Where the Buffalo Roam

by Dan Harvey Pedrick

"Men of the High North, the wild sky is blazing!"

--Robert Service

"Polo is the most fun you kin have without gettin' nekkid."

--Anonymous Canadian cowboy

It was the most exciting polo match in history. It was, somewhere in the southern hemisphere--Argentina, I think, 'cause everyone was speaking Spanish. Thousands of spectators were on their feet like soccer fans, cheering wildly and waving flags and banners as the last chukka was about to begin. The tension was overwhelming. Suddenly someone I knew ran up to me.

"Dan!" he gasped, trying to catch his breath. "Gonzalo's been hurt! You'll have to play, and may the Virgin of Guadalupe protect you!" Shaking, I pulled on my helmet and walked toward the pony lines where I was met by a grim-faced groom who handed me rein and mallet. I mounted up and rode out to meet my teammates, waiting impatiently for me in the lineup. Then a strange thing happened: a cock crowed. But it was not the characteristic "Cu- cu-ru-cu-roo!" of the Latino rooster; rather, it was the "Cock-a doodle-doo!" of the anglophonic variety. Suddenly everything went fuzzy. The field, the players, and the roaring crowd faded away in a cloud of swirling mist.

The cock crowed again, Yankee style, and my mind began to struggle with the widening gap between dream and reality (always a tough spot for me). I blinked in the brilliance of the obscenely early dawn streaming into my room--a strange room, and I a stranger in it. My eyes slowly focused on the face of a clock which told an hour too early for such light. Then I remembered: I was in the far north, not the far south, the Alaska highway was just a few blocks away along the unpaved streets of Dawson Creek, and the last thing I recalled before crashing out in this room at Nanook's Bed & Breakfast was a warning to refrain from sleep-walking through the backyard fence and wandering into the neighbour's buffalo herd, as an unfortunate previous guest had apparently done.

At the third cock's crow my wife beside me whimpered sadly for her fading slumber and I became more fully aware of who I was and what I was doing here. "We'll send you to Argentina some other time," my editor at Polo had explained. Meanwhile, it was get into our beat up old Vedub van and head up towards the Arctic Circle to investigate the alleged northernmost polo club on the planet where we were expected by the organization's charismatic founder, president, and spiritual advisor, Cledwynn Lewis.

All I knew for sure about the legendary Lewis was that I had once seen him break up a group of brawling cowboys in a dusty southern B.C. town with no more than a look. Of course the scrappers may have feared that his services would be withheld if they did not obey, as Lewis also practices medicine in his spare time. Further exploits of Doc Lewis were likewise the stuff of myth, as I was soon to learn, and none more so than how the fellow had acted as the midwife that brought the Grande Prairie Polo Club into this world.

Doc Lewis had come to the windswept foothills of northwestern Alberta from his native Wales at the urging of his old friend and fellow adventurer, Diamond Jack Wynter. Previously the two had been surgeons together in the British Army. Army life had given Lewis a chance to develop his polo skills, while Wynter gravitated toward the thespian arts. Arriving in 1974, Lewis discovered that his old sidekick had been correct in describing a land possessed of all the essential ingredients for polo: vast and level terrain, an abundance of horses, a population of skilled and aggressive riders. The way Doc Lewis had it figured, forming a polo club was simply a matter of convincing the local ranchers and cowpokes that polo was a game worthy of their own hard-riding traditions.

Like so many adventures in the lore of the West, the catalyst for this one was met in a local saloon. There, as Doc Lewis pondered his next move over a glass of imported pinot noir, he overheard three local fellows boasting about how they planned to rediscover the famous Edson Pioneer Trail which had brought the early settlers to the region from Fort Edmonton, traversing what is still a vast area of unsettled wilderness. A nod to the barkeep and the three gratefully fixed their attention on Lewis as they saluted him with brimming mugs.

As it turned out, the would-be frontiersmen lacked everything but enthusiasm for their proposed venture. After expressing admiration for their bravery, Lewis agreed to provide horses and other necessary support for the expedition. In return, the beneficiaries of his largesse agreed to devote themselves to the establishment of the Grande Prairie Polo Club as soon as the trek was over.

