Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In the Mountains, with Elk

Part way up Deer Mounain, looking at Longs Peak
Fall is definitely my favorite season. It likely stems from those high school cross country days, when I felt totally in my element, running under the changing leaves at Stoney Creek and getting up way to early every Saturday morning to take the yellow school bus to yet another invitational. Or maybe its that now, as an adult, I find most holidays totally overblown, commercial endeavors (even though I love decorating for Christmas), and falls stands without major holiday (remember, I grew up in Michigan, where Thanksgiving was already winter, calendar be damned,) especially September. Any way you cut it, I love fall. And no matter the time of year, I love being outside.

So camping in Rocky Mountain National Park in fall? Yea, definitely that.

Eric and HailNo on Fall River Road
Last weekend, we headed up to Estes Park to spend one glorious, perfect-temperature-clear-skied weekend in the park. Since I can work just about anywhere there is internet, I tethered myself to Eric's phone and took conference calls and analyzed data all the way up to the park so we could leave early and avoid traffic snarls in Denver. We then sat on the porch of the historic Stanley Hotel and worked, since Sir Stanley is kind enough to allow squatters to use their free Wi-Fi. Not a bad remote office, indeed.

Friday night, we set up camp, cooked dinner, then headed further into the park to listen for elk bugling, the reason we and 7,000 other people planned this trip 5 months ago.

And we heard the bugling! It was SO cool! They were right there, off the road, and with the almost full moon shining down on the meadow, we could see them, at least sort of. We listened to the bugling, and Eric made valiant attempts to record the noise. We watched the males parade around, and even a couple of females challenging the norms with some walk arounds.

Which is when it happened. A female got close to a male, decided she was done with that, and as we watched, took off at a run.

Directly toward us. While Eric was filming. You have to listen really carefully, but around the 6 second mark, you can distinctly hear me whisper "oh crap" and then hear running.

We thought that was going to be the highlight of our weekend, our narrow escape from bolting elk.

Oh no.
Hello, ladies!
In the mix


Saturday morning, we hiked Deer Mountain to some amazing views. Eric decided that the aspens along Longs Peak looked like driveways, so that's what we called them from then on. We then took a drive up Fall River Road, which we had previously driven with the Zolman's

We nearly to the top, and there's this above tree line (11,500 feet above sea level, trees don't grow) trail, and well, the urge hit me. I HAD to run it. Eric indulged me, so we got out of the car, and I gave it my best shot.

I sucked. But I did it. Mostly. As Eric said, I didn't go any faster than if I had hiked it, and it's harder to run than hike and I had to stop 4 times. But, well, it got done and I am totally counting it as my first above tree line run. Training for the Ascent has begun (kind of.)

We got up to the top, decided that we really didn't need to get back to Estes Park anytime soon, so we took a right and headed over the Continental Divide to the west side of the park, where we saw no moose and no elk, but the leaves were pretty. Back over Trail Ridge Road for the 50 mile trip back to Estes Park. Seriously, we would have never done 50 miles just to look for an animal back when we lived in Indiana, but here, no problem! How your perspective changes...

Anyway, we made it back to the east side of the park towards the end of the afternoon, just as the elk were getting frisky. Like, frisky.

We watched one bull herd a group of cows around, and literally leave the group and chase after escaping cows and herd them back to the group. We then watched said same elk get... friendly, with several females, although nothing ever came of it, at least while we were there.

Bull and his harem
We then drove toward our campsite and passed another meadow, with another bull elk and a large number of cows. As we were driving by, we watched a second elk strut out of the bushes, and toward the bull and his harem. "Eric, stop if you can! I think they're going to fight!" I yelled. Yes, me, the pacifist, sissy who had just listened to a ranger talk about elk and their habits during the rut (parallel walking, fighting, etc.) and really wanted to see a fight if it were possible. 

And holy moly, fight they did. These big bulls went at it for longer than Pacquiao and Mayweather did, and with more effort. They went running at each other and clashed, a battle of four-legged titans. You could hear their antler knocking into each other. They bloodied and exhausted their opponent, but did not give up easily. Finally, totally spent, for reasons we did not understand, the elder 1st bull was declared the winner, and the younger bull was ousted, and trotted away.

Elk fight!
In the interim however, a third bull had come out of the woods and had begun herding the cows away from the fight and toward his own domain. Incredible. We didn't stick around to see what the elder bull might do about this second interloper, but I can't imagine he was pleased for the additional competition, face stabbed and bloodied as it was. Here's Eric's video of the fight, if you're interested. His YouTube channel also has the successful bugling video as well...

Anyway, what an awesome day. We went back to the campsite, grilled steak (for Eric) and zucchini (for me), and called it a night quite early. We were up the next morning, and I was out running (below tree line this time) to sound styling's of the elk and their bugles. Then it was over to the YMCA of the Rockies for an awesome horseback ride (the Y takes very good care of their horses - much better than those for-profit outfits around the park) through the park. 

What. a weekend. Let's do it again, and this time, maybe you can join us?