A Real Bugle-Fest in the Valley of the Elk!

Early this week, we had the first frost in the yard at our house. It turned the grass silver. It was beautiful and strange, after what has felt like the year of the endless summer. The frost was a result of a cold front that moved through, ushering in a string of perfect October days behind it. A timely gift for our wedding anniversary week!

Mornings were cool and crisp, afternoons sunny and warmer, with blue sky all around. I worked Monday but my husband had talked me into taking the rest of the week off to go outdoors. And such adventures we would have!

Monday evening found me packing up my backpack, and Tuesday morning, we put all of our gear into my car and headed for the Quehanna Wild Area, into the Valley of the Elk. We stopped along the way for a quick breakfast at McDonald's in Milesburg, the last hot food we would have until our return.

There were some foliage colors along the Quehanna Highway, but in the back-country, a lot of the leaves are down now. I think that the hot, dry spell we had at the end of September sort of toasted them, and they fell.

But the tamaracks are turning golden, as they do every autumn, and there are still some standout colors here and there. On our walk in, we encountered an itty bitty green welcoming committee: a tiny green snake! So cool!

We got into our campsite in early afternoon and I set up my tent and camping area. Little Bear, Alex, and Tiny Tiger sat on a tree above my tent and stood guard for me. My husband and I put on some tunes and read our books and just enjoyed hanging out in the woods, making our campsites in a leisurely fashion. This was our third time out this fall, so we feel well practiced by now.

Around the middle of the afternoon, we headed out to the rock overlooking the Valley of the Elk, and what was that I heard in the distance? Could it be a bugle? And then something else. A bark? A howl?

Hard to believe that the wildlife would be cavorting so early in the day, but indeed those were the first sounds we heard of the local elk and coyotes. "And so begins the bark, bugle, and howl, in the Quehanna Wild Area," I said jokingly to my husband. Little did I know how true my words would turn out to be!

If you would like to see the little valley that we call the Valley of the Elk, here are two views of it: one from the top of the valley looking down, and another from the bottom looking back up.

The rock we like to sit on is on the hill on the left in the second shot, barely visible, but you may see a much closer view of it, with me sitting on my rock, in the extra photo from this spring's first backpack, into the Valley of the Elk.

You never know what your last backpack of the year will be until later, but it's possible that both our first and last backpacks this particular year were into this valley - Quehanna Wild Area - bookends to our wild adventures.

Darkness falls rather quickly now. The sun starts to leave the valley around 5:30. The shadows grow long. This is the point in the day when my husband says, "If you're in the back-country now, you're either an expert or a fool!" It's at least an hour's hike out. I don't think it would be any fun at all in the dark.

I spent a fair amount of time on the rock around dusk, watching for any wildlife. For elk are crepuscular animals, most active at dawn and dusk. And then I returned from my rock and went back to the campsite. My husband was walking around, doing stuff. He took his turn at the rock and jogged back to get me at around 6:30, half an hour before full darkness.

"THERE ARE ELK OUT THERE! THE MOST ELK I'VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!" Well, as you can guess, that lit a fire under me! In two shakes of a lamb's tail, I was up and ready with my camera, and we rushed out to the rock to see. And when I got there, what a treat: actual ELK in the Valley of the Elk!

There were somewhere between a dozen and two dozen elk in the group, maybe 20 in all. My husband had a good view of them as they initially walked out into the clearing. He said they were mostly females, but with one male at the front and two or three bulls with big racks at the back of the herd.

I got a few photos, but I admit they aren't the best I've ever taken. The light was fading by then and the elk were well across the valley, moving steadily away from us. The majority of the group was disappearing into the tamaracks by the time I got there.

I could see moving bodies; but couldn't get a clear shot of the entire group. We could also see their back-sides as they departed. Remember those brown suede jackets everyone wore in the 70s, with the paler brown shearling collars and cuffs? It looked like they were wearing those on their rumps!

And the whole time they were there, they were making typical elk sounds. They call it bugling, but it was a series of squeals and whistles and grunts and snorts. It's really rather unearthly. If you are interested in hearing what it sounds like, here's a YouTube clip of bugling elk (not mine) so you may have a listen.

And then the elk disappeared into the tamaracks, and we walked back up to our campsite, shaking our heads, marveling at how wonderful and wild it was in the back-country. And what a gift on this, our wedding anniversary: perfect fall weather and a visit from the largest elk herd we'd ever seen in the wild!

We watched the sun move up the hill on the other side of the creek. First, it sent long shadows. Then the light started to leave. Finally, only the tippy-tops of the tamaracks were lit up, like God's golden paint brushes. (You may see a photo of the last light on the tamaracks in the extra photos area.) And then it was full darkness. Farewell to the light!

We usually light an LED lantern and hang it from a tree, and we did that. But honestly, it's hard to stay awake as long as usual when it's dark around you by 7 pm. I made it until about 8:15 before I headed into my tent. A half-hour later, I was asleep.

But I was awakened many, many times during the night by the sounds of the elk herd and the coyotes. They were never as close as they had been when we saw them from our rock. But they weren't too far away.

There was bugling all night long, coming from many different places. And behind it, the howling and barking of coyotes. I imagined the two groups - the elk and the coyotes - locked in an endless pursuit of chasing and being chased. And I dreamed of elk - yes, I did - of the herd thundering across these endless hills, bugling into the open skies.

The elk sighting somehow called to mind this song, and this Johnny Cash live version is a real treat: Ghost Riders in the Sky.

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