STAKE OUT

Fueled by the excitement of our good luck “game watching” last evening, I set out this morning to take advantage of the last of the late summer sunshine before the forecast cool, cloudy, rainy weather moved in.  As I headed for the rim of the canyon just above the Big Ass Aspen Meadow, I thought about last evening’s amazing sightings:

Just before 6:30 we had headed down the mountain a ways to sit in the meadow and celebrate sunset.  Earlier we heard elk bugles coming from the direction of Burning Tree Meadow and were hoping to catch a glimpse.

Bull elk bugle to challenge other bulls and entice cow elk to their harem.  A cow measures a bull’s attraction by the strength of his bugle.  Suddenly we got more than a glimpse when we ran head long into a beautiful herd of 8 elk.  I instantly got tunnel vision and buck fever all at the same time and gazed dumbly at the first bull I saw until Richard whispered, “The bull on the right is big but the one on the left is enormous.”  Well, I’ve seen big bulls before but this one was an AVATAR.  We were looking at THE BOSS, THE BULL OF THE WOODS, and he was staring right back at us.

(disclaimer:  not my photo)

The spread of his rack was big enough to accommodate two proverbial hammocks.  We hurriedly counted points at 6 X 6 but weren’t sure we saw them all.  It was early in the mating season, and this proud papa already boasted a harem of 6 cows and the following of an envious, hopeful satellite bull.  Quickly the boss bull swung his massive head away from us toward a tardy cow bolting out of the woods to pledge her allegiance.  He gathered the new gal into his harem and herded them up the hill into the woods.  As he trotted away, I noticed his massive flanks covered with dried black mud and knew this bull was fully engaged in the rut.

Bull elk are most enamored of their own musky odor and wear the scent proudly during rut.  This smell (or stink…for those of us not of the elk ilk.) precedes them, declaring dominance and proclaiming intention. Carefully preparing their toilet, bulls first select a spot of bare, soft dirt onto which they urinate.  Next a great show of puddle stomping and prancing around mixes the musky brew to the desired consistency and aroma.  Satisfied with the preparation, he drops into the muck, rolls around, lunges to his feet and applies the finishing touches to his face and rack. As you hike around elk country in the fall, look for these dried mud holes and take a whiff…trust me, the stink abides.

Elk facts:

An elk calf weighs 35 pounds at birth.
A full grown female or cow weighs in at around 500 pounds
A mature bull weighs 700 or more pounds, and may lose 100 pounds during rut.

ANTLERS:
A rack on a mature bull weighs as much as 40 pounds.
Only bulls have antlers/racks. They shed and grow new ones every year.
In Spring antlers are covered with soft, nourishing “velvet.”
By September, antlers are hard bone.

But that was yesterday.  This morning I was hungry for an equally exciting sighting, as I settled into a warm sunny spot overlooking the heavy growth below the steep canyon walls. With my back resting against a large Pondarosa Pine and my binoculars in my lap, I prepared to wait it out. Twenty minutes went by.  I heard chickadees, chipmunks and squirrels, and saw nothing. The sun rose higher, the right side of my face began to burn, ants made their way across my boots, and I thought seriously about giving up my position for a more comfortable one when I heard a small rock roll.

Then a twig snap. 

Then nothing. 

I waited.  Visions of a stealthy mountain lion rattled my nerves.  Deep in the foliage flickered a speck of tawny fur. I raised my binoculars for a closer look at the fur patch.  I watched until a single delicate, long leg came into view.  Deer! (Thank goodness!)  I could just make out the shape of a doe browsing her way along the canyon floor when movement about 25 yards in front of her caught my eye–tawny fur covered with white spots!  An adventurous little fawn ranged ahead of mom, stepping soundlessly over the dead-fall and  browsing young aspen sprouts. So young (for this late in the summer), so small, so vulnerable and so undeniably cute.  I was bewitched.  The fawn raised his head and in a few bounds was by his mom’s side.

(photo from Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)

I had seen enough.  The gift of a magic moment.  Not wanting to interrupt the peacefulness of the pair, on hands and knees I slowly made my way up the steep hill and back to the house to share my adventure with Richard.

***** 

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