The West Branch of the Susquehanna River and the steep mountains dropping down to its banks are my first signs that I am entering another world, a wild world. A wooden sign announces, "Welcome to PA's Elk Range" and I know that I have entered hallowed ground, sacred soil.
I decrease my speed and scan the open areas and forest edges for the magnificent creatures. I don't need to travel all the way to Montana to see elk because they are thriving right here in Pennsylvania.
Once, elk had a range that extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to northern Mexico. They were one of North America's most widespread members of the deer family. When European settlers arrived there were an estimated 10 million elk in North America.
By 1852, unrestricted hunting had reduced Pennsylvania's herd to a few scattered individuals in Elk County. By the late 1870s, there were none. In 1913, the state began efforts to restore the elk population. Today the numbers of these big, brown-gray, ungulates, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, are estimated to be more than 700. Virginia has recently begun a similar restoration.
I'm traveling west to the village of Benezette in Elk County and the farthest reaches of the Chesapeake watershed to