BY STEPHANIE NICOL
PHOTOS BY GEOFF NICOL

How one man’s passion evolved into one very special northern Indiana destination

“Nee Hee Enee a Don Av Do” is Native American for “Your life is a part of my heart,” and something Scott Lonewolf shares at the end of each tour he leads at the Wild Winds Buffalo Preserve in northern Indiana’s Steuben County. The phrase illustrates the impact these animals have on those who visit here.

Scott is one of six passionate staffers who work at the preserve. And while each has their own reason for being drawn to spending time here, they all share one thing in common— their love and respect for Native American ways, the land, and of course, the buffalo.

Technically, the animals are actually “bison,” and there are more than 180 of them on this 500-acre preserve. Developed in the early 1990s by John Trippy, an oral surgeon by trade, Wild Winds is the result of a young boy’s dream. Many years ago, when John was just eight years old, his parents took him to Yellowstone for a family vacation and it was there that he saw his first bison. The photo of John and this bison, taken with a Brownie Instamatic camera, is something he still has to this day.

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In 1989, John learned that Custer State Park in South Dakota was going to hold an auction to sell off some of their bison calves. This is where he bought the first of his herd— five females, and one bull calf named “Bosco.”

Three years later, John purchased the property where Wild Winds is today. At the time, John would sleep on a cot in an outbuilding on the property, working his day job and building fences at night. To this day, every fence post on the property has been blessed with tobacco and a prayer—a Native American tradition, and each has a photo of a feather. “If the feathers are in balance,” John explains, “then the earth and the sky are in line.” Wild Winds mantra is “To honor the land, the buffalo, and the people.” Native Americans have referred to John as “the white guy with the red heart.”

Four years after purchasing the property, John built a beautiful timber lodge which was to be his home. But after so many curious tourists and passers-by began coming to the preserve and, eventually wanting to spend more than just a day here, John began opening up the lodge to guests as more of a “bed and breakfast.” Today, he sleeps in the basement so that the lodge can be used as a retreat for visitors. The lodge features Native American art, an expansive back porch where guests can relax and see the bison herd up-close, and several guest rooms. Interestingly, a 10-foot tarpon caught by Grover Cleveland in 1889 is displayed above the kitchen windows. Known as “Big Smiling Jim,” the glass-encased fish was purchased by John while on one of his travels across the U.S. Overnight guests can also opt for tipis and raised safari tents.

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Guests who visit Wild Winds Buffalo Preserve can’t help but fall for these fascinating creatures. Each has their own distinct personality and have an interesting way of interacting not just with each other, but also with humans. Bill Elias, who maintains the grounds and gives tours, says the bison will actually “play” with him. “Sometimes when I toss them a bale of hay, they pick it up and toss it back. They continue this because they think it’s fun.” Bill also points out that the bison don’t need fencing. “If you keep the bison happy, they’ll stay. Fences are more to keep the people out than to keep the bison in.”

The preserve’s first bull calf, Bosco, passed away a few years ago at the age of 25, and to this day, each staff member, including manager Dee Feldbauer and groundskeeper Dan King can’t help but get choked up when they talk about him. It’s this passion for the bison, and the preserve, that will continue to draw people here. The bison certainly do become part of your heart.

When you go: For more information on tours, special events, hours, and overnight lodging and rates, contact Wild Winds at 260-495-0137 or www. wildwindsbuffalo.com. To learn about more other attractions and accommodations in Steuben County go to www.lakes101.org.