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.