There must’ve been close to 100 elk filling the valley below me and I was astounded. I didn’t want to do anything to call attention to myself, so just sat there quietly peering over the boulder from afar. It was some sort of luck or fate that put me in that right place and at the right time, because getting into a position to see a big bunch of any sort of wild animals was not one of my predominate goals that day.
I was actually focused on getting a group of teenage backpackers up to a flat summit campsite on Horseshoe Mountain in Colorado’s Mosquito Range before dark and by that point, it was still several miles to our north. It was tough enough terrain to deal with as it was and we certainly didn’t need anything like wildlife viewing to further complicate things or slow us down.
As I kept walking, the group of 5 stayed well behind and once I got to the rock, I knew that I’d have several minutes of elk watching time to myself before the group of backpackers caught up. And so, I just kept hunkering down and hiding behind the big rock, staying out of the wind, and drinking-in the sight of the elk for all it was worth.
As I looked down, I also looked out. Something almost seemed to be feeding my eyes with what I was supposed to be seeing. The major peaks of the Mosquitoes seemed to jut out of the ridge we were crossing as it kept going on to the north and finally melted into Mt. Democrat. Down below, a few buildings on the fringe of Fairplay dotted a part of the edge of South Park, which loomed large in its vastness, separating me from the Tarryall Mountains and Pike’s Peak off to the east. Mt. Silverheels and the alpine peaks of the Park Range dominated the northeastern sky. Flecks and patches of snow were all over the place, distinguishing the greens of the ground from the blues of the sky, as summer was just beginning to creep into the high country even though it would soon be fall. The herd just below me, made up of cow elk and their calves, mostly grazed and meandered around. The newborn grass was undoubtedly sweet and I understood how there were only a few days each year when they could even come up that high, as they chased the freshly sprouting green things. The animals seemed to be scattered all across the valley and were mostly above treeline, although some were evident down among the trees and bushes just below that. I took note of the herd’s outrider scouts around the perimeter, who were paying heed to the wind and looking for any sort of movement. The lookouts mostly watched down into the valley and held their heads up, sniffing into the gentle breeze which was conveniently hitting me in the face, sending my scent off in the other direction and away from them. The others, probably mostly thinking about where they were going to put their teeth next, just grazed.
For that moment in time, I could almost feel their confidence in where they were. I was struck by how they appeared to move around almost effortlessly, and seemed to be a part of, or belong to, the whole picture that I was seeing. I had no doubt that my position behind the rock and a couple of hundred feet away and downwind of the nearest outrider was a good place to be for observing it all, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling I had that I was a spectator to something I wasn’t supposed to be seeing.
But even the uneasiness couldn’t keep me from watching, and I was increasingly mesmerized by the spectacle as it kept on unfolding in its own subtle way. Then it happened, as if there wasn’t enough for me to mentally absorb to begin with.
A group of 6 yearling calves climbed to the top of one of the larger snowfields in the area and began sliding down it on their feet. Two cows hovered around the base of it as if they were supervising. As each of the “skiers” reached the bottom, whether they were in a heap or still on their feet, they’d turn and go back up for another go.
I couldn’t help but notice how they were careful to space themselves out, so as to avoid crashing into each other. Good idea, I thought to myself. At times, they actually made it all the way down without falling, although that wasn’t the case very often. Some were obviously better at it than others. I wondered if they were known within the herd for that particular ability. Whenever one of them got tired, that one stayed down at the bottom and went off to graze, but others always seemed to show up to fill the spot, so that the snow sliding event seemed like it could very well go on forever.
I avoided my impulse to yell out instructions or cautions to the animals, not because I was concerned about spooking the herd, but due to the fact that I could see that the cows at the bottom appeared to have it under control. I wondered who among them chose the snowfield, assessed the weather conditions, or was prepared to spring into action in the event one of the slider-downers got hurt.
Was it one of the calves, themselves that decided it was a good place to slide? Or was it one of the cows or some sort of collective? For whatever reason, I’d always thought that elk and other big wild animals didn’t think about or have time for such things as play, but I saw with my own eyes, that they apparently do, and the realization turned my world upside down.
And then, the first of the human teenagers caught up to me and huffed loudly in relief at having gotten there. I knew the whole group was headed my way, but the sound startled me, nonetheless. As I turned to look, I caught a glimpse of the herd bolting for the trees out of the corner of my eye.
“You made it,” I said.
As he took the final few steps up to my vantage point, I turned my head and looked back down into the high mountain valley, now void of elk, but thick with the blues of Alpine Forget-Me-Nots.
“What do you see,” he queried?
“Flowers,” I answered, “lots of wildflowers.”