Dramatic encounter with the great American Wapiti

Darkness lingered as I crawled out of the tent, and the calm early-morning air, while still crisp, felt much warmer than expected. Glancing upward, I was certain thick clouds were responsible for the curious clemency, but only a few lenticulars stretched over the glowing eastern horizon and high snowy peaks to the south. Meanwhile, the prominent stars of Orion shone brightly overhead, and, as they had all night long, bull elk in the surrounding forest continued their incessant bugling.

We were camped for a long weekend on a friend’s property atop the Uncompahgre Plateau, and this year, Jackie and I joined Bob, the land owner, our nephew, Mike, and my brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Sue. It was mid-September, and, as in most years, we were there to witness changing fall colors, and the gathering frenzy of rutting elk.

The property is one of a handful of 40-acre parcels in a quiet and secluded subdivision far up the plateau from Montrose. The development is largely surrounded by national forest, and roads are primitive, with no winter maintenance. Over the years, only a few modest cabins (including Bob’s simple “hunter’s” cabin) have been added to the wooded and mostly untamed landscape, and for some time, area deer and elk hunting have been limited to special draw. Consequently, both species seem larger and more numerous with every passing season.

The hunter’s cabin sits near the southeast corner of Bob’s 40 acres, and its wooden deck overlooks a vast open meadow to the south. Further south, just beyond the meadow, the lofty peaks of the San Juan and San Miguel mountains loom, and just prior to this particular weekend, recent inclement weather had deposited a fresh blanket of snow over their higher reaches. Meanwhile, to the north, east, and west, a thick forest of aspen and Ponderosa pine covers much of the countryside, and upon our arrival, splendid shades of green, yellow, and orange were in full glory.

I hadn’t slept on the ground for about 10 years, but because this year marked the fifth anniversary of Jim and Sue’s wedding at the property, the cabin’s quaint sleeping arrangements were reserved for them. In consideration, Mike curled up in the back of his SUV, as Bob found sufficient shelter in his pickup camper.

Our new dome tent, on the other hand, offered extraordinary comfort, particularly with three-inch foam pads and zip-together sleeping bags added in. In anticipation of frigid nighttime temperatures, we threw in extra blankets and stocking hats, but both nights were unusually mild, and we never needed them.

For a little privacy and sense of adventure, and of course, an increased likelihood of overhearing the raucous behavior of propagating elk, we chose to set the tent a couple of hundred yards northwest of the cabin. There, in the thick of the forest, and closer to a ridge where the preponderance of bugling seemed to originate, we made camp. For two solitary evenings, with the tent neatly erect, our pads and bags efficiently aligned, and a propane lantern illuminating our path from cabin to tent, we found comfort and security in an otherwise dark and somewhat mystical environment.

It was early that first morning, as I stood in the predawn darkness beneath the mighty hunter, Orion, that I wondered if anyone else had awakened and might be up for a walk. Jackie remained snug in her bag, but it was still too dark to see if anyone else had stirred, and I couldn’t hear any human activity because, as mentioned, the elk were really carrying on, with most of the racket now apparently coming from the meadow just beyond the trees. I knew within minutes, the first light of day would flood into the clearing, sending any elk out there quickly retreating to the relative safety of the surrounding forest. So I buttoned my jacket, grabbed my binoculars from the Jeep, and cautiously sauntered through the aspens toward open terrain, and what sounded like a developing clash among opposing monarchs.

I stopped a hundred yards from the clearing, and glassed the area to see if I could locate any game. There was still barely enough light to see, but nevertheless, while scanning left to right, a dark solitary figure suddenly materialized in my field of view. It was a magnificent bull, still a fair distance beyond the trees, but as he swaggered back and forth, I could vividly distinguish six symmetrical points on either side of a hefty rack. Meanwhile, continued screening gradually revealed a dozen cows and calves in the great stag’s presence, and at once, all appeared to be moving in my direction.

More clouds slowly gathered, as the eastern horizon grew steadily brighter. The grand summits to the south, with their vast, pure white snowfields, stood in sharp contrast to the yet-obscure conifer forests dressing their lower flanks. A steady breeze had developed, and millions of golden leaves trembled in the branches above. Many broke loose under the unbearable strain, ultimately tumbling to the forest floor below.

As the elk warily drew closer, I took advantage of what low light remained, and quietly edged nearer the brink of the meadow. In a moment, with but a small clump of aspens between me and open ground, I glassed them again. They were much closer now, and the bull seemed the size of a draft horse. His antlers were massive, yet he carried them as if they weighed nothing. Bold and confident, his authority was obvious, as he constantly kept vigil over his self-possessed harem.

Meanwhile, dawn was at hand, and the clouds in the east took on vivid shades of purple, then fuchsia, and finally a rosy-orange. Within minutes, the majestic peaks were aflame with the same colors of the sky, and unexpectedly, an unseen pack of coyotes let loose with a loud and boisterous clamor that briefly rivaled the shrill cries of other nearby bulls.

I watched in amazement, as the band of elk progressively approached the small clump of aspens now separating me from them. Not a hundred yards off, loud and animated bugling echoed over the meadow, but strangely, as I focused on the group’s master, it wasn’t coming from him. Just then, another great bull, with only a few cows and calves in tow, emerged from a low-lying depression further out in the meadow. Heretofore unseen, it was he who made all the commotion, as he came prancing onto the scene.

Both groups merged as they entered the aspen thicket, with the first great monarch clearly agitated by the presence of his rival, and the second frenetically challenging the other. The cows and calves appeared oblivious to it all, as they ignored the unruly contention in favor of periodic grazing.

It wasn’t until they actually penetrated the small aspen grove that I realized the elk, including two very disconcerted bulls, stood only about a hundred feet from me. I glanced around, and promptly recognized a clear and present danger, with nothing but a few trees shielding me from a surprised and angry bull, should one decide to charge. At that instant I pronounced a sharp “hiss,” to which the lead cow immediately froze, contemplated for a moment, then abruptly turned and trotted off.

Within seconds, the entire group ran south, and eventually veered west into the cover of the forest. That quickly, a potential threat was gone, and so was a most dramatic encounter with the great American Wapiti.