Putting aside their indenture to Lewis for the time being, the men embarked on what was to be a memorable but short journey. A day's ride from Grande Prairie found them bedding down under the stars in an upbeat mood. Some say the northern wilderness does strange things to a man's mind. That, combined with a generous round of "nightcaps" celebrating the first day's success may have led to the tragedy that followed. Anyway, it seems that one of the three amigos wandered away from the campfire to heed a call of nature. Certain that the large lumbering beast lurking in the bush was a grizzly bear about to attack, he pulled his revolver and proceeded to spray the string of horses Doc Lewis had provided with gunfire. Understandably sore, the animals stampeded off into the night leaving the three trail blazers to face the challenges of the Edson Trail on foot. A couple of days later the dispirited men wandered back into Grande Prairie, wet, tired, hungry--and ashamed.

"No matter," said Lewis. "You'll still do for the task at hand." The rest is, as they say, history. As for the equine casualties lost in what has come to be known as the Edson Trail Massacre, some were eventually recovered. Certain folks even swear that one went on to become the fledgling club's best playing pony, but no one can remember its name or who played it.

So goes the Creation Myth of the Grande Prairie Polo Club. - - -

After maintaining our northerly course for many miles of mountainous ascents and descents, through towering forests and over rushing rivers, we finally rolled out onto a vast, undulating plain. As far as the eye could see the land was cultivated in a tapestry of various grain plantations, woven with the brilliant yellow warp of blooming canola (a hybridized mustard weed now challenging wheat for the title of Canada's top crop). We turned off into the grain fields as instructed and headed down an arrow-straight dirt road looking for "the moat" and "the broken windmill" that marked the house of Doc Lewis and his Lady Loretta as a great plume of prairie dust erupted behind us. These unmistakable landmarks were soon encountered, in the absence of much else, and we turned into the driveway.

The substantial Lewis residence is situated on a slight rise affording a broad view of the surrounding prairie and a nearby lake. Farther back on the quarter section of land is a generous sized barn, ample stabling (created as much for the frequent visitors as for Lewis's own horses), and a full-sized virgin polo field, slated for consecration in the not-too-distant future.

"Hail, fellow! Well met!" shouted Lewis, emerging from the dust clouds raised by arriving horse trailers, some from as far away as Winnipeg, a good fifteen-hundred miles across the plains. I could barely reply before I was handed a can of Moosehead and offered a seat in a pickup truck. "We'll head over to Loretta's fields and see our bold youth in action," he said, and we sped off through the canola once again.

I soon learned that polo fields are not a rarity in the north-- everybody seems to have their own--although they exhibit a wondrous variety of contour. The one we arrived at ran lengthways along the side of a hill, but it was regulation size and the topography didn't seem to bother anybody, least of all the youthful players who were busily engaged in novice level chukkas on this eve of the Western Canadian Polo Championships Tournament. When the kids had finished to the hearty cheers of proud parents and friends, all headed back to Lewis's moated mill where an enormous feast had been made ready by the efforts of a squad of volunteers.

"This isn't really one of the official parties," explained my host as I stood gazing open-mouthed at the food and drink being laid out. "Those affairs will commence tomorrow night after the first day of play. This is just a warmup, a dress rehearsal, shall we say."

Cledwynn's spacious home was to be the venue for all of these events to come, I was told, over the next three nights. The main centre of activity was a large upstairs salon opening onto a broad second story sundeck surrounding half of the house. As the guests poured in, a massive billiard table resounded with the crack of balls, punctuated by popping corks at the adjacent bar.

"It's big enough, so there's no need for anyone to bother about driving home afterwards," explained Greg Ross, a volunteer in the brigade carrying cases of wine up from the cellars below. I thought of the one or two little parties a year at our home club and shook my head in disbelief. I grabbed a plate piled high with incredible edibles, a goblet of excellent French claret, and sat down at a table outside on the deck where I was introduced to rancher Dan Duggan as "a visiting journalist."

"Oh, yeah?" he replied. "Hope you don't end up like the last 'journalist' we had here."

"And who was that?" said I, sipping my claret to conceal my rising alarm.

"Don't remember his name," said Dan, "We just call him the Naked Journalist."

I took another sip of Bordeaux--a gulp really--which unfortunately ended up in my lungs rather than my stomach, precipitating a fit of coughing. "The Naked Journalist?" I sputtered. "Why do you call him that?" I didn't really want to know.

