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.