Backcountry Bulls

by Japheth Hochstetler | May 1, 2023 | 0 comments

bull elk at water
Bull elk. Photo © Le Thuy Do/

The van slowed, then made its way around yet another sharp curve. I heaved a sigh and settled back in my seat. “I don’t think we’ll ever get there,” I complained to myself.

I turned to my cousin and asked, “How much farther is it?”

“Can’t be far,” he said. “It’s a long way up here.”

It was a beautiful evening, and I had been invited to go with my cousins to watch elk near Gaylor, Michigan. Since I had never seen a live elk in the wild and was always one to try new things, it didn’t take me long to decide whether or not I wanted to go along.

We drove on, deep into the wild back country on narrow roads that were largely not worthy of the title “roads.”

It was then that I noticed the trees. They were tall, leafless, leaning, and charred coal black.

“What’s wrong with those poor trees?” I inquired.

“They were burned by large forest fires,” my uncle explained. “That’s why they look so black and charred. But everyone start watching for elk now.”

We all turned and watched out the windows. We didn’t see any elk for some time, so we decided to stop at a lookout point and wait for the elk to come out.

We got out of the van. I stretched and sighed, glad to get out and be active. Almost before we had all exited the vehicle, we heard a loud, clear bugle. Starting out low and slow, it rose to a wailing crescendo and faded away.

“There they are!” someone exclaimed suddenly.

Sure enough, there were ten cow elk browsing in the valley below us. We pulled out our binoculars and watched them for a while. Then, since we were unable to spot a bull, we decided to move on. That was what we really wanted to see.

So back we went to winding slowly along the hilly two-tracks in the wild, burnt back country. We didn’t see any elk for a long time.

“This is no fun,” I complained. “Let’s go back to where we saw the first group.”

The others agreed, so we drove back and exited the van once more. We were immediately greeted by incessant bugling, but couldn’t spot the source of the sound, so we decided to strike out through the woods and try to find him. With binoculars in hand, we stalked toward the sound (or tried to). But eight people aren’t very quiet.

“There he is,” my uncle whispered suddenly, and we all looked in the direction he was pointing to see a bunch of elk running away as if their lives depended on it.

After testing the wind, we concluded they must have smelled us. Disappointed that we had busted them, we decided to keep going in hopes of sighting another group. We hadn’t gone far until a clear bugle rang out close! “He’s over in that direction. Let’s go!”

We stole through the underbrush toward the continuous sound and stopped at the edge of a small clearing. Suddenly there he was, a magnificent bull. He seemed to know that we were in the area, as he looked at us curiously but didn’t run off. We all whispered excitedly as we studied him through the binoculars. He made an impressive picture with a stark background of burnt trees and the sunset beyond.

The bull soon grew nervous. He walked to the edge of the clearing, paused, and looked back as if he were saying goodbye. Then he disappeared among the trees.

We walked back to the van in the gathering dusk. From under the seat, my uncle pulled the spotlight we had brought, rolled down his window, and spotted for elk as we drove back out toward the highway. We soon arrived at another lookout point, so we stopped and shone our lights down the bank. The beam quickly caught some glittering eyes, and soon we could make out another twelve cows and a nice bull. “I could watch these all night,” I told my cousin.

“Right, but it’s getting late,” he replied. We soon started again and continued toward the highway.

Just before we arrived at the main road, we had to brake rather suddenly to avoid hitting a small spike bull.

And so we headed home with visions of majestic elk floating around in our heads, with thankfulness to a God who created it all, and with plans already forming for another excursion to elk country.

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