It was snowing when we headed inland to Forest Peaslee’s buffalo ranch, the largest in Maine. Like so many places in rural Maine, the ranch doesn’t have an address that Map Quest can track, so we drove along tentatively, looking for signposts and landmarks that Peaslee had described to us.
We had scheduled a photo shoot to get images for a story on buffalo ranches in Maine. The weather was perfect for the photos we had in mind: a snowy winter day with brooding bison standing firm against the elements in a desolate landscape. But what would these icons of the Western plains look like in the Maine woods?
Turning off the highway onto dirt roads that hadn’t been plowed yet, we followed the tracks made by the locals who, we were sure, drove pickups, not PT Cruisers. The low clearance of our little compact put us at eye-level with the snow banks on either side. “Just pray we don’t get stuck,” I said quietly. “Nobody would find us until spring, and I bet our cell phones would be useless out here.”
An overhead wooden sign, hanging Western-style over the deeply
rutted road, announced that we’d finally arrived at Rocky Mountain
Ranch. Another quarter mile and we’d found the subject of our quest:
big, dark brown, wooly bison that glowered at us with black beady eyes.
“They’re gorgeous!” I yelped. This was a big moment for me: I’d never
seen buffalo up close and personal.
Jim pulled on knee-high insulated boots and trudged slowly over to
the fence with his camera and tripod. The bison eyed him warily,
gathering around a small calf that we later learned was only a couple
of months old. With the snow falling heavily now, and temperatures in
the 20s, Jim stood stock still for several minutes until the small herd
started to graze again, a sign that they were relaxing a bit. Very
slowly, he set up his tripod in two feet of snow and started clicking
Just then, a ranch hand arrived in a huge tractor pulling a load of
hay bales for the animals. He opened the gate so Jim could get even
closer, but when the bison smelled the hay and moved toward us, Jim and
I both retreated behind the fence. “Not a bad idea,” the rancher said.
“These are wild animals and they will never become domesticated. You
shouldn’t trust them completely.”
We were invited to meet Peaslee further up the road where a much
larger herd was being introduced to some 15 new head that he’d just
purchased from Missouri. They were all skittish. So were we. When the
newcomers ventured too close to the main herd, they were charged until
they backed off. “If they decided to stampede,” Peaslee said, “you
wouldn’t be safe, even in your car.”
Jim took hundreds of shots, moving carefully and slowly around the
edges of the herd. The buffalo never let him out of their sight. With
every click of the camera, they glared at him, a clear warning that
they were only tolerating the interruption for now.
As the day darkened, the herd retreated into the shadows and became
virtually invisible. We left the ranch, retracing our route through the
snowy woods. Rounding the last corner, the headlights of the car threw
a beam of light on a massive bull standing alone in the dark, his black
face and horns reminding us one last time why these animals deserve our
respect. Jim grabbed one more shot. It was the best image of the day.
Merrill Williams is the publisher of Maine Food & Lifestyle magazine