By Otha Barham / Outdoors Editor
Otha Barham ©
If you have ever been there, when September rolls around you must return there, at least in your mind, in transcending deference to one of nature’s most breathtaking happenings. And your mental recall ushers in your spirit, if not your very soul, to bask in unencumbered reverence.
The event is the annual displays of the great Rocky Mountain elk, called wapiti by American Indians and incorrectly named elk by early settlers who were familiar with the “elk” of Eurasia which were actually moose.
The place is in the highest reaches of the Rocky Mountains. Thankfully, as a result of translocations, a few much smaller spots elsewhere on the continent inspire others; but for me it is the great Rockies.
September is when elk begin the rituals of procreation. Giant bulls, with stunning branched antlers, gather harems of cow elk in around the clock competition that results in the strongest and largest and most aggressive fathering elk of the herd’s future. And this whole behavior comes with no subtlety. Instead, the rest of nature on the steep ridges seems to get out of the way while the giant bulls fight each other for dominance and thus a larger share of willing cows.
Massive antlers crash together day and night, the sound of the fight reaching every living being on the mountain, until one bull feels defeat and withdraws. And then the next rival steps in and the battles are repeated. This goes on with waiting cows gathered nearby, the self appointed “herd bull” constantly fighting rivals while trying to keep “his” cows huddled and thus under a measure of control.
There is no time for eating or rest. Each bull will lose a hundred pounds of body weight in four weeks time. If no challenger is in sight the bull tears apart trees and bushes in a mad display of strength, daring any invader to fight. All the while the irritated bull and all challengers scream their characteristic “bugles” that can be heard for miles and silence lesser beings. The bugle, beginning with a deep pitch and progressing ever upward through continuing guttural bellows to end in a shrill whistle, is a proclamation of dominance, an invitation to battle and a beckoning to aspiring cows. Each bugle lasts six to ten seconds and is followed by six or so deep, rumbling grunts called chuckles resembling a human chuckle, the sounds of which come in cadence.
The task of assembling and keeping a harem is a day and night matter for over a month’s duration. There is no rest, lest another bull sneak in and steal some of the cows for trysts in nearby woods.
The noise of this elk rut cannot be ignored by the fortunate visitor perched high in the forest overlooking one of thousands of wide valleys of gray sagebrush bordered by aspens dressed in white leggings and headdress of shimmering golden leaves. Expanses of “dark” timber, the spruces and firs and pines, lie above the aspens and just below crests of snow-covered rock that gives the mountains their name. As if this great play on nature’s stage were not enough, the visitor is treated to additional props of Creation; the scenery; the setting.
Deep breaths of excitement take in the cleanest air on earth, always chilled by nearby snow patches and bubbling streams of melted snow. The air is stingy with its oxygen, a condition that brings on a light headed intoxication and requires more deep breaths to extend our pleasure. Soft evergreen needles under foot silence our steps in involuntary reverence; a requirement nature doesn’t leave to our own judgment.
Our eyes record distant peaks that glow in sunlight by day and by reflected star light by night. The remote scenery reminds us that no dwellings or roadways or gatherings of people exist there to dilute the realm.
When I am not there for these electric days of autumn, something in my life is missing. I suppose it is a fact of human existence that we have longings, some of which inevitably must go unfulfilled. So with sincere gratitude, I am comforted by the good fortune that put me there far more than my share of times with September elk.