Those Marvelous ElkI©

By Jerry D. Haight

Estes Park Colorado, a most beautiful and unique place sits at the base of the fourteen thousand two hundred foot Longs Peak and is within a stone throw of Rocky Mountain National Park. The small village is home to around 1600 winter residents and a day in the summer the count may exceed several hundreds of thousands, including summer residents and visitors. We are talking about human residents.

But consider that in addition it is also home to thousands of deer, perhaps hundreds of elk, a dozen or so moose and an indeterminate number of bears, cougars, fox, bobcats and an occasional wolverine, all sharing habitat with humans. It is not surprising to see its four legged occupants blocking roads, napping on lawns, munching trees and just casually enjoying life. These encounters are a source of immense pleasure to its human residence and visitors alike.

People of Estes Park take their relationship with their four legged critters very seriously.  On one occasion, a large bull elk was severely injured during an encounter with a motorist who fled the scene. The creature stumbled onto a lawn where neighbors, in their sleeping bags, kept an all-night vigil, taking turns tending to the hapless animal and, the following day, mourned its death.  

In this hamlet the two legged residents are so protective of their four legged counterparts that hunting is totally illegal and violators risk their lives because if caught, public lynching comes close to reality.

Among the most majestic inhabitants are the elk and especially the males, which can weigh over a thousand pounds and carry antlers that can have six or seven points per side. But, let me tell you about Sampson.

He was the most celebrated bull elk in all of Estes Park. He lived close to the YMCA of the Rockies where he entertained guests. But he made frequent incursions into town four miles away.  The regal nine by nine Sampson became the mascot of the small town and drew tourists from all over the world. Often people would pick Estes Park as their destination just because of him.

Samson, being unusually drawn to humans, was easily approachable and although a wild animal, he really didn’t see himself as such.  “He just seemed to relish all the attention people gave him”, noted one wildlife officer “He would even pose for visitors with cameras.”  The warden recalled an incident when he was called to chase Samson out of a yard where he (Samson) wasn't welcome.  But Samson was so unafraid of humans that he chased the officer out of the yard instead and then promptly lay down again and fell asleep.

In September 1995, the community was dismayed and livid when this beautiful creature was felled by an arrow from a crossbow shot by a poacher.  It happened near a cabin at the entrance to the YMCA.

Following the death of “the mascot of Estes Park” Samson was thoroughly memorialized in news stories, on the Internet, with a beer bearing his name, sweatshirts, tee-shirts and lots of other memorabilia. The proceeds from most of these activities were donated to programs aimed at protecting “trophy” animals. In April of 1998 the Colorado state legislature passed “The Sampson Bill” creating a special class of felonies with much higher fines, jail terms and rewards when this special class of animals is involved.

As a further tribute to Sampson, a citizen’s committee was formed to raise money for a sculpture; the goal was to create a perpetual memorial to the magnificent bull elk. In August, 1997 the bronze life-sized statue became a reality and now stands prominently at the intersection of highways 7 and 34.  

Not long ago, a large bull elk in rut mistook the statue as the real thing. In his mind, the elk saw his large haram being threatened and immediately attacked Sampson. The resounding clash of antlers could be heard over a half mile away. The unilateral attack lasted for many minutes until the aching elk finally turned around only to see his harem walking away wagging their heads in utter disgust. They may have marveled at his courage, but sans brains.

I first encountered Sampson II, so named because of his Sampson-like traits, in the fall of 2012 at the side of Mary’s Lake Road on the way from somewhere to somewhere else. As our car rounded the top of a hill, my wife Phyllis and I saw a family of elk. Usually it is assumed bulls and cows with their calves live most of their lives apart from each other but, to the contrary, here were two cows, three calves and a large six point bull, a family doing family things.  In Estes Park, encounters with all sorts of animals are common but, nevertheless, we were unprepared to witness this elk family event.

At first, the group was at a five foot, four strand wire fence. We watched one of the cows jump the fence, then the other followed. The calves stood in wonderment seeming to ask what to do. The bull jumped the fence, turned facing the calves as if to say “Now it is your turn.”  And the cows returned to the other side.

