Meeting Mr. Elk

While visiting Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California, I took a hike out to Fern Canyon (see previous post for pictures of the dripping-wet walls).  I hiked the longer loop of the trail out to the canyon and the Pacific shore, took a little break, and then headed back.  Along the way, I saw frequent (and recent) elk droppings, but no other sign of the creatures.  I’ve been in elk county for a few thousand miles now, and have yet to see one.  To be honest, it seems a little odd.  In a lot of these places, there are plenty of them, and I’m always hanging around somewhere cool as evening falls, so you’d think they’d happen along.

Well, in this particular case, evening was indeed starting to think of falling: the light angle was getting a little lower, a cooler breeze was blowing.  I was walking a little more quickly, trying to get off the trail and down the road to a campsite before dark.  After a couple days among them, I had gotten used to the enormity of the redwoods, and was no longer gazing all around me in wonder, but letting my thoughts wander a bit.

Suddenly I round a little corner and find myself nearly face-to-face with a bull elk!  That’s why you’re supposed to be aware of your surroundings, I guess.  He grunted at me a little, and I quickly backed up, making myself look big and talking to him all the while.  He didn’t really seem to be too perturbed, and I found that from the previous curve I actually had a pretty good view of him (i.e., I wouldn’t have had to surprise him if I’d have been paying attention).  He quickly went back to scratching himself with his HUGE rack of antlers, and stood around for a while.  I began to wonder what would happen if he decided not to move.  I didn’t particularly want to stand there for several hours.  Well, I thought, I can always just go around him, climb this little hill up to the ridge and then drop back to the trail when I’m past him.  There were some pretty good landmarks for how far I’d have to go: a huge redwood stump, a tree with burn scars.  Upon further examination, however, I realized that this would be no easy meander through the woods.  When redwoods fall down, they are still huge, and I would have to climb either over or around several of them.  The groundcover ferns were as tall as I was, and some parts of that slope were covered in dense brush, as well.  Of course, as the sun went behind the hills, I began to think of all the other wildlife I hadn’t seen yet on my trip.  What if, in climbing under an enormous fallen tree, I stumbled upon a bear, or even a cougar??  No amount of rationally examining the unlikelihood of that eventuality could get the thought out of my head, so I was glad when the elk began to amble farther down the trail.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Why is she so afraid of a little old elk?  A bear or a cougar, I could see, but elk are just like big deer, right?”  Hmm.  Maybe.  But a Roosevelt Elk bull can weigh over a thousand pounds, and this one was as tall as I am, with his rack spreading at least three feet from one pointy antler to another.  Another consideration: the rut was just beginning among these herds in northern California, and this guy wandering around by himself just might be a little frustrated.  I didn’t really want to mess with an aggravated and horny bull.  I waited a long while, until I had heard no sounds from the direction he’d gone for a good ten minutes.  I decided to venture slowly around the sharp corner to see if I could see any sign of the elk.

Oops!  I sure did see a sign of him: not ten feet past the sharp bend, he had decided to lie down and make himself comfortable right in the middle of the trail.  He turned and glared at me, and I quickly backed out of sight again.  Well, he may be there for the rest of the night for all I know.  I guess I’ll just have to climb up and around according to the original plan. So I started up the hill, scrambling around and partially over the first fallen tree on the slope, and struggling to keep my footing on the branches buried by layers of decaying ferns.  My plan was to head more or less straight for the ridge-top, where I could keep a good eye on where I was going and where I’d been.  After crawling through some kind of animal’s trail through the brush, I emerged on the ridge… and the other loop of the trail!  I had known I was getting close to the junction, but hadn’t realized that it was just at the top of the hill.  Another reason to always carry a good map, even when you’re just going day hiking…

I continued down the trail at a steady pace, the anxiety of the last half hour behind me, but with a keen eye on the forest around me.  I made it out to the trail and down the road as the sun was beginning to set.  A few miles farther on, there was a meadow where elk commonly gather, so I pulled over to see if there was any activity.  I found a large herd calmly grazing, with several males surrounded by their harems, and some juvenile calves playing around between mouthfuls of lush grass.  In a smaller meadow on the other side of the road, a couple of young bulls were wrestling with their antlers.  After about ten minutes, they took a little break and then went back to it.  It was amazing to watch, but I was sure glad that I wasn’t the one locking horns!

Dear Readers: This is one of the most often-viewed posts on this site, and readers seem to often get to it based on internet search results.  So I’m curious:  Did you find what you were looking for here?  What information would be more helpful?  What was the most useful or entertaining?  Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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