Shit. I slid into a deeper side pool, wondering whether the rushing water and swirling steam would mask my presence. If it didn’t, I hoped that whatever was approaching would at least tolerate my unannounced intrusion in their prime winter habitat.
The sight of a 400-plus pound cow elk towering several feet above me as she came ashore, followed by her crying, wary yearling, inspired prayers that she would not stomp or slash me with her front hooves, hooves powerful enough to kill or maim a wolf, bear, or other predator that got too close.
The calf appeared hesitant and agitated on the river bank, and Mom looked extremely impatient and annoyed. This wasn’t getting any better for anyone. The pair approached even closer, then suddenly stopped, as if unsure whether I was a threat, or a mere obstacle soaking in the exact spot near where they wanted to cross. Either way, I had no clear or easy exit strategy.
They came about five feet closer, to the edge of a wall of sharp rocks piled high alongside a channel where fresh and thermal waters merged, water vapor coating the cow elk’s auburn ruff of fur around her neck. Beads of water dripped and flowed from her eyelashes, nostrils and whiskers down her face and front. Her dark brown eyes penetrated mine, yet she loomed so much larger, more powerful and alive than I was feeling in that trapped, vulnerable moment. Her yearling started crying and fidgeting again.
They edged and then waded into the same hot waters where I had first sought refuge, yet they didn’t linger long or cower there as I had. Cow and calf elk gracefully navigated the slippery stone-studded stream bottom (so unlike how humans, barefoot or in river sandals, navigate the same terrain), then exited onto the nearby trail, ambling toward a bench where dry clothes, water and a towel lay stashed inside my backpack.
Within moments they had found new shoots of emerald grass emerging alongside warmer channels where hotter waters spawned from the earth. Smaller groups of elk slowly joined them by crossing and swimming across the river upstream, avoiding the spot where moments earlier Greater Yellowstone’s predator and prey species had shared an uneasy and unlikely peace.
Hobie – cool reading this. Love that you’re writing … and blogging … and about the good land out there. When I have some time to meander about your blogs and read, I’ll do so. That cow elk and yearling encounter … yup, on the edge of scary … but she knew, you were not harmful. Can you imagine encountering a griz and cub in such a fashion?
Thanks, Tina Beana! I love being back in the writing groove-been way too long… When I taught writing to college-bound international students and also first year university folks, I often felt too fried to do much of my own beyond short journaling and letter writing. Thus having a blog challenges me to say something at least weekly, which is more often than I had been writing prior to entering the blogosphere in February, except for a few epic feature articles here and there.
You’re right in that the cow elk sensed that I was not a threat, yet I developed a heightened respect and appreciation for the species as a result of being within striking distance. I guess I got my elk that day, and they got their human, and it was all good.
I know folks from my time in the park who were charged by a grizz, and in some cases mauled by one, and their stories are unanimously haunting and sobering. They are all fortunate to be alive and well, and, encouragingly, they have returned to the backcountry and bear country they love in different ways, not letting one incident destroy their fierce love for protecting and enjoying such wild places, yet remaining hyper-aware of the inherent risks those who enter these places may also (yet hopefully never again will) one day encounter.
Looking forward to hearing from you again, Tina Beana, and keep on writing when you can as well!
Beautiful post Hobie. I’m glad I waited until today to read it. I needed the “upliftment.” Yeah not a word. I made it up.
I felt like I was there in the water with you. Very very cool, and a bit scary.
Funny I used to write letters too, many of them longhand, as a way to work through stuff in college and for years after that. Now I use blogging and journaling and the BTT and OFTU. 🙂
I like the word upliftment. After all we’ve learned so many new words and terms already this year like BTT’s and OFTU’s and more!
Glad that this story brought you right there to the water-I miss the Boiling River and the great access I used to have to soaking there. I have seen elk charge people and puncture car tires in the park, and attack clothes lines in Gardiner, Montana, and one September afternoon I had to crawl out of my bathroom window because a huge bull elk was resting alongside the front porch steps of my place in Mammoth Hot Springs. Waking up a sex-crazed 700-pound antlered ungulate was not an option for leaving home that day, and I believe he was the same bull elk that injured a park service employee a year or two later who saved a visitor from really getting throttled. My own close encounter was spooky enough, and I salute the NPS and other employees every year who do “human control” when the elk set up camp in Mammoth.
Thanks for commenting, and “see” you on a future call with Heather!
Are you blogging or journaling now?