There are three important things to know when meeting a bison:
- A swinging tail is fine;
- a tail pointing up with the tip kinked down is also OK;but
- a tail and tip pointing straight up means trouble.
This knowledge comes in handy when coming face-to-face with Charlie, the 2,200 pound, dominate male of a 26-bison herd in the southwestern edge of Winnipeg.
And they're the stars of FortWhyte Alive's Prairie Legacy, The Bison And Its People, a half-day outdoor adventure cum bison safari.
Meet Charlie, the 2,200 pound dominate male bison at FortWhyte. Photo by Robin Summerfield.
The 26-head herd roams 80-acres of prairie, living off the scrubby grasslands year round and calving every May with the help of Charlie, a 6 1/2-foot-high, 12-foot-long furry stud in the group.
The hands-on history lesson takes guests by van, foot and canoe (or by snowshoe in the winter) on an engrossing, three-hour-long, fresh-air adventure which starts with an introduction to Charlie and his pack.
Guide Lisa Turner, also the centre's tourism and corporate programs coordinator and the co-creator of the tour, loads her guests into a large white passenger van.
By the end of the tour, Turner promises we will understand how bison influenced the lives of Aboriginals, the Métis and European settlers in Manitoba.
As we enter the paddock, she slowly drives up to the herd, giving the resting group a wide berth.
We edge closer and closer.
Guide Lisa Turner slowly inches the van closer to the bison herd. Photo by Robin Summerfield.
The wind's coming from the west, she tells her passengers, so we approach from that direction so the bison know we're in the vicinity long before we arrive.
"They have great hearing, a great sense of smell and a great sense of awareness but they have terrible vision. They're like me without my glasses," Turner says.
She points to Twisty, the dominate female in the herd who was named such because one horn twists downward. (Besides Charlie and Twisty, none of the other bison are named because "they're not pets," Turner says.)
Introducing Twisty, the dominate female bison at FortWhyte. Photo by Robin Summerfield.
We've met the herd in early morning. Some of the calves are still sleeping on the grass while the adults chomp on wild grass or chew their cud.
The bison sniff, snort and roll around on the ground near the van, non-plussed by our presence. They are massive, majestic and very mellow.
They don't put on a show for us and frankly, that's just fine. The real thrill is getting close enough to these wild creatures that you can actually see their breath vapourizing in the brisk morning air.
Millions of bison roamed North America until they were hunted almost to extinction. Photo by Robin Summerfield.
The tour first launched in November 2011 and is all about feeling, touching and exploring, Turner says.
In April 2012, it was named one of Canada's top signature travel experiences by the Canadian Tourism Commission. The designation is both a feather in the centre's cap and also a boon for marketing the program across the country and beyond.
FortWhyte's urban bison safari is just the first stop on the tour. After our bison encounter, we walk along a nature trail alongside the paddock to a view point just 500 metres away.
Turner points out native plants Aboriginal people ate and used medicinally. We sit inside a Cree plains tipi as Turner pulls out a bison-hide box filled with household tools, all made with either bison bones, horns, hair and hide.
Inside FortWhyte's Cree tipi the 13 poles come together at the peak. In Cree spirituality, each pole represents each full moon of the year and were used to mark time. Photo by Robin Summerfield.
We learn how to throw a spear and atlatl, a 100-year-old weapon that increases a spear's reach by 100 yards.
We stop at sod cabin, a replica of the homes constructed by Manitoba's first European settlers.
Turner walks us by a red river cart on the way to one of FortWhyte's ponds.
Here we don lifejackets, get a quick canoeing lesson and paddle like voyageurs.
Adventurers get a taste of voyageur life, paddling on the water during FortWhyte's Prairie Legacy tour. Photo by Robin Summerfield.
Migrating Canadian geese land with a skidding kerfuffle across the quiet pond.
Back on land, Turner teaches us how to make the perfect bannock, unleavened bread, on a stick over an open fire. In about four minutes we're gobbling up smoky bites dressed with maple syrup and cinnamon sugar and sipping rose hip tea she's brewed with berries harvested from nearby bushes.
Even low heat bakes the bannock perfectly at the open-air cook hut at FortWhyte Alive. Photo by Robin Summerfield.
In three short hours, Turner, with help from her friends Charlie, Twisty and the rest of the herd, have delivered as promised and then some.
We leave full of fresh air, a new appreciation of Aboriginal, Métis and settlers' lives on the prairies and, best of all, we're energized by our close encounter with a herd of shaggy beasts roaming the prairie.
Bison Fast Facts
• For every hair on a cow, a bison has seven.
• Bison have strong noses they use to shovel snow and dig down to prairie grasses to eat in the winter months.
• They can run 60 kilometres an hour for three hours straight, jump six-feet-high, jump from a standing position, turn 180 degrees in the air and then land.
• Rutting season is typically in mid-September. Gestation is 9 1/2-months-long.
Tours run year round. To book your bison safari at FortWhyte Alive call 204-989-8355 or visitfortwhyte.org.