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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Exploring new territory

Yesterday evening, after relishing another sunset hike, K and I did a fun run through her agility course in the twilight. At the end of a perfect run, I cheered for K, threw a toy, and we played noisily. To my surprise, a bull elk grazed nearby, but not in view, and he threw his toward the sky and bugled along with us. What a treat! Here's a Youtube video of a bugling elk.

It's rare that the elk arrive in our meadows while the bulls' raging hormones still prompt them to bugle. They use bugling as part of their repertoire for holding a high and mighty spot in the social hierarchy during the rut. Each mature bull gathers and defends a harem of cow elk when the herd still resides in their alpine summer range. The bulls use bugling, together with antler combat, to defend their harems. This year, the herd migrated so early that an occasional treasured bugle resonates through the evening air.

This morning, I mountain biked with K by my side. We followed a favorite route on a ribbon-like path through pine duff. Immediately, K went on high alert, her body language urgently informing me that hidden animals had traveled our path. I looked at the dirt and saw elk tracks, a veritable stampede, going in our direction.

We arrived at a lookout, and the amazing view briefly distracted me from supervising K. All the way up the hill, she'd trotted vigorously ahead of me but stopped to wait impatiently every 100 yards or so. Notice the view as I arrived at the summit, and that K isn't in it!
I realized that the herd had summited and then plunged off the west side of our peak toward the snowy mountains. As I guessed, K had followed their lead but resignedly returned to me when I called. One of the rules of keeping a strong recall is to make the reward for coming when called more exciting than the distraction. I have to say that it's tough to find a way to be more interesting than a huge elk herd! But, I tried...
We lingered on the peak, with K obsessing over the elk scent.
I obsessed over the swirling mountains.
A closer look showed how clouds drifted among the snowy pinnacles, revealing them one at a time.
It turned out that our chosen route closely mimicked the elk herd's path so K remained at high alert. It looked like some of the herd had smartly descended deep into a dense forest on a steep hillside - a great hiding place in hunting season. However, a few had continued on our trail, and we encountered them about a mile later. For such large animals, I was amazed by how gracefully they wound through the lodgepole pine forest, up a steep rocky embankment, and out of our sight. K stayed by my side while they fled so her elk etiquette seems to be returning!

Shortly later, we stopped at another lookout, and I couldn't resist taking K's photo.
On the way home, K loped by my side with a relaxed gait, no longer excited about the elk scent. I dropped her off at home and headed out for some exploring on what I'm sure is one of our last warm days of the year.

My plan was to explore a route that I'd like to ride with K but I want to investigate all the potential pitfalls first. One reason why I've not spent much time on this trail is that the potential for wildlife interactions - good or bad - is sky high. The cliffs that line parts of the trail make a mountain biker feel vulnerable to an animal perched atop the boulder walls.
People say that mountain lions use this trail extensively, but until today, I hadn't seen any lion signs. Today, I found old lion scat, probably from a few weeks ago, in the middle of the trail. It was filled with deer fur and bone fragments.
Moreover, as I rolled through an aspen grove, I noticed that animals had deeply scratched the trees closest to the trail.
In some cases, it seemed obvious that bears, rather than cats, had scratched the bark either while climbing or as a territory marker. The spread of the claw marks on this one convinced me that a bear left them.
And, a bear had left scat, full of service berries and berry pits, in the center of the path. This scat wasn't too old, suggesting to me that a few bears might still be awake. My foot is in the photo for scale.
But, one set of scratches might have been left by a lion. The claw marks were less spread out, the cuts were newly cut razor thin, and they curved a bit, a signature of cat scratches according to the books. My photo turned out very fuzzy - I'll have to try again next time I'm there.

Oh, how I love exploring, riding trails that I don't know and noticing the details of nature. I think that preserving open space is as important for the human and canine spirits as for the planet. Our spirits need places to fly unfettered by cars, TV, and other people. Being able to wander in the forest helps keep us young and free.


  1. Once again, wow!

    The pikh of K was priceless!

    Mom was all excited when she ran down to the grocery store Monday afternoon - she saw the khrows taunting a bird and expekhted it to be red tail that lives around there - but when she saw the white khap, she was in awe!

    He/she went off to a lokhal cell tower near the parking lot - she'll be sure to take her khamera now and be on the lookout !


  2. KB, I'm commenting from my phone, so excuse bloopers! Had to tell you I love this post. The pics are outstanding. Your adventure with the elk is special. You're so lucky that K is so obediant and attuned to you. The closeup of her is great!
    We're in Fruita - beautiful fall day for riding although wind was gusting. Climbed Nat'l Monument.

  3. I never knew elks made such a sound. I guess I didn't know WHAT kind of sound they made.. maybe a moo, like a cow.

    Looks like another rich forest adventure for you and K today.

  4. Yes, exploring is the best! Even though I know I'm certainly not the first to go down the trails I travel, some of them are new to me so I still feel adventurous. Besides things are always changing in nature with the seasons and weather patterns so there are always new things to see.

  5. Totally agree on the need to maintain open space. Nothing is more invigorating for me than a day on a mountain trail.

  6. KB..great post! Seeing Elk close up is a wonderful thing! What magnificent creatures they are! :)

  7. I should clarify that elk also make other sounds. The main other one that I've heard is a soft mewing between mothers and yearly calves who have become separated. I feel so lucky to live in the midst of elk for half the year.

    I agree with all of you that exploring is the best!

    And Barb - enjoy Fruita! I have plans to visit there soon - it's a great place for bike riding!


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