Our Epic Expedition to Elk County

by Rebekah Brewster | Jun 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Bull elk in field
Bull elk in Elk County, Pennsylvania.

“Those leaves look edible!” Nate exclaimed. A van load of us from Northumberland County were driving to Elk County on a crisp September day, and the vivid fall colors caught our eyes. (What would a scarlet leaf taste like anyway?) After stopping more than once to take pictures of the dancing Lower Pine Run and its dashing waterfalls (and catch a sailing shoe!), we arrived at our campsite.

Even with nine people to help, the tent set-up was painfully slow. We tried it this way and that way, moved it here and moved it over there, and put down the stakes and pulled them up again. It was one of those situations where you can choose to see the hilarious or gripe about the annoying. If you could see the laughing and carrying on, you would know which one we chose. All this time we kept saying, “We need to hurry up!” because we did want to see the elk at some point, and it was quickly nearing 4:30.

Our first impressions of Elk County? Well, it looks kind of like the rest of Pennsylvania, it’s harder to set up tents here, and we wonder if we will even see elk.

We drove for a little while looking for the treasure, and stopped at an overlook where several people were looking over a ridge. We admired the long mountain ridge speckled with red, yellow, and orange, but we didn’t see any elk. A lady said, “Just down the hill there are a bull, seven cows, and a baby.”

“Let’s go!” we hissed, and rushed to the van. Cramming in, we sped down the hill. Coming around the bend, we saw the hill full of elk, or so it seemed to our elk-hungry eyes! Thirteen elk sprawled across the meadow, calmly eating grass as if sixty people weren’t watching them.

As we got out and watched, the bull opened his wide mouth and let out a loud bugle. It was very different from what I had imagined it to be. Instead of a deep, gruff, authoritative bellow, it was high-pitched, squeaky, and almost whale-like in its warbling and squealing. Before too long we heard echoing calls from the woods. Another huge bull accompanied by a cow came galloping down the incline, and the original bull rose to meet his rival. Lunging toward each other, they both bugled and lowered their massive antlers. At first, there seemed to be an invisible wall of air between them, but soon it was broken as the horns clashed. Twisting and turning, the two heads fought.

Disconnecting and reconnecting with a resounding “CRACK!” they disputed over the cows. Every once in a while, they bugled, noses in the air, lips flared. Then another call came ringing through the dell. A third bull, a little taller and whiter than the others, came loping gracefully through the underbrush to join the fray. The cows seemed very unconcerned about the drama and continued nonchalantly cropping grass.

Across the road up the mountain, one lone bull tossed dry grass with his antlers. After marking his territory sufficiently, he settled down in his bed. Farther up, another elk lay, but he seemed more restless. Much too close (the recommended distance is 100 yards/meters), several people stood watching and taking pictures. Some of us (names not listed to protect the guilty) were quite nervous about being so close to such a monstrous creature, so “they” rushed back down the hill.

After snapping many pictures, and oohing and ahing over the elk, we piled into our vehicle and started back for our campsite. When we rounded the curve, however, the entire van let out a scream! There, about 100 feet (30 m) or less from the road, stood another majestic bull.

“Let us out!” the photographers begged. After photographing the stately beast from different angles, the tired but happy group got in once again.

“I can’t believe we actually saw elk!” Abigail said.

“I feel like screaming or running around or something.” Shalom said.

“The two hours of driving were totally worth it!” we all agreed.

Our eventful day ended with a cozy fire, a yummy supper, and a beautiful pink and blue sky fading into deep coral at the horizon.

The morning came with snap and vigor. We slept surprisingly well considering the cold temperature and the rain in the night. At our first stop we saw twenty-six elk, five of which were bulls. They were calm and stoic, so we didn’t see any action, but it was beautiful to see them spread across the hill.

At our second stop, we saw one bull, one we had seen the night before. We did take a little hike and admired some “nice white stuff” (which we later identified as White Coral Fungus [Clavelina cristata]), mushrooms of many different kinds, the forest of conifers, and the view of the mountain range.

After a late breakfast heartily eaten, we explored the area around the campsite. There were a lot of mushrooms—teeny pink puffy ones, cute little pearl ones, mud-brown ones, tall cream ones, and soupy-looking ones. We also found a lot of elk footprints in the mud right behind our campsite and a part of an antler left behind.

At our third stop, the elk were far outnumbered by people, accompanied by their elk souvenirs, elk collectibles, and elk buyables. We did not stay around long for the touristy stuff. On our way out of the Visitor Center, we spotted one cow grazing in a field of pink cosmos. She finished our list of twenty-seven elk for the day.

We started home, but had one more place we wanted to visit—the swinging bridge we had seen on the way into Elk County. That was fun and scary. It bounced alarmingly under our tread, and it tipped precariously to one side. But we made it across, laughing and sighing in the same breath. On the way back, with Nathan’s drone, we got a picture of the explorers on the bridge.

To end our epic expedition, we all whistled “How Great Thou Art” as we lurched around the corners and over the hills in our hot, stuffed van.

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