The 50 lucky folks who were drawn recently to receive a Pennsylvania elk license for the 2010 hunting season are probably counting the days until November 1, the day they will be able to begin their quest for what may be the trophy of a lifetime. For the rest of us, both hunters and non-hunters alike, another very special elk season is already underway.
Mid-September to early October represents the peak of the mating season for our Pennsylvania elk herd. During these weeks of early autumn, thousands of visitors armed with binoculars, spotting scopes or cameras flock to Elk, Cameron and surrounding counties to see and hear this annual ritual. Elk are wonderful to witness anytime of year but are especially compelling viewing in the fall. Mature bulls can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and will be sporting an impressive set of antlers, headgear they will use to impress potential mates or as weapons to fend off possible rival suitors.
Bulls also "bugle" to advertise their presence and further assert their dominance over their peers. This high-pitched, nasal whistle at first almost seems unbecoming of such a large and magnificent animal, but it is also a haunting sound that quickly grows on those who appreciate the natural world.
The first time I heard an elk bugle in the wild was nearly 20 years ago on a fall fishing trip to Yellowstone National Park. We had stopped at a large clearing near Norris Junction on our way back from a long day on the Yellowstone River. Soon, the eerie squeal of an unseen bull pierced the evening calm. A few minutes later, that elk emerged from the tree line across the clearing with a small harem of cows in tow.
Almost immediately, another unseen bull bugled a challenge, which was instantly answered by the bull we were viewing. We anxiously awaited the arrival of the challenger and the possible battle that might ensue, but it proved to be all show and no go. After several more exchanges of bugles, the matter was concluded, and the first bull simply followed his girlfriends back into the forest.
Over the last 20 years, both our elk herd and its range have expanded dramatically here in Pennsylvania, so folks who would like to hear the mating call of a wild elk don't need to travel to Wyoming or some other destination out west. Add to that the increased attention to the elk herd being promoted as an eco-tourist attraction by several north-central counties.
To plan a trip to elk country, check out Web sites of the Pennsylvania Game Commission - www.pgc.state.pa.us - and the Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau - www.visitpago.com - which is the official tourist promotion agency for Cameron, Clarion, Elk, Forest and Jefferson counties. Both these sites have a wealth of information about where and how to enjoy viewing Pennsylvania's largest animals.
Most folks will want to make a visit to the area around Winslow Hill a part of their initial foray to elk country. Located just off Rt. 555 a few miles from the town of Benezette, this area harbors a good concentration of elk and ample viewing opportunities, so on any given day chances of seeing some elk there are good. The new Elk County Visitor Center is also scheduled to open near there on Oct. 6 as well.
The downside to the Benezette/Winslow Hill area is it sometimes gets crowded this time of year, especially on weekends. Traffic jams are common on the narrow back roads there, as drivers by the dozen pull over and park as best the can to view and elk in a field or nearby woodlot. Visiting during the week if possible helps that situation somewhat. In any case, remember to be respectful of private property and the animals themselves. And while the elk are somewhat accustomed to humans stopping to watch them, they are still fundamentally wild animals, and this isn't a big theme park.
After you have seen and heard a few elk, you might prefer, as I do, a less crowded experience. If so, take some time to learn some of the state forest and state game lands in the region that are home to elk. Be there early in the morning and listen for bugling to locate some elk. Then slowly work your way in that direction, carefully glassing ahead with a good pair of binoculars. Often you will able to get reasonably close some elk this way and have the opportunity to watch them in a more relaxed and satisfying environment.
Elk are always a magnificent sight, whether its your first time or one-hundredth time to view. I never tire of seeing them and find it gratifying that I can so not too far from home.