The Great Escape

A rusty chain.
An aggressive mob.
A “nice day for it…”
“Bison out on Stonehouse Mountain Road!”

Just as I was pouring the hot water into the French press, the front door flies open and Laurie is yelling that “there are bison up on Stonehouse Mountain Road.” Mike bolts out the door, I pivot toward the bedroom to change into gear to go on a hunt. I am surprisingly calm and thankful for the few first chapters I have digested of the book “Nature of Consciousness” over the past few days. I even decide to slow down, pour a to-go cup of my coffee and radio Mike to see if we might develop a strategy first. My job is to take a Jeep up to Stonehouse Mountain Road while Mike and Laurie find the source of the fence problem and see how far some bison are from that point. They locate a gate with a twenty-year old rusty chain busted and start trekking on ATV’s up through the forest.

The call came from some neighbors living along that road when they pulled back their curtains to find bison standing in their yard grazing. A call to 911 got sheriffs deputies up there pretty quickly and they used their sirens and squawk horns to frighten them back across the road to our side of the country block. It sure is great to have your community know who you are and to jump into action to provide support. As I got up onto that road, I saw the tree clearing crew that has been working in our area for the power company the past two months clearing the right-of-ways for all power lines. They are a fun group of Latinos that mostly don’t speak English and like to stop in the store for bison jerky and trail sticks on their breaks. When I pulled up to their lift trucks, they were all alert and excited because they had just seen a group of bison one minute before I arrived, apparently stampeding along the clearing they were working in and wondering how dangerous these furry beats might be. As soon as the group of bison realized the work crew and trucks were blocking the way ahead, they turned into the woods and back in the direction of the farm. Through my broken Spanish and their broken English, they got me moving in the right direction on foot. Flying through the tall grass and running like Forest Gump so that I would not land wrongly on a ground hog hole or a tractor tire rut, I made my way across a pasture and bam…there they were. Looking all frisky and charged up, like they had just finished a trough of Red Bull and decided they would go explore the mysterious world on the other side of the fence. Maybe 8 or 10 of them in total. They took a quick look at me and seemed to know that they were in trouble for being in the wrong place and spun around toward the direction of the farm and ran full speed into the woods. Thankfully each time it was in the direction of the farm, and I wondered how long that luck was going to keep up.

Since there were 200 bison in the escaped herd and these guys were headed in the right direction, I decided to go back to the Jeep and check more of the road. The first deputy I encountered seemed to know who I was without me saying a word and told me to follow him to more bison up the road, so at crazy high speeds on sharp winding turns, we raced ahead passing people going to work and probably wondering why a black Jeep was chasing a sheriff’s SUV with lights blazing at high speeds. We didn’t find any bison where he led me, so I went on foot for a while to see what I might find. I quickly realized that we were attempting to search an area that is easily 4,000 acres, and I on foot, for animals that run at 40 mph and are as wild as any deer, elk or moose in North America. I called Mike to see if we could get help and an ATV up on my side, about 2-3 miles away from the nearest point of our property. He and Laurie found a group of 7 bison and were focused on getting them back in. No help was coming. I decided to use the Jeep in 4-wheel drive and scour the pastures that made up the other half of our farm when it was originally farmed by John M. Lewis and his brother long ago. With nothing to be seen, I figured it might be better to act more as a sentry to keep bison from crossing the road, which would have made rounding them up infinitely more difficult. I turned back onto the pavement, rounded the first bend and there in front of me, between two small houses, was a group of more than 100 bison cows and calves just starting to step onto the tarmac to head to the other side and the wilderness beyond. I slammed the car into park, leapt from the Jeep and started flailing my arms while hooping and hollering. It worked! They spun around and started a stampede back between the two housed and the large vegetable garden between them…uh-oh…all these amazingly ready to pick July ripe vegetables under a stampede of more than 400 hooves…wow did I feel terrible.

Just past the garden was the wood line and a long narrow ATV trail that they started down. I followed them for 40 minutes and nearly 3 miles on foot as fast as I could run. I could tell that we were headed west toward our road on Scotts Mill, but we definitely were not headed toward the farm, so some panic started to settle in as I realized that I left my phone in the car, with the car running and sitting in the middle of the road with the door wide open. Without a phone, being outside of the range of our radio frequency and on foot, I was sure I would lose them and be stuck out in the middle of no-where on foot and totally useless. Eventually they led me to a large open pasture recently cut to hay with large round bales all around the field and they slowed to a walk and started grazing. It was actually a beautiful scene. Amazing weather, perfectly manicured hay field on a broad knoll surrounded by lush green mid-summer forest. Only problem is that I had no idea where I was and what to do next. I took advantage of the height of the knoll and called Mike and Laurie on the radio and it intermittently worked. After a lot of repetition, I was able to get Mike, who was on an ATV in the lower woodlands along the creeks, to understand that I was with the bulk of the escaped bison and desperately needed help. I was able to get him to understand what direction we moved, but without any phone to Google-map in satellite mode to get bearings, I could not give him any idea of distance, proximity to the farm or specific direction. Then the bison were back on the move at full speed, so I just went back to running, Gump-like, behind them. It did occur to me that I didn’t need to do the mindless 30 minutes on my step-master exercising session today and that this was far more exhilarating and picturesque than our basement.

