Corn fields and barns aside, I don't know what I expected to find on my first-ever visit to Iowa last week. I'm sure though that had I really put my brain to work thinking about it, the last thing I thought I would have found would be a herd of wild buffalo roaming across a vast open prairie. But that is exactly what I found--and what an exciting and fun experience it was.
I went to Iowa in part to attend a niece's graduation and also to shoot photos for a new book I've just finished writing. The first inkling I got of what Iowa would look like came during the long slow approach that the plane made to the Des Moines International Airport. Unlike the quick-left-turn-and-jam-it-onto-the-runway landings that I'm used to on the east coast, landing in Iowa feels more like a scenic tour of the countryside from about 10,000 feet. From that vantage point all I could see was the perfect gridwork of still-brown corn fields and dirt roads and perfect rectangles of green dotted with pretty white farm houses. Even before I landed I knew I was going to love Iowa.
I knew when I planned this trip that I needed to spend at least two or three days actively looking for photos or the trip wouldn't be worth it. Unfortunately, unlike with most shooting trips that I plan, I simply didn't have time to research Iowa. I had to go for the graduation anyway, so I thought I would just point the rental car toward the countryside on my free days and find whatever I could find. As I usually do I prowled the brochure racks the first night in the hotel and crawled into bed after 11 hours of traveling with a small stack of tourist brochures.
Most of what I found was simply too far away to be practical or too tourist oriented to be worthwhile in terms of nature or farm photography. (To be honest, I was really hoping I'd stumble across a great big pig farm--something I've always wanted to photograph.) But there in one brochure was exactly the kind of listing I was hoping I'd find: "Friends of the Prairie Learning Center: The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge" was described as a 5,000 acre prairie restoration project (the biggest in America) and (this is the part that made my heart sing) they claimed to have a herd of wild buffalo with a self-driving auto tour road. There are few things I like more than tour roads through national wildlife sanctuaries!
On Monday with the graduation behind, I headed out to the tiny town of Prairie City, Iowa in search of two things: prairie and buffalo. I found both. The Neal Smith refuge is a wonderful place to visit and it has a spectacular learning center (I wish I had had more time to explore it), but what I wanted to see were those buffalo. Five minutes into my visit, through one of the picture windows in the visitor center, I spotted my first bison. I nearly ran back to the car to start the drive.
I'll skip the early parts of the drive and take you right into the heart of the story: As my friend and I turned down a road into the heart of the sanctuary, about a mile from the visitor center, we saw a sign warning us of "wild" and "upredictable" buffalo herds. Ignoring the sign's warning I got out of the car to shoot a snapshot of the sign! Less than a minute later we saw a herd of about 40 or 50 buffalo (including a large number of calves) moving directly toward us. There was no question we were going to have an encounter--the question was how friendly this was going to be! Within minutes the car was surrounded by 2,000 pound bison snorting and pounding across the gravel road all around us.
It's more than a bit spooky to find yourself engulfed in a herd of buffalo and any illusions that we had that they were in some way domesticated vanished. Buffalo have poor eyesight but great senses of smell and sound--they knew exactly where we were and who we were and they weren't about to let us encroach on their turf. They huffed and snorted and pounded along in the shallow ravine immediately next to the road (and our car!) and as thrilling as it was, I found myself wondering how a 2,000 pound Ford Taurus (hah!) would fare against an equally hefty bison.
I debated just starting the car up and moving on but before I could decide something spooked them and they took off in perfect unison like a...well, like a herd of wild buffalo. The photo above is not a great photo (I had to shoot it through the windshield), but you can see just how "up close and personal" our view became. It was frightening and fantastic!
The Neal Smith Refuge is a rare glimpse of the ancient prairie that we've so successfully destroyed--and it's worth a visit from anywhere. I'll write more about it in a future posting.