A herd of elk in the Colorado high country

The Colorado Rockies

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 I certainly hadn’t been thinking about it as I I’d climbed toward the top of yet another ridge.

I’d been focused on getting to Horseshoe Mountain before dark, and by that point, it was still several miles to the north. And so, I’d been mostly concerned with doing that and that alone. In fact, I was hoping there’d be nothing in our way that might slow us down, as we intently walked toward it, trying to beat sundown. Time was of the essence, at least I thought. I’m not even sure what it was about getting to that particular landmark that made it seem so crucial, because I realize now, that we could’ve camped about anywhere along the ridge. For whatever reason, we were simply moving briskly, as daylight burned.

I could see the group of 5 teenagers back off in the distance moving toward me, but well behind, and knew I’d have the elk time to myself for several minutes before they caught up. And so, I just kept hunkering down against the big rock, staying out of the wind, giving the kids time to catch up 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 big peaks of the Mosquito Range stuck out above the ridge as it melted into Mt. Democrat off to the north. Down below, a few buildings on the fringe of Fairplay dotted a part of the edge of South Park, which loomed large in it’s 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 below, made up of cow elk and their calves, mostly grazed and meandered. The newborn grass was undoubtedly sweet and I understood that 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 mostly above tree-line, although some were evident down among the trees and bushes.

I took note of the herd’s outrider scouts around the perimeter, 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, 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 bottom as if they were supervising. As each of the “skiers” reached the bottom, whether they were in a heap or still on their legs, they’d turn and go back up for another go.

I couldn’t help but notice how they were careful to separate and 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, they 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? Or was it one of the cows or some sort of collective? I’d always thought that elk and other 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 very 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.”

Colorado mountains
The view from a ridge top. The slopes of Mt. Silverheels and Mt. Baldy


Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.