Blue Hill Buffalo
My friend and I weren’t the only ones out of place on Long Island.
By Isaac Kestenbaum
Blue Hill, Maine, is anything but wild. The waterfront is developed, there’s a food co-op, a stately library, and family-friendly steel drum dances every Monday night during the summer. The local high school insists on calling itself an “academy.” Even Blue Hill itself, rising from the center of town, has been tamed by a well-maintained and clearly marked network of trails.
Growing up I’d always wished that my environment could have provided a little more adventure. And so one late summer weekend, before the start of our senior year of high school, my friend Myles and I planned a sailing trip to Long Island, four thousand acres of forest in the middle of Blue Hill Bay, within sight of downtown. The island once held a small town, even a post office.
But the woods had since reclaimed the land, save for a few vacation houses. The island’s return to wildness had so enticed the National Park Service that it purchased the entire island a few years earlier, turning it into a nature preserve.
The day we set out was bleak, the sea and sky both the color of slate. Before we had even pulled anchor, we managed to soak a bag full of clothing and ruin our camera — apparently, we had forgotten that the ocean is subject to tides. Boldly ignoring both this omen and the ominous weather, we arrived at Long Island without further incident. The clouds yielded to sun, we pitched our tent in a clearing near the beach, lit a small driftwood fire, and reclined on our bedrolls.
It was then that two small, furry creatures emerged from the woods far down the shore. As they drew closer, they revealed themselves to be, in fact, not small — but, rather, a pair of very large, shaggy buffalo.
We had heard that the family that once owned this island had imported a small herd of these animals, but the National Park Service was said to have removed them all. Yet here they were, two massive, intimidating piles of muscle headed directly for our camp. Bison are a non-native species, which was why they were being removed, yet they were at ease in their surroundings. They had eluded the park service; they were surely cunning. We had no idea what they would do next.
I set an arbitrary boundary: If the bison walk past that log, we’ll move.
That was how we soon found ourselves standing at the edge of the water, watching helplessly as the buffalo invaded our campsite to feast on the grass and flowers growing there. The rain returned, dampening our sleeping bags and extinguishing our fire.
Impatient with our beastly island-mates, we decided to scare them away. We had towed a small, motorized dinghy as a landing craft, and we were confident that the motor’s roar would terrify the animals. The tide was against us; our dinghy sat high on the beach. After pushing the boat through yards of cold mudflats, and when we were finally zooming back and forth in the choppy ocean in front of our camp, we learned an important lesson: Bison are unimpressed by the sound of an outboard motor.
Landing on the beach for a second time, we were cold, wet, and desperate. Myles and I exchanged few, if any, words — perhaps just a manly nod — and then we charged the beach, shouting as loud as we could, pounding sticks into the ground. It was primal. It was brave. It was probably stupid. And yet, either because of our efforts, or because they had their own agenda, the bison sauntered off.
Too exhausted to enjoy our victory, we retired to our tent. Our gear was soaked and the storm lasted all night. I awoke, shivering, to find my sleeping bag in a puddle of water. We cut the journey short and sailed home the next day in heavy rain.
Despite, or, more truthfully, because of the hardship we faced, this adventure is now a favorite tale; a badge of honor. I believe we sought our misfortunes, if not entirely consciously. How else to explain the fact that we carried no compass, ignored weather reports, and used photocopied pages from a road atlas in place of a nautical chart?
We lived in a tamed Maine, whose dirt roads had been paved and whose waters were thoroughly explored. To find adventure, you had to make things harder for yourself.
With a little intentional incompetence — and some help from imported wildlife — the ancient battle between man and nature was again a fair fight. Maine’s wild heart still beats, faintly, for those determined or foolish enough to find it.