Joan Larsen’s Travel Stories: On the Road in the Canadian Rockies: Close Encounters With the Rutting Elk

Posted on September 26, 2012

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By Joan Larsen

The shriek started off like the creak of a rusty hinge and shifted to a cross between a whistle and a screaming jazz horn – with the volume set on 11.  A group of geese hurried into the air, scared skyward.  We almost levitated, too, the first time we heard it.

It was the sound that we had been waiting for, the storied bugling of the horny male elk.

And it wasn’t long before the bugler appeared.

Twenty elk – calves and mature females, were trotting along the other side of a stream, and bringing up the rear was an enormous bull with the proportions of a broad-chested, thick necked horse.  This being September, the onset of the famed “rut”, the bull was rounding up cows and preparing to mate with every one of them – well, at least those of legal age!

Why do we find harems intriguing?  We wanted to stalk them, following the huge antlers into the woods.  But there is danger in this.  Bull elk are hard-wired to repel any creatures that approach his cows, and with the bulls weighing half a ton – and well, considering our lack of antlers, it didn’t seem to be too wise an idea to follow.

In Fall, the ear-piercing bugling is the classic sound of the Canadian Rockies.  With the height of the tourist season past, it is certainly the best time of year to head for Banff.  And frankly, hearing the male bugling and rounding up his women is a lot more exciting than seeing them chew grass in the summer months!

A tried-and-true perfect spot to drive at dusk for a close-up view from the safety of the car is the Banff Springs Hotel golf course.  Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the rolling bright green course is – frankly – romantic (whether the cows know it or not!!).  Right on the green stood a regal bull with a large head, a dark shaggy mane and Volkswagen-size antlers.  If you can imagine walking around with 40 or more pounds of horns atop your head, you’ll understand why these beasts’ necks are so muscular.  No doubt this aging bull had used his antlers in past rutting seasons to good advantage, but he seemed inclined to sit this one out.  Some men watching from the opened windows of their cars, laughing about it, seemed to understand this well.

The reigning bull had positioned his harem a safe distance from the dozens of onlookers, but far enough from the edge of the woods so he could spot any cow who tried to stray off – and see, as well, any other male that tried “to horn in”.

While the cows grazed nonchalantly, pretty blasé over what was to come next, the bull rested, conserving his energy for the month-long rut that would begin any day – or week – now.  Try to imagine this:  during the next four or five weeks the bull elk would get virtually no sleep; this was the time he dreamed about all year – a time when he would be mating with the ladies continually, and fighting off party crashers in the off-moments.

Now testing, we watched the bull get up again to make the rounds, visiting each cow.  The females ignored him; maybe the hot, late summer had delayed their urge to mate.We women can understand that.  Frustrated, the bull stuck his head forward and bugled into the sunset.  Wow!  That worked.  Two more cows liked what they heard and emerged from the woods to join the harem.

But it wasn’t to be his night.

Again the next night, we waited until dusk and headed for the golf course.  Ahead, framed by the Rockies, was the biggest elk we had ever seen.  There were cows with him, but like the ladies of the previous night, these too seemed unaware of the impending ORGY.  And just like last night’s bull elk, this one strolled about, checking to see of any cows were ready.  They must have been – for the performance the bull put on was pure triumph.  He wagged his huge head, slammed and rubbed his antlers into the dirt, and bugled so hard that his abdomen shook.

He turned 90 degrees and glared at the onlookers like us who were wisely in their cars, ready to put the windows up.  The sharp tips of the bull’s 45-pound rack loomed 10 feet above the ground; he shook his antlers at us and bugled again.  The sound could be heard for miles.  The cows stopped their grazing, and they, too, stared at us.

It may be a fool’s errand to translate animal calls into English, but it would be even more foolish to ignore a clear and concise warning from a bull elk who wanted complete privacy for his moments – and yes – days of ecstasy that were finally to be.

We couldn’t blame him.  The rows of cars retreated down the road . . . with more than a few couples inside, perhaps, now dreaming of their own evenings ahead.

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