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Visiting elk country

Visions of 'antler fencing' and fawning females draw one city girl to Elk Meadow and the redwoods during rutting season.

January 03, 2010|By Terry Gardner
  • Roosevelt elk, the largest of the North American elk, inhabit the Pacific coastal rain forests and mountains. They're kin to deer but larger, graze on grasses rather than legumes and leaves, and communicate more distinctively than deer. The prime time to watch them rutting is early September to the end of October.
Roosevelt elk, the largest of the North American elk, inhabit the Pacific… (Rick E. Martin )

Reporting from Orick, Calif. — The Roosevelt elk must not have gotten the memo to be rutting by the time I arrived. Rutting is how male elk impress female elk: They lock antlers and push back and forth until one gives up. The victor gets to breed with the whole herd of females.

As we drove up U.S. 101 along the Northern California coast toward Redwood National and State Parks, visions of horn locking danced in my head. I expected to watch fighting and female fawning. My farm-raised friend Laurie, who went elk watching with me, said I had "city expectations for a wilderness event."

We headed to Elk Meadow, three miles north of Orick and 45 minutes from Eureka, to elk watch, admire pristine giant redwoods and seize the rutting season discount for a well-equipped cabin in Redwood Adventures Vacation Village( I learned a bit about the elk, the redwoods and myself in the process.

Roosevelt elk inhabit the Pacific coastal rain forests and mountains and are the largest of the North American elk. Elk are kin to deer but larger, graze on grasses rather than legumes and leaves, and communicate more distinctively than deer.

An adult male elk averages 875 pounds; females top out closer to 700 pounds. Adult males typically stand 5 feet tall at the shoulder, with females a bit more diminutive. Females are sexually mature at age 2, while males mature at age 3 or 4. However, young bulls don't have much chance of breeding before they're 7 to 10 years old, because older males dominate the mating scene.

If all goes as planned, after an 8 1/2 -month gestation period, a female will give birth to a single elk calf. Newborns usually weigh about 33 pounds, and females separate from the herd to have them alone.

Females graze and lounge in the meadow, oblivious to the rut, until the victor approaches and flaunts his antlers. A bull elk's antlers average between 4 and 6 feet in length, with vertical points and a distinctive crown or three-point tip. Antler racks may weigh as much as 40 pounds.

Grant Roden, tour manager of Redwood Adventures, says male Roosevelt elk shed their antlers annually between March and April and grow a new rack by June. Rutting season typically runs from early September through the end of October. The peak of the rut depends on the number of females in heat. Because elk generally shun people and the males want to fight among themselves, rutting behaviors can easily be observed at a recommended distance of at least 20 feet.

I didn't get to see much rutting in Elk Meadow, but the head bull frequently bugled, which sounds like a prehistoric horse screeching out a high-pitched, one-note whinny through the throat of a rusty bugle. The sound scares off competitors and attracts the females.

Most young bucks ran off when he took a single step toward them. Others, he ran off with a bugle and a charge.

I saw two young bucks practice rutting, and it resembled "fencing with antlers," just as Roden had described. The boys put their heads down, locked antlers and tussled for 30 seconds or less. Then they separated, made eye contact and did it again. Five rounds in five minutes.

You might envy the winning bull until you realize he must fight off challengers, herd his harem and mate 24/7. "He made me appreciate being married to just one woman," Roden said.

Elk Meadow has built-in snacks of wild blackberries and huckleberries. Because the animals graze, relax, rut and strut right off U.S. 101, it's also entertaining to watch other people watching the elk. The elk attract fans young and old, from motorists to bikers, all equally mesmerized. The majestic elk have dark brown fur on their heads and necks with torsos covered in lighter brown fur. And when an elk's deep brown, soulful eyes meet yours, you may fall for them heart and soul as I did.

Beyond elk watching, you can mountain bike, hike or go horseback riding through the redwoods. In nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the redwoods are old-growth and virgin trees because the forest has never been logged. Redwoods are one of the tallest, strongest and hardiest trees on the planet. Roden pointed out how redwoods sprout new life by growing additional trunks called reiterations. "We only have about 80,000 acres, and 45% of the remaining old-growth redwoods are in Redwood National and State Parks' approximate 38,982 acres," says Roden.

You can even whale watch in elk country. Gray whales come in to feed on bottom-dwelling amphipods (shrimp-like animals). However, the morning I visited, it was too foggy to see any whales at the mouth of the Klamath River.

Maybe I'm meant to watch elk and not whales.

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