"Well, he said he was one of them freelancers, writin' for The Western Horseman or somebody. Later he got real drunk and offered to take some pictures of the girls skinny-dippin'. Some of their men got sore, includin' me, especially when my wife found him in our bed, nude as a carrot and snorin' like a bear. I grabbed him by the foot and dragged him out to the moat so he could do a little skinny-dippin' himself. After his moonlight swim, he crawled out and into Harry Riverbottom's tipi where they were still partyin' pretty hearty. Somebody gave him a blanket but nobody knew where his clothes got to. Next morning he was gone."

"To the Naked Journalist," I said, raising my glass again.

The sun had been up for many hours when the guests began to stir, but it was still relatively early in the day. There was plenty of time to cook up a breakfast for everyone and still get horses ready in time to play at noon. It was Friday, the first official day of the Tournament. The next three days would follow the same pattern: Zero goal match at noon, novices at 2 p.m., and high- goal (relatively speaking, of course) at 3 p.m. Each game would be at a different field. Afterwards everyone would return to Cled and Loretta's for another celebration of la vie polo, catch a few hours of sleep if they could, and hit the turf again the next day.

The 3 p.m. event was played on the field of Murray Sutherland. Long a well known name in Alberta ranching and business circles, Sutherlands have made their marks in a variety of endeavors. Murray's brother Kelly has made a career in the incredibly dangerous sport of chuckwagon racing, eschewing polo as "too crazy." Murray's son Tyrel attained a prodigious size and skill as a poloist by the age of fourteen when he played with Ron Greene's victorious Calgary team in the 1992 USPA President's Cup at Eldorado where he was seen to be a long ball hitter. Now carrying a two-goal USPA handicap, Tyrel still has a reputation as a ringer. Murray's playing field is distinctive, too. When you stand in one goal the other is invisible, being over the hill. When in doubt, just gallop toward the horizon.

After the battle, played under a burning sun that seemed to hover directly overhead for hours, the entire company once again retreated to the moated mill where the first "official" celebratory feast was being prepared. This time, Cajun Jambalaya was on the menu. For the second straight night players, guests, and camp followers, partied during the few short hours that the sun dipped below the horizon. A tell-tale red glow remained across the northern sky promising to flare up into another long summer day with the first breath of dawn.

After my portion of Jambalaya and a couple of goblets of the incredibly numerous varieties of wine continuously emerging from the cellars below, I could feel my body looking for a soft spot to fall on. Yet, I hadn't even played, and these crazy northerners were just winding up for another wing-ding.

I plopped down on a sofa next to a mature fellow in baggy jeans who looked like a hick farmer. "At least this should be relaxing,' I thought. 'Maybe we can talk about canola, or something.' Wrong. Ross Fargey noticed that I had not a drink and leapt to his feet to get me one, ignoring my feeble protestations. I then learned, between exhortations to make quicker work of the beer he had brought me, that this "hick farmer" was a former pro hockey player and a respected micro-biologist with a world-wide reputation earned through years of working with the Canadian International Development Agency. This role was only a front, however, barely concealing a life-consuming passion for polo of the most exotic kind, played with the colorfully robed princes and warlords of West Africa.

"I took Cled, Ross, and Murray over for a little expedition last year," Ross explained, "so they'd stop accusing me of exaggerating about it. I guess they thought I was B.S.ing a bit, especially about such things as the flogging of grooms. Of course we couldn't resist pulling Murray's leg a bit. We obtained the services of this strumpet in Accra, a little Pygmy she was. Her instructions were to follow Murray around calling him by name." Fargey was now sinking down in the cushions, overcome with mirth. "...and Murray kept saying, 'How the hell does she know my name?'"

So much for hick farmers. You couldn't trust anyone around here. I tried another room, another couch. There I spied Ross Adam, a tall family man sporting a copious growth of whiskers and moustaches reminiscent of Buffalo Bill, all under a veritable ten- gallon stetson. I had already been warned about Adam: he possessed the largest domestic bison herd in Canada. More than two thousand head had the run of his 15,000 acre ranch only a few miles away. Naturally I was fascinated. I mean, who wouldn't be? Right away I was invited to help move the herd to some higher ground.

"You can herd Buffalo anywhere they want to go," deadpanned Ross. "Yep, they're different than cattle, and they don't care for horses at all. If you get too close, they'll charge. If you really get in trouble, better dismount. They respect pedestrians, for some reason."