The bison encountered a barbed wire fence and came to a stop. Some of them slowly started moving in different directions, which was a potentially grave problem in that 10 small groups would be monumentally more difficult than one large herd to get home, so I started my pressure moves again with the arms and hollering. This caused the larger forward bison to decide that they could take on the barbed wire and “tink…tink…tink” the fence went as they snagged the wire in multiple places and plowed through like little bull-dozers. With the lead animals back on the move, all the stragglers that were originally turning in different directions, activated back into a single herd in stampede mode. Next came a pasture with grasses not mowed in years that was 8 feet tall and impossible for me to see what was going as I ran full speed through it following the rumbling sounds ahead. I tripped over something and looked back as the cutest every-seen tiny spotted fawn went scrambling away. Good thing it was me and not a 1200 lb. bison cow that came running across its napping spot. Back into the next set of woods, I was frantically trying to get Mike to help me with some idea of what to do next. It was only a matter of time before I would lose this large group of bison. He was amped…I was amped…there was a lot of yelling and confusion and all seemed to be going wrong as the bison got further away and I could no longer see them. As I crested the next ridge and they were completely gone from site and sound I heard a faint call from Mike’s voice in the distance. We were finally within proximity of each other. But wait…the sound that I heard was him calling the bison…could it be? I called him on the radio…”do you see them?” No reply. “Hey Mike, I yelled into the radio, do you actually have that herd with you now?”…”Yes!” he yelled back. Wholly crap! I have never been happier to have Mike yelling at me. After all that random crazy running through forests and fields we had somehow moved in the right direction and directly into his path. As soon as the they herd his voice and the ATV that they follow daily from one paddock to the next, they followed him directly back to the farm and the big gap in the fence that Laurie had cut open.

What an experience! The rest of the day involved Joe, Laurie and Mike searching the woods, pastures and creek beds of all the neighboring properties. I printed records and did head counts, listening all day to those three chattering on the radio as they found four bison here and six bison there. One major problem was that we hadn’t found any of the missing five large 3,000 lb. breeding bulls that could seriously damage cars, people and property. I finally made it back to where I left my car 2 hours later and thankfully one of the sheriff’s deputies found my car and put his cruiser directly behind with his lights flashing while he hung out with the trampled-veggie-garden neighbor chatting about all the excitement of the morning. I offered to pay for the damage to the vegetable garden and the old guy was so excited and animated to have bison running this way and that around his yard all morning (they were apparently around his house and yard a few times that morning before I got there) that he insisted that is was no problem and not to worry about the garden…he couldn’t wait to tell his son all about it later that day. I informed the deputy that we had the majority of the bison back (my group turned out to be 135 head), but that we were still searching for the bulls. I asked him to let the dispatcher and animal control know that they were very dangerous and anyone calling in bison sightings needed to be warned to stay very far away. I told him that we would be ready with rifles if needed and he got very wide-eyed about that comment…”they are that dangerous?!”…”Um…yes.” Guess he didn’t realize what he got himself into that morning.

By late that afternoon, the records listed 28 bison still missing. Joe, Laurie and Mike searched all the rest of the day, while I salvaged the remainder of my day-job work. That evening Mike readied a truck and trailer with ATV’s loaded up and ready to activate as soon as a sighting was called in, assuming that as time progressed any loose bison would be much farther away. Back in 2000 another bison farm in Culpeper lost about 8 bison off their property never to get them back. They were eventually all hunted down over the next 3-4 years by the owner or other hunters that scalped the meat. I headed into town for Book Club looking left and right the whole way for a sighting. I could not help but picture bison running down Main St. as I passed through town.

The next morning, I woke with a sinking feeling about what havoc and complication 28 bison running around Culpeper County was going to do to my day and the coming weeks. The Book Club hangover I had didn’t help…you never know where a Cointreau night-cap conversation with Heather is going to lead. As I putz around my office and contemplate our next move it suddenly dawns on me that we have 14 bison in the coral that we were holding to go to the processor that day…and that Mike processed 14 bison a week ago and that 14 + 14 is an oddly coincidental number to the 28 missing bison. I frantically pulled all my notes together and Bam!…there it is. No bison missing. Just records not yet updated from the day that we sorted those 28 bison off of that herd and too much excitement the day before to recognize the obvious. What a relief. Sudden wave of comfort and serenity. Of course now I had to share the news with Mike that despite his sleepless night, getting up at 3am to start search work, contacting the local radio station to have them broadcast a report and provide instructions on bison sightings, and the severe ankle sprain and swelling that he experienced early that morning in a creek-bed ravine…despite all that effort, he wasn’t going to find any more bison outside of our farm and that all were safely back home and in their pasture, grazing away like nothing ever happened and probably day-dreaming about that one day where they got to run wild and free.

A brand-new chain.
A reunited herd.
Still “a nice day for it…”
Serenity and calm returns to the farm.