Humane Harvests—Part Two
After high school, Garrett pursued a wildlife biology degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, near our hometown. I eventually made my way up to the Dakotas where I graduated from Black Hills State with a degree in biology. Garrett would go on to marry his high school sweetheart, and my good friend, Nichole. One year or so later, Jilian and I got married. Naturally, parenthood followed. Garrett and Nichole had three boys. Jilian and I had two. Life continued to add responsibilities and obligations. Although hundreds of Great Plains miles separated us and getting together became more and more difficult, our bond from the early years has always pulled our families together.
After a stint with the railroad, Garrett and Nichole were having reservations about raising children in a once-rural area that was becoming increasingly populous. Garrett took a job opportunity that would move the entire family to the vastness of the Nebraska sandhills. He now helps manage the Spikebox Ranch, a sourcing partner to Wild Idea for four years.
A few weeks ago, I decided to give in to my oldest son Lincoln’s persistent requests to travel with me on my next harvest visit to the Spikebox. Recently, I had been spending time with the harvest crew as a fill-in skinner. The crew was now fully staffed and didn’t need my help in the mobile harvest unit. I figured the lightened workload would give me a chance to show Lincoln some of the subtleties one learns to appreciate while working with our likeminded producers and land managers. So, away we went.
As we made our way south, Lincoln quizzed me about the distance to the Spikebox. I handed him an atlas and tasked him with finding home and then finding Hyannis, Nebraska, the nearest civilization to the Spikebox. After some number of miles, he successfully located both on the map. He demonstrated to me the distance to be traveled by using his thumb and pointer finger as if he were holding an invisible domino. “It’s this far,” he said.
This was Lincoln’s first time visiting his buddies’ home. Sure, he had heard stories about the Sandhills from his pals. But he was ready to experience them firsthand. He noted the change in terrain as we crossed the Pine Ridge. He pointed out the abundance of windmills and the copious amounts of surface water. A group of pelicans bobbed up and down on a meadow lake. “Pelicans! I thought those things only lived near the ocean!” he exclaimed. I informed him that we were currently driving atop an ocean of water that was below the sand and grass. I tried my best to explain what an aquifer was. Luckily, right when I thought he was going to question my credentials, Lincoln noticed a box turtle crossing the road. He was adamant about assisting, so I stopped the pickup and let him proceed with the rescue mission.
Four more rescue missions later, we finally arrived at headquarters where we met with Garrett and family. He was working on a tractor. We went through our standard handshake-turning-to-hug greeting that we’ve done a hundred times. Like me, Garrett is tall. He squatted down so that he was eye level with Lincoln and stuck out his calloused hand. Lincoln reciprocated and the two united in a business-like handshake. “What are we doing first, fellas?” Garrett asked midshake while maintaining eye contact with Lincoln. The gesture was enough to flatter Lincoln, who concluded the handshake by folding his arms across his chest and replying, “I think we should go see how the harvest crew is getting along.” Garrett’s gaze switched from Lincoln to me. He was smirking and I’m sure I was, too. I shrugged my shoulders and told Garrett to “jump in.”
We made our way down the road to where the harvest crew was staged up. WIB’s sharpshooter, Bryan Pickeral (a.k.a. “Pick”), was just dropping off the tenth buffalo of the day for the skinners. After setting the buffalo down on the loading ramp with the hydraulic lift on the rear of the harvest pickup, he threw the rig in park and jumped out. “Hey, cowboy!” he shouted. His attention was on Lincoln. Wherever we might be harvesting, Pick always makes a special effort to make visitors feel welcome. However, he always goes above and beyond for Lincoln. You could tell Lincoln was trying to maintain his business-like composure. Everyone shook hands and proceeded with a five-minute bullshit session, standard formality upon arriving at harvest.
Soon, our discussions were interrupted by the mobile unit’s loading door colliding with the loading ramp. Two winch cables with big hooks on the end were cast out from the slaughter floor area. The hooks slid down the ramp and came to rest on shackles that lay in wait on the front and back legs of the buffalo. Pick and I knew this was an indicator that it was time to go get another buffalo. “The boys are flying today,” said Pick. He was referring to the rate at which the crew was getting the buffalo skinned and into the cooler on the mobile unit. “Are you driving?” he asked Lincoln. Lincoln beamed. “I suppose,” he responded, as if it was a daunting task he was willing to take on as part of the job. Garrett and I found a vacant spot in the pickup and Lincoln crawled up on Pick’s lap. Using muscle memory, he grabbed the steering wheel lever to reposition it and shifted the vehicle into drive. We began to amble down the road towards the herd, with Pick running the accelerator and brake while Lincoln managed the steering wheel—something he has been doing since he was four years old.
Once we reached the gate that led to the buffalo pasture, Lincoln jumped out to fill his respective roll as “gate getter,” then proceeded to get in the back seat with me to let Pick take over navigation responsibilities. Pick aimed the pickup toward the herd, which was about a quarter mile away across the pasture. As we got closer to shooting distance (about 50 yards from the buffalo), casual conversation ceased and the weight of the moment to come made its presence known. Even though I have watched hundreds, if not thousands, of buffalo harvests in the field, I feel the old familiar “primal spell” with every single shot. Garrett and Pick were quietly analyzing shooting windows while Lincoln and I stared intently at the herd. Once Pick had identified a safe shooting window, he maneuvered the pickup into position to take a shot. The buffalo of choice was evident to me now as it stood in a clearing, squarely facing the front bumper of the pickup. I whispered to Lincoln, “That’s the one he’s going for.” I pointed at a young female that stood contentedly chewing her cud. Click. Pick flicked the rifle’s safety off. The idle of the pickup’s diesel engine was the only sound now. Pick slowly squeezed the trigger. About a year ago, we started using a suppressor on our harvest rifles to mitigate the herd’s association between the sound of the rifle fire and the stun shot. This results in a nearly silent shot, the only sound that of the projectile moving through the air, followed by a hollow thump as it strikes the buffalo’s skull. All four of the buffalo’s legs folded simultaneously, bringing the now-unconscious animal to a position that, for only a moment, resembled a buffalo resting on its haunches. Slowly she tipped over on her side with legs stretched out.
Pick idled up beside the downed buff to check for any indication of a conscious response. Once he gave us the “all clear,” we quietly stepped out of the pickup. I took a moment to unpack the scene in front of me. It made me recall the day in the tree row with Garrett. Except this time, the kids are our little boys, bearing the seriousness of taking a living being’s life. Instinctively, the boys looked to our reactions for some idea of how to respond to what lay before them. Garrett and I spoke words of gratitude about the dead creature and admired its beauty and health. The boys followed suit by gently brushing the down along the cow’s hump.
No tears were shed by any little boys on that day. Bonds were built. Friendship prevailed. Gratitude was given by all. Death was beautiful.