told us he just saw one down the road in the direction we were headed.  We cautiously drove on and scanned for that second buffalo. Bingo. There he was! 

Our second buffalo siting (circled in the photo).

We continued to drive through the fenced in portion, scanning for more.  A woman passing by in a van stopped and told us she saw more on a ridge further north.  It must be the code of all visitors - share your buffalo spottings with others eager to catch a glimpse.  We proceeded to the spot and counted about 28 on a hill - much further away - but still exciting to see.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the rest stop in Prairie City to take a closer look at the wonderful steel-rusted sculpture of a buffalo, surrounded by prairie plantings identified with signs.  Then, we stopped at Goldies for ice cream.  What a great day.

The trip has inspired us to make a quest to see some other great Iowa wild places - close to home and further away.  I'm told children need wild places to roam and explore.  I think we adults need the same.  Time in nature is most definitely good food for the soul.

Jacob's encounter with the buffalo sculpture at the Prairie Center rest stop right off the highway.

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For more information, call Chris Wilbeck at 515-229-6988.