Off the beaten-trail: Beneath the flanks of Broken Top.

Off the beaten-trail: Beneath the flanks of Broken Top.

All weekend I’d been wondering where the elk were. My route, being one-of-a-kind through forest and mountain, often times crossed paths with the tracks of the large-footed ungulates. Big prints, distinguishable tread, and unmistakable scat left to dry out in the hot summer heat. But where were they? Have they migrated to a cooler place? Do they migrate?

It was my last morning, at sunrise, when I heard a very loud footstep, almost more like an echoing thud reverberating through the forest. I looked up to see a large animal, the size of a moose, with an impressive rack of antlers. A second elk approached, then a third, a fourth and by the time I counted twenty, there were infants, mothers and fathers (calves, cows and bulls); an entire herd of gregarious, majestic animals. But the numbers didn’t stop there. I counted another twenty, with more out of sight. Not before long, the leaders were standing beside the same creek I was, my presence only slightly hidden by a small pine sapling.

Serpentine creek just below tree-line.

Serpentine creek just below tree-line.

When you’re out here by yourself—a seemingly small and insignificant speck in an otherwise great big wilderness—a herd of any animal that size and that close can be very powerful, and a special moment few will ever live to witness. But it’s also very intimidating. By all means, I am defenseless to such an undertaking if those animals chose to charge. I don’t carry with me a rack of antlers the size of a car door, and my feet and hands have neither hoof nor claw. Weary that they might cross the creek, become spooked and trample me or my tent, I moved just the slightest bit. Their strong, dense bodies galloped back up into the adjacent meadow. They seemed almost unbothered by this lone woman in the woods, but with a herd vibrant with young calves, they signaled to one another and galloped off over the hillside. Nearly one-hundred disappeared out of sight.

The first time I saw elk was in 2007, while hiking the PCT in Crater Lake National Park. At first I thought they were a herd of wild horses, but then I knew better. Further north, especially in Washington, I’d watch herds of elk dine on grass in meadows. And along the CDT in Montana, I’d cross paths with them on obscure segments of trail, or more often, I’d use their distinguishable tread for that of my own.

It’s these moments in which I fall in love with the wilderness even further. I feel as if I could live out here indefinitely, but in such a modern world that is impossible, and instead one day I will settle with a small cabin far from the buzz of any city, adrift in the mountains, and hopefully amongst a herd of elk of such immeasurable size.


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