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 at them from behind a boulder. It was pure luck that put me in that right place and at the right time because wildlife viewing wasn’t one of my goals for that day.
What I was intently focused on was getting a group of teenage backpackers up to a flat summit campsite on Horseshoe Mountain in Colorado’s Mosquito Range before dark. And by the time the elk event occurred, the afternoon light was waning and our campsite goal was still several miles to the north. It was tough enough terrain to deal with, and we certainly didn’t need anything like wildlife viewing to complicate things further or slow us down. But that’s just what happened.
As I kept walking, the group of 5 fell well behind. Once I got to the boulder, I realized I’d have several minutes of elk-watching time to myself before the backpackers caught up. To that end, I just hunkered down and hid 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 outward. Something almost seemed to be feeding my eyes with what I was supposed to be seeing. The principal peaks of the Mosquito Range jutted out of the ridge we were crossing as it continued to the north and finally melted into Mt. Democrat. Down below, a few buildings on the fringe of the town of Fairplay dotted a part of the edge of South Park, which loomed large in its vastness, separating my perch 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 beginning to creep into the high country even though it would soon be fall.
The herd below was made up principally of cow elk and their calves. They peacefully grazed and meandered around, unaware they were being watched. The fresh 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 whatever grasses or weeds were freshly sprouting. Most of the animals were scattered across a tundra-covered meadow above treeline, but a few were evident in the trees below. I took note of the herd’s outrider scouts around the perimeter, who were paying heed to the wind and looking for any 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 the herd. The others, probably mostly thinking about where they were going to put their teeth next, just roamed around and ate grass.
For that moment in time, I could almost feel their confidence in where they were. I was struck by how the animals moved about effortlessly and seemed to be an integral part of the alpine scene before me. I had no doubt that my position behind the rock and only a couple of hundred feet away and downwind of the nearest outrider was a good place for observing. Still, I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that I was a spectator to something I wasn’t supposed to be seeing.
But 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.
A group of 6 yearling calves climbed to the top of one of the more massive snowfields in the area and began sliding down for 20 or so yards on their feet. Two cows hovered around the base as if they were supervising. Each time the “skiers” reached the bottom, whether they were in a heap or still on their feet, they turned and went back up for another go.
I couldn’t help but notice how they were careful to space themselves to avoid crashing into each other. Good idea, I thought to myself. At times, they actually made it to the bottom without falling, although that wasn’t the case very often. Some were obviously better at it than others. I wondered if perhaps they were known within the herd for their skiing ability. Whenever one of the animals got tired, it stayed at the bottom and went off to graze. But when one left, others invariably showed up to fill the spot, so that the snow-sliding event might very well go on forever.
I avoided the impulse to yell out instructions but did wonder who among them chose the snowfield, assessed the weather conditions, or was prepared to spring into action if 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 know 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. While I knew the entirety of the group was headed my way, the sound startled me, nonetheless. As I looked up at him, I caught a glimpse of the herd bolting for the trees from the corner of my eye.
“You made it,” I said to him.
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.”