The bull elk raises his massive head to the evening sky and lets out a high-pitched bugle. The last, long notes trail off, as if from a flute, sounding so musical that it gives me shivers. He rakes his heavy antlers through the birch trees, snapping the lower branches.
"He has a bad attitude," wildlife biologist Merlin Benner whispers. "He's old, and he knows it's mating time. He remembers what it's all about, and he can't do anything anymore."
Not too long ago, you might have needed a trip to Montana to see these captivating wild creatures. But Elk County, in north-central Pennsylvania, is home to the state's growing elk herd. In fact, wildlife of all kinds is so plentiful and accessible here, there may be no other place like this in all of Pennsylvania.
A few female elk, or cows, wander out of the forest with yearlings. Then a male sporting a 7-foot-wide rack makes an impressive entrance, bugling all the while. It's September, mating season -- called the rut.
I'm taking part in an expedition sponsored by Nature Quest, an eco-travel company. Guests on Nature Quest trips can enjoy not only outdoor activities like cycling, horseback riding and hiking, but also nature study and wildlife observation.
This particular trip is a horseback ride through elk country. Pat Maier, owner / guide of Mountain Trail Horse Center in Wellsboro, Pa., is leading the trip along with Benner.
Being on horseback enables us to cover more ground than if we were hiking. The elk and other wild animals consider horses less threatening than two-legged humans. As a result, we're hoping to see an impressive wildlife show.
For the next three days, our group of 12 will ride all over Elk County's state forest and game lands. Our day rides will be based out of Betta Farm, which happens to play host to an elk herd that pays nearly nightly visits to its fields.
This is beautiful country -- the part of the Alleghenies where step-sided canyons, called drafts, were cut into a massive plateau ages ago.
(The word draft is used this way only in this part of the country. In the 1800s, loggers coined the term because they could feel cool air rushing off the 2,000-foot plateaus above them. The drafts are crowded with mountain laurel, maple, ash, tulip, oaks and hemlocks in the lower drainage areas.)
After the logging boom took its toll on the mountains, strip mines moved in, scraping the tops off the land in search of coal. It is mainly because of these reclaimed mine lands, which provide abundant food for wildlife, that the elk are here. The animals go in and out of protected timber areas and into herbaceous openings and feel safe, because roads and civilization are scarce.
Elk on the rebound
Elk County, formed in the 1840s, was named for the native elk that nearly always lived in this part of Pennsylvania. One of the most widespread members of the deer family in North America, elk had a range that extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from central Canada to northern Mexico.
When the first European settlers arrived, biologists estimate, there were 10 million elk in North America. These brown-gray animals, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, are identifiable by their 4-inch-long tails, light-colored rump (another name for elk is wapiti, from the Shawnee for "white rump") and the males' massive, branchlike antlers.
By 1852, hunting reduced Elk County's herd to a few scattered individuals, and by the late 1870s there were none left in the state. In 1913, the state began an effort to restore the elk to their natural habitat while providing game for hunters. Although elk from Western states were released in 10 counties, this is the only place they thrived.
Today, alert visitors can spot the animals -- whose numbers are estimated to be about 700 statewide -- from state Game Commission-sanctioned viewing areas along many roads throughout the range.
"Elk were once native to the entire Northeast United States, and now they are once again part of the natural landscape," says Dennis McGraw, regional director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, an international wildlife habitat conservation organization. McGraw said that the Pennsylvania herd "is reachable by nearly 12 million people within a three- to four-hour drive."
The 200-year-old Betta farmhouse is located in the middle of the most concentrated section of the elk herd. The farm is just outside the village of Benezette and adjacent to Winslow Hill, an official elk-viewing site.
The area encompasses eight square miles, all of which is off-limits to elk hunting, and therein lies a success story. The state, with the help of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others, has acquired thousands of acres of mine lands to create an ideal feeding area for elk and other wildlife.
After we watch the elk in the back yard for a while, we retire to the front porch of the white-frame Betta farmhouse. There are comfortable chairs, and Nature Quest makes sure that coolers are always filled with cold drinks.
Pat and Merlin, who are excellent cooks, prepare breakfast and dinner, and guests pack their own lunches from a variety of items.
Tonight, after a dinner of elk steaks (Pat serves farm-raised elk at his ranch), we watch an introductory slide show. Merlin has been studying and photographing Pennsylvania's elk herd for years, and his knowledge and collection of slides is outstanding.
We learn that elk go for the most succulent and most digestible of foods -- clover grass, which is just what Jim Betta planted in his fields. Merlin tells us that elk here are not tame; however, they tend to ignore people. Pat assures us that as we move further out on horseback, the elk will get wilder.
