The second night of our volunteer work safari on the American Prairie Reserve, there were fireworks in the sky. As the sun set behind the pond at Grouse Camp, a storm cloud stretched dark blue across the horizon, darkening two thirds of the sky. It brewed for three hours, then moved toward us.
We watched from outside the yurt as the pink sunset outlined a veil of rain. White bolts hit the ground and throbbed; fingers of light opened sideways from cloud to cloud. As night and rain fell and white flashed from every direction, we enjoyed from inside the truck the chance to feel the prairie’s power.
Dawn came cool and clear, a soft pink in the east. As the land began to heat again, repeating its cycle, we got back to work. For three full days in early August, we removed old fences so the bison can roam freely. We spent our days in leather gloves doing real, honest, physical work, surrounded by trucks and dogs and telling each other stories.
Reserve staff taught us to snip rusty wires from their posts, lever up metal stakes, knock down wooden fence posts, and roll barbed wire into a circle like a cowboy’s lasso. We felt firsthand the tenacity of prairie grass. In fences made of wire squares, the bottom rungs were trapped by roots six inches into the soil. Team pulling wouldn’t budge them. Those wires we dragged to light with the pickup and a heavy chain.
Clearing the yard of an old homesite turned up wagon wheels, an old stove, and inside, a handwritten tally on the wall of the day’s hunting spoils: coons, rats, and skunks.
When the afternoon heat built, Reserve staff eager to share their knowledge took us exploring. We saw a burrowing owl and its baby poking their heads from a prairie dog hole, buffalo bellowing in the rut, and pronghorn bounding through grass. A buffalo jump and the blue waters of Fourchette Bay were also on the agenda.
The last night, our dinner was sliders with the world’s best broccoli slaw, served at the picnic table by the pond. We cooked s’mores over a campfire and laughed again about that time our fellow volunteer said he sucked a snake up a ShopVac. A biologist staying at camp told us how he would head into the night with a spotlight, seeking the shining green eyes of the black-footed ferret.
When we turned in, the canvas flapped against the yurt’s wooden structure, like fists hitting a volleyball, reminding me just where I was–inside one of the only structures for miles, catching a small part of unbroken wind. Our send off came at 2 a.m., the sound of thunder unimpeded: a single crack, powerfully loud, as if the bolt dove to land from the very center of the sky.
We left in a calm blue-gray morning, grateful to have experienced the reserve and to have played one of many, many parts in bringing to life American Prairie Reserve’s vision. We had seen our section of prairie clear of fence. I could imagine the bison moving across it. And I, too, felt newly freed.