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Originally published Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"American Buffalo" tracks the animal's history during a rare hunt

In "American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon," outdoor writer Steve Rinella pursues a buffalo in a rare hunt in an Alaska national park, writing the history of an iconic animal of the American West in the process.

Special to The Seattle Times

"American Buffalo:

In Search of a Lost Icon"

by Steve Rinella

Spiegel & Grau, 277 pp., $24.95

In 2005, outdoor writer Steve Rinella mailed a form and $10 to Alaska's state lottery, hoping to win one of 24 permits to hunt buffalo in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The odds weren't good; 1,303 other people applied.

Rinella had long harbored a fascination for the buffalo, tracking the animals "through mountains and prairies, zoos and ranches, libraries and laboratories, museums and tourist traps." But even at about 50 to one, the odds favored him, leading to his own physical encounter with buffalo. "This book, " he notes, "is my attempt to follow their trail."

The adventure, however, became "something of a curse." Not only would this remote region where Rinella planned to hunt be freezing in mid-October, but a host of Alaska Department of Fish and Game restrictions essentially reduced his options to floating in on a tributary of the Copper River.

Problem is, much of bison territory is private property. Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, great stretches of riverfront belonged to the native corporation Ahtna, which threatened diligent patrols and prosecution of trespassers attempting to cross these areas to reach their quarry.

"But there was one loophole, sort of," Rinella explains, which allows river travel through private land if one stays below the average high-water mark. He could camp on gravel bars or banks below this level and, if he was extremely lucky, might find and shoot a buffalo by the water before being seen or scented. Again, odds weren't good. Even if he beat them, he would need to drop the animal with a perfect shot to prevent it from running off. Too, unless the buffalo died on land, this wet, thousand-pound body might be stolen by the current before Rinella managed to beach it.

How he finds his prey and transports it to his raft in an allotted time forms the book's central story. Many other interesting topics related to bison crop up as his hunt progresses. The words buffalo and bison, for instance, are two names for the same thing; how our vocabulary came to contain both comprises one of Rinella's rambles from his main path.

Rinella's fascination with buffalo transcends his pursuit of them. He discusses their life cycle and their role in the nation's history — particularly in the 1870s, when completion of the Transcontinental Railroad made it ever more easy for hunters to kill vast numbers of the animals, resulting in their near-extinction.

He realizes killing a thing you love may make no sense to many people. It's another curse, this "curse of the human predator" to feel sorrow. "It's not so much a feeling of guilt," he writes, "as an amalgamation of many things: thankfulness for the meat," as well as an appreciation of the animal's beauty and history.

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Within minutes of shooting a female, though, the "immensity of the chore ahead of me" strikes him. He has no time to dawdle with his feelings. Instead, he walks around her body, which is as big as a rowboat. Soon, Rinella knows, the meat will begin to freeze. Other carnivores including wolves and grizzlies will smell blood, putting both the time necessary for butchering and his own safety in jeopardy.

Rinella grew up hunting and fishing with his father and brothers. A correspondent for "Outside" magazine and contributor to "Field and Stream," he is clearly at home with the work facing him and writing about it. The story's pace deliberately slows to accommodate more detail. His reverence for the animal and the step-by-step account of its dressing are fascinating; his gift for apt similes and metaphors complements the seriousness of the venture.

This engaging book brings home the satisfactions of one man's self-reliance in an age when little we do alone so directly supports our survival. Too, it's a journey into the snowy north, where the beauty and bounty of a faraway land come powerfully alive.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner

now lives and writes in New Mexico.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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