We finally got the picture, the cow and bull were giving primary jumping lessons to the calves and a refresher course to the yearling.

The bull jumped the fence again, and again was followed by the cow. The other three continued to look on, perplexed. Then bull jumped back while the cow encouraged her kids to make the jump. The family did not see us rejoicing success as they finally got two of the young elk on the other side of the fence. But the third calf was totally unsure. “I can’t do it.” she seemed to say. “It is so high.”  “Can’t we find a lower fence?” But no, the lesson would be this fence, this time, and with no excuses.

Elk in whatever setting cannot allow small obstacles to deter them. Whether in search for food, evading predators or just enjoying everyday activities they must have just as free rein of their environment as we two legged creatures. Our natural inclination is to assume jumping is a matter of instinct, but no. It is a learned activity much like driving is to us.  

While we watched the events unfold, the smallest calf had other ideas. She sped up the hill along the fence to either find a smaller section or perhaps, even a break. But her dad was having none of it.

He quickly circled around a clump of bushes, then charged up the hill to head off the little pony sized elk. She was shocked to see him blocking her way but with his gentle but steady look and massive antlers he helped her decide to return to the lesson plan and to the original classroom site.

Finally, after about an hour of delight and intrigue on our part, the little elk managed to jump. While her attempt was definitely half assed, she hooked her back hoof in the top wire of the fence and did a summersault landing on the back of her neck. At least she was over the fence and she was undoubtedly the recipient of grand accolades from her parents.

We ended up with excellent movies and still pictures and another memory locked into our consciousness for all time.

In Tucson, where we winter, it is always advisable to keep an eye on the ground. It is also advisable to keep an eye on the ground in Estes Park as well but for different reasons, not the least of which would include deer, elk and bear droppings. During the spring one can also stumble onto a baby quite inadvertently. Like the time we were walking in our neighborhood with our dog. We were close to the curb when suddenly out from between two small potentilla bushes sprung a fawn, probably just a few weeks old. Nevertheless, it scared the bejesus out of us.

Then later while walking on the golf course nearby, we came to a small grove of large trees with some bushes at their base. Nestled in the foliage was a very new calf. This is a potentially dangerous situation because its mother, although a quarter of a mile away, can cover that distance in a human heartbeat and mother elk tend to be very protective of their newborns. Misty did not alert us to the calf because they do not have a smell and the calf lay very still. Fortunately, we immediately back tracked and Mom was satisfied we were benign so just kept grazing but still with a wary eye on us.

A little later, we spotted the Mom with her calf among a herd of about 25 or 30 elk. We don’t fully understand the circumstances but many in the herd were harassing the very young calf. That is until the bull of the heard rounded up both the Mom and her calf and escorted them across the street into an alcove of a house then stood guard over them. Needless to say, we were impressed.

We often take our dog to the golf course after hours so he can have a run off leash. Before we do, we make sure we have the course to ourselves. Such was the case one evening last September. We were alone with our dog on the greens. About a half a minute later, a thundering herd of nearly fifty elk including a master bull, several yearlings, lots of cows and maybe a dozen calves converged onto the golf course at full gallop.

Very soon after their arrival, the calves began to play, the cows lay down for a nap and the bull began his vigil. We gathered our dog, put him on his leash, watched the spectacle and then left.

A Denver station (KOAA) just a few moments before videoed the herd in Downtown Estes near the McDonald (nearly five miles away). It was a complete understatement to simply say we were impressed.

It was just a few days later whether or not it was the same herd mentioned above or a different one (elk have not been known to wear name tags) spent the day in our back yard from about 10:00 a.m. until after 2:00. We could have traversed our yard by stepping on elk (if we gutsy enough to try). That was when a massive and well-armed bull decided to speak to the author. So, the bull merely sauntered right to the edge of our deck and we chatted for a few minutes before he sauntered off. It was an awesome memory.  I am quite sure he longed for some non-threatening male companionship, but then again who knows?