The skies in the back yard are full of stars, and the night sounds may include the scream of a bobcat, the hoot of an owl and always the mooing of a cow, for the Betta Farm is a working farm. (The farmland is planted in crops and Christmas trees.) We fall asleep in the upstairs bedrooms as the elk bugle a bedtime lullaby.
The next morning, Pat gives us a pre-ride talk. We learn what kind of riding technique his well-trained horses respond to and what to do if we encounter bees. September is the worst time of the year for ground hives.
"If your horse begins to pop and hop around, I'll come for you," Pat says. "Free yourself of your stirrups. Let me grab you and pull you off. Bees are the most dangerous thing you'll face."
Pat then matches riders with horses -- mostly quarter horses, which are hard-working, well-behaved and skilled at covering rugged country.
"We are going to get into wildlife on this ride," Pat says. "We must stay quiet, move slowly, do everything deliberate. They already know we are there. Point to wildlife quietly. Don't shriek, 'Look, Ethel, a bear.' "
Randy Kraft, a veteran of many Nature Quest rides, says to me: "Pat is like no other guide. You'll never be satisfied with a typical ... trail ride after this." Many people, Kraft adds, have been riding with Pat for more than a decade, and come from all around the country.
We don't ride off first thing after the talk because we want to stay out until evening -- that's when the animals come out. A big lunch is packed (including elk jerky), and we'll have a late dinner after dark.
After a short ride through the forest, we break out into open country and ride over grass-covered rolling hills. With a little imagination, we could be in the Bitterroots of Montana at 12,000 feet instead of the Allegheny Mountains at 2,000 feet. From a high point, we can look across the land to a grassy saddle where we are heading.
Most of the folks on this ride are in their 40s, but a few are in their 60s. Families also make the trip. The dozen riders are becoming fast friends on the trail.
Linda Flower, a professor from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is knowledgeable about herbs. She reaches down from her horse and grabs a green sprig and says quietly: "Smell this. It's sweet fern. Doesn't it have a lovely fragrance?"
Everyone rides quietly, smiling and nodding to one another when his or her horse trots by. We look to the left and right for game, but we don't have to bother: The hawkeyes are riding up front.
Pat has a long, curved elk call on a string across his back. It looks like a section of a thick vacuum cleaner hose. Merlin has a camera and binoculars dangling around his neck. Not much gets past these two. We stop occasionally for Pat to give a convincing imitation of a cow yelping, but no calls are returned. It is afternoon, and the animals are still bedded down.
We walk our horses on old stone-covered mine roads, weaving in and out of larch and Scotch pines. The new growth on the tips of the branches is light and lacy, as delicate as fairy wands. Pat points to elk sitting in the shadows, motionless, hiding under trees.
After we adjust our vision and learn what to look for, we can see the animals everywhere. Their coloring, blond and dark brown, enables them to blend in with the forest.
As evening approaches, so does a thunderstorm. We can smell the ozone, and, when we top an open knoll, our hair stands comically on end. We head for lower ground and pull out our raincoats. The storm is over as quickly as it begins, though. White fog magically appears and nestles in all the little hollows. The rain leaves the earth smelling fresh, and the sky is now bathed in gorgeous pink light.
In the open meadow, a big bull stands, illuminated as if a spotlight from the heavens is centered on him. He displays an enormous rack on his head. It's a wonder how his head can support the weight. His antlers spread at least 60 inches across.
"He may well be the biggest elk I've ever seen," Pat says.
Merlin whispers, "He's in a very aggressive posture -- bent over, studying us, intent that we not get too close."
Pat leads us in a wide arc around the elk, and we get to view him from all angles, every one better than the last. White-tail deer run past us, acting much more skittish than the elk. A sleek coyote runs with them.
Later, we spook a flock of wild turkeys across a knoll into the timber. They flap their wings, looking clumsy and heavy. Over the next hill, a black bear rambles across an open area. Some riders in the group have never seen a bear in the wild, and are pleasantly amazed.
Randy Kraft has been keeping count, and he shares the figures as we turn our horses around and head toward home: 75 deer, 30 elk, a flock of wild turkeys, a black bear, a coyote.
The plan for Day Two is to leave even later and stay out well into dark. Pat will take us to a different spot, even further from Betta Farm. While we're waiting for the sun to lower, Merlin leads us on a walk in the woods.
We learn all about the flowers, butterflies, trees, mushrooms, insects and birds. Merlin is a walking nature encyclopedia.
"Look how all the tops of these young oaks are bit off," he points out. "Both elk and deer compete for the browse [young, tender vegetation], but the elk have the advantage of being taller and reaching higher."
A multitude of elk trails crisscross the woods and open areas. Along the trails are rubbed trees where the bulls took their antlers and ripped and shredded the bark. They were rubbing the velvet off their antlers and also marking their territory.
What we find most fascinating is an elk wallow that Merlin locates -- a wet, muddy area in the ground where the elk roll, cool off and leave their scent. We catch whiffs of their muskiness.
