By John Warden
The girl’s voice came to me from the other side of the parkway. She was maybe eight or nine and was standing on the edge of the road, watching a herd of bison at Elk Island National Park. She was right. The roaring bellows of the big bull bison did have the throaty, coughing kind of sound we have come to associate with lions.
It was early August and the bison rut was on. A couple of the big bulls in the small heard by the road side were acting very aggressive, wallowing, shaking their heads, lip curling and pawing at the ground. Then they’d hunch their massive shoulders, open their mouths, stick out their tongues and blast out a lion-roar which at times also sounded like a guttural, flatulous wet burp.
The sounds and actions of the bulls suggested to me that the inside of their car would have been a much safer place for the girl and her parents. Bison appear to be cow-like and docile, but despite their size, they are very quick and agile. During the rut, the bulls like nothing better than displaying their power and vigor. I was out to the park nearly every day for a couple of weeks. One morning, chatting with another park visitor as we watched the bulls roar and snort, he commented that he had driven all the way from Vancouver and the only seen wild life he’d seen were two deer in the mountains. Watching the bison rut at Elk Island, he was being treated to one of nature’s spectacles.
Paul Kane the great Canadian artist, painter and adventurer, on leaving what was then Fort Pitt (located north of present day Lloydminster on the North Saskatchewan River), in late September 1846 on horseback for Fort Edmonton, describes in his autobiography , the spectacle he witnessed along the way. During the three days that it took us to reach Edmonton House (from Fort Pitt) we saw nothing else but buffaloes, covering the plains as far as the eye could reach and so numerous that at times they impeded our progress, filling the air with dust almost to the point of suffocation.
Returning to Fort Edmonton in November 1847, Kane describes seeing thousands of bison around Fort Edmonton and as part of a bison hunt days later, witnessed by his estimate, ten thousand bison within several miles of the fort.
As I chatted with the visitor from Vancouver, a big bull walked across the prairie in front of us, blowing and snorting. “He sounds like a steam train” said the visitor. Lions, steam trains and flatulous burbling, the bison rut today, though smaller in numbers than Paul Kane’s time, is still is a raw and primal spectacle of sound and sight.
I told the man of my own bison adventure from a previous August. I was out on foot by one of the ponds along the parkway, trying to get a shot of a trumpeter swan. It was early in the morning, quiet, and the swan was calmly cruising along the shoreline like a breath of mist floating on the water. It was a beautiful moment that was percussively interrupted by the bellow of a bull bison to my right. I couldn't see him, but he sounded close and very assertive. This was followed immediately by an answering roar to my left, just as close and perhaps a bit more aggressive. As one would beller, the other answered getting louder and, it seemed to me, closer. And there I was, stuck in the middle. With heavy crashing in the bush coming my way, I still couldn't see either bull, but, with discretion fueling my feet, I quickly returned to my car. I’d got a nice shot of the swan though.
Whereas swans are elegant, graceful and beautiful, bison are massive, blocky and often covered with mud, slobber and flies. Bison provide challenges and opportunities for the nature photographer. I experimented with rim lighting and texture, focused in tight on the flies feeding around their eyes and then worked on action shots, trying to find the best combination of color, light, and composition to convey the powerful emotions of the rut. After many days and many hundreds of shots, I found the image that I think, captures the art of the bison. The magnificent spirit of their primordial urge is best expressed through the line of their massive shoulders, the heaviness of their broad forehead and through the animation of their triangular face.
Paul Kane is described by J. G. MacGregor in the introduction to the 1968 new edition of ‘Wanderings of an Artist’ as the ‘father of Canadian art. Kane spent nearly two years, trying to capture the wild spirit of the Canadian west and several of his bison sketches and paintings are from the area around Fort Edmonton. We can get a taste of that wild spirit, and a sense of the origins of Canadian nature art, by viewing the bison herds at Elk Island, Waterton or Wood Buffalo National Parks. Bison are a symbolic icon of our Alberta heritage and a modern day conservation success story. Not only are they ‘close to home’, but they’re part of our spirit.