The sight of the herd the next morning spread out along the flats of the Smoky River was unforgettable. We were looking down upon them from a steep bluff six or seven hundred feet above. Ranch manager Les Funk led our party consisting of a few ranch hands and about six thrill-seeking polo players. We followed Les down a steep Snowy River-type descent and soon ambled out onto the flats. The buffalo had heard us coming and were already in the process of disappearing like so much smoke in the morning air.

"Keep up!" Les exhorted us, breaking into a canter. The herd was quickly vanishing up the steep trail that led to the high pasture, several miles away. We were all cantering after them up the mountainside but the huge herd was already out of sight around a bend. Suddenly there was a sound like like rushing water, only deeper. Les raised his hand and we all reined up, listening. In another second the herd came barreling back down around the bend straight at us, snorting and wild-eyed in full-blown stampede. I looked at Les. Even he started to waver. Our ranks started to break up as some of our troop wheeled to retreat. But suddenly a little Heeler dog who had been accompanying us came to the fore and made a suicidal charge right into the maw of this tidal wave of hoof and horn. The beasts were so surprised that they actually hit the brakes for a second. Les siezed the moment and began howling and waving his hat, rallying the other drovers to stand their ground and do the same. So there we were, ki-yiing like banshees while the buffalo were piling up against one another and threatening to knock us all over the edge, and nothing between us and them but this maniacal little dog, snapping and growling like a Tasmanian Devil.

Incredibly, the buffalo began to back off and turn around. Les ordered us forward. "Keep 'em in sight!" he shouted, and we were off like the wind once again. When the last gate finally closed behind the galloping herd, we headed back to the Adam Ranch house and appropriately feasted on buffalo burgers. It is an excellent meat, very tasty and low in cholesterol.

Meanwhile, there was more polo to be played and another long day unfolded, ending up with yet another bacchanal at the Olde Mill & Moat. Determined to attain an understanding as to why, or rather, how these people managed to expend energy at such a rate, I propped my eyelids open with some spare toothpicks and looked ever further afield for the conversation that would shed some light on the phenomenon. I finally began to formulate a theory during a late chat with gravelly-voiced airline pilot Bill Hetherington. Bill had been announcing the games during the day and was now expounding on the history of his own personal ethic regarding the Game of Kings while rapidly depleting the beer supply from a large ice tub on the sundeck.

I felt an insight coming on and I stood up and walked away to clear my head, un-noticed by Bill who continued his soliloquy to an audience of none. This was the first night I actually saw people go to bed. The party was really tapering off now. Strains of Leonard Cohen had replaced the Crash Test Dummies on the stereo. I wandered away from the house for a moment on my way to our camper van, which was parked under the sundeck where I had lately been sitting. I looked up at the sky. The moon was temporarily hidden by some fast moving low clouds. Suddenly it hit me. It was not only these people, it was every living thing--the buffalo, the wildlife, the canola--all blooming and thriving in the apogee of the short but intense season. It's a matter of survival, now or never, the main chance: the biological imperative of the latitude.

These thoughts stayed with me as I carefully opened the door of our van where my wife lay sound asleep and quietly slipped into bed. Suddenly a gentle sprinkle began to fall on the raised camper top and I got that cozy feeling that John Sebastian sang about in "Rain on the Roof." But as I drifted towards a deep midsummer night's slumber, to dream of swelling canola buds and sparkling dew on morning turf, a harpy-like voice shattered my peace along with my romantic illusions.

"Bill, what do you think you're doing? The washroom's inside, OK?"

Suddenly the precipitation ceased. "Oh, God," I moaned. "What's wrong?" said my wife, lifting her head from the pillow.

"Never mind," I said. "Just a passing squall."

There is so much more I wanted to tell. There was another day of polo--the final. The hottest day yet. The country station was broadcasting live from fieldside. Thrills and spills. Don't you want to know who won? "Rock'n S" from Winnipeg. Trophies and toasts. And there was another party that night, of course, and every bit as wild as the first, 'cause they just never say die up here, at least not this time of year. And we saw a moose, and a bear, and... but my editor is drawing her finger across her throat. Deadline time fast approaches and I'm already way over time and space.

OK, I'll end it, now. We got up in the morning, pointed our old Vedub van south, and headed down a long dusty road. A cock crowed. Suddenly everything went fuzzy. The field, the players, and the roaring crowd faded away in a cloud of swirling mist.

(This piece was originally published in the November 1994 issue of POLO Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 6.)

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