Then Merlin spots elk hiding in the woods. "Look for parts of animals," he tells us.
We make out a rump section, a silhouette of a head and ears, a dark rack mixed with tree branches. It is like looking for hidden objects in a picture book. The elk are everywhere, sitting and standing motionless in the woods, seeing us but hoping we can't see them.
"They'll make small movements all afternoon," Merlin says, "until the sun begins to lower. Then they'll go out and feed again."
We stand around for quite some time talking quietly, moving closer, getting into a better position to photograph. Then, one by one, the animals begin to stand up. Their numbers startle us. They are surrounding us. They had been watching us the entire time, but we couldn't see them. Slowly, they begin to move and walk deeper into the forest and out of sight.
"We disturbed them," Merlin says, disappointed. "I didn't want to do that."
We leave around 2 p.m. for our day's ride, staying in the cool forest for the first few hours. We locate the herd we disturbed earlier, and this time our passing horses and our quiet presence apparently leave them feeling more secure; they remain where they are.
Pat leads us across new territory in our search for wildlife. The vast public lands available to ride on could take a lifetime to explore. An unfamiliar rider might easily get lost in this maze of abandoned roads and land, but Merlin knows this country well.
Today's display of wildlife is just as stellar as yesterday's. One of the day's most amazing experiences is the ride home in the dark. The horses' night vision is remarkable. They take their time and pick their way over the rocky trail, walking around trees and over obstacles that we can't even sense, let alone see.
We glance overhead, where a small amount of light remains in the narrow opening in the forest canopy. The horses' shoes clop on the rocks, they snort to one another, blow breath in and out of their nostrils. These sounds intensify when your vision is gone and your hearing sharpens. Crickets rub their legs together and a whippoorwill cries overhead.
At a time like this, you feel very close and indebted to your horse for carrying you safely through the dark. After seeing this beautiful country and all the wild game from your horse's back, you realize this could not be possible without her.
The last day of our trip is a half-day ride. After a stellar morning of watching a huge whitetail buck, a herd of elk, a flock of turkeys and a porcupine, the group splits up as the day warms and the animals go into hiding.
The birdwatchers go with Merlin, and the riders go with Pat. The open meadows and old mine roads are perfect terrain for letting your horse run, twisting your fingers in her mane and going with the wind. Just when I think it can't get any better, there are the elk, relaxing in the cool forest. I tip my cowboy hat to them and whisper, "Please don't get up, my friends." And they don't.
An ideal day
8 a.m.: Rise at your leisure at Betta Farm, enjoy coffee and watch elk feeding in the back yard. Later, have a hearty breakfast of blueberry pancakes and farm-raised elk sausage.
11 a.m.: Go for a walk with a naturalist, looking for signs of elk, and learn to identify all sorts of plants, birds and trees.
Noon: Pack a bag lunch while the horses are saddled and prepare for the day's ride.
3 p.m.: Stop at a high knoll for a late lunch and scan the grassy hillsides for elk. As evening approaches, you can see elk, bear, deer and coyote.
8 p.m.: Ride back to the farm at twilight while the woods ring with the sound of elk bugling.
9 p.m.: Have a late dinner of grilled elk steaks, and then relax on the front porch, listening to owls and coyotes, until bedtime.
-- Cindy Ross
When you go
Getting there: The Winslow Hill Elk Viewing Area and Betta Farm are located outside Benezette, Pa. From Interstate 80 (coming from the east) use Exit 111 and head north 8 miles on Route 153 to Penfield. Turn right on Route 255 toward St. Marys. After 6 miles, bear right on Route 555 toward Driftwood. When you get to Benezette, take Winslow Hill Road about 3 miles to the viewing area.
Nature Quest, RR 2, Box 53, Wellsboro, PA 16901
* The adventure and eco-tourism company offers a variety of trips. The next elk ride is Sept. 1-4 and costs $745 per person. Some horseback riding experience is helpful. The company's Web site states that the ride is "appropriate for novice riders age 12 and over."
For more information about viewing elk on your own, contact Elk State Forest (814-486-3353) or the Pennsylvania State Game Commission's north-central regional office (877-877-7674). In addition, Elk County is sponsoring an Elk Expo Sept. 27-28. For details, see the Web site www.pagreatoutdoors.com / elkexpo / index.html.
Betta Farm, 157 E. Teaberry St. Weedville, PA 15868
* Jim and Barb Betta rent out their house for elk watchers (mostly family groups) in all seasons. Three rooms in the farmhouse can accommodate up to 14 people, and guests have kitchen privileges. Rates are $300 per family for a two-night weekend stay.
For a listing of other accommodations and restaurants in the Elk County area, contact the Northwest Pennsylvania's Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau: 800-348-9393; www.pagreatoutdoors.com.