Elk Night, Elk Fright

Caught in the rut

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I’ll never forget all those spectral, unearthly sounds they made. Even now—10 years later—that primordial cacophony of ritualistic articulations echoes through my soul.

There were only two of us working along the headwaters of the Missouri River that fateful, near-indescribable week. We were installing directional signposts through a vast, maze-like expanse of upland forest meadows known to accommodate some of the most prolific concentrations of migratory megafauna endemic to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Of course, the ground up there proved fiercely stubborn—chock full of inconveniently situated rocks and all manner of labor-intensive subterranean surprises.

On average, it took us the better part of two hours just to excavate a post hole. A ridiculous amount of time, really, especially considering autumnal weather conditions that season were uncharacteristically ideal. We were busting our balls to the max.

Yet, even so, we could only relish our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to luxuriate in such an intimate and completely unfettered foray among the stupefyingly resplendent surroundings of Yellowstone country.

Meanwhile, the deeper we worked our way into the remotest throes of these isolated park lands, the more conspicuous grew the presence of the local breeding population of Rocky Mountain elk.

Hundreds of freshly made hoof-prints and telltale pellet droppings crisscrossed the tawny hillsides and draws. We couldn’t dig down more than a few feet without crunching our tools into one interred generation of Cervidae bones or another.

They were out there, alright—lots of them. But still, even as late as our sixth and final night on this project, we hadn’t seen or heard a single one.

However, just moments after we crawled into our tents on that moony, eerily lit evening, we were beguiled to register the first audible stirrings of their impending onrush.

What began as the faintest smattering of isolated yelps, squeals and bugling on the forested hill rims above escalated quickly into a combative chorus of snorting, grunting and vigorous interlocking of antlers that seemed to creep closer toward our camp.

“Oh, no!” I soon heard my crew-mate scream as he hastily unzipped himself from his tent amid a throng of desperate clattering and heavy thumping. “Not here! NOT ME!”

Peering pensively out through my bug screen, I was stunned to see the type of trouble that had befallen him.

Looming directly behind his tan-colored, half-dome tent stood the largest 8-point bull I’ve ever seen. As its spear-sharp rack of antlers gleamed lethally through the shadows, this extremely horny, thousand-pound ungulate raised a definitive front leg forward and began pawing the ground with lusty determination.

“Escape while you still can!” I screamed. “Bruiser’s got serious eyes for your tent!”

In a flash, I saw the glow-white, buck-naked form of my crew-mate streak through the night, whimpering profusely as he dragged his sleeping bag off into a nearby stand of protectively thick, dog hair timber—where I, too, soon joined him in hiding. It was a night we’d survive, but never, ever forget.

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