We’ve been hiking in silence through pine forests and rolling meadows for two hours when a question comes to mind.
Is this an elk hunt or a wild goose chase?
“Everybody doing OK, except for not seeing or hearing any elk?” asks our guide, ranger Scott Harper.
Somewhere in these woods, one of the more dramatic natural spectacles in the Rockies is unfolding: the elk rut. Bulls are fighting one another, bugling and scent-marking to gather harems of females. And they’re filling the forest with their haunting song.
Elk are massive, weighing up to 800 pounds, and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is home to as many as 300 of them, but we might as well be looking for Big Foot on this Friday night in September. The elk aren’t coming to the party.
So it goes with wildlife watching.
Despite the chance of disappointment, the fall elk walks are one of the more popular events at the national monument. And since the state’s most popular spot to experience the rut, Rocky Mountain National Park, has been largely inaccessible because of recent floods, phones have been ringing at the national monument and the hikes have been filled.
“It’s just a beautiful sound of nature. It’s unique. It’s just fun to hear,” said Kay Kriley of Colorado Springs, who has heard the bugling in Estes Park.
A robust herd thrives in the national monument, where hunting is banned. It’s also the closest place to Colorado Springs to reliably experience the rut.
But it is not 100 percent reliable, as we found out.
The tour began early in the evening on a bright, not-quite-autumn day. Harper displayed the massive antlers of the males and played the sounds of the rut on a stereo. High-pitched yet guttural, it’s a male’s call to the females in the harem. It also can be a warning to other males that these cows are spoken for. It’s most commonly heard at dawn and dusk. The males rarely eat and lose up to 30 percent of their weight.
“He’s got a hard job for about 30 days,” Harper said of the bulls.
We set out into the woods, walking off-trail to areas where elk historically have been. The group was told to stay quiet, as Harper tried to keep us downwind of where he thought we might find elk. The elk might be safe from hunters, but they’re still skittish of humans so group size is limited to 20 people.
Then we heard it, a piercing cry in the distance. We stopped and listened for a second bugle, heard nothing and kept walking southwest, the direction from which it seemed to come.
Or had it come from due south? The sound is elusive and seems to float from every direction in the woods. We heard a second bugle a few minutes later, slightly fainter. We waited, one volunteer trying to pin it down with the sort of bionic ear you see on the sidelines of football games.
We waited. And waited. Nothing.
So on we walked, stopping to listen or peer across meadows with binoculars every so often. An hour passed, and I began to question if we were in fact moving away from the elk. Or maybe the elk smelled us. Or maybe having two dozen people hiking off-trail made more noise than we thought.
“The three times I’ve done it, I’m three for three,” Harper said. “But that’s just getting lucky. It’s complete luck to see them. We’ve got a bunch of people tramping through the woods, making noise, and sometimes they just won’t come out.”
On most of the tours, hikers get to hear the bugling in close proximity and see the bulls, herding around their harems or jockeying with one another for females. The males become so aggressive, they’ve been known to attack people. By the end of October, the females will be out of breeding season and the bulls will return to their solitary lives.
As dusk came and we began the hike back to the parking lot, we would have to be content with hearing two distant bugles and enjoying a beautiful hike on a crisp evening. Harper apologized and said he led a group the previous Friday, and they saw plenty of elk.
“It’s like fishing. You should’ve been here last week,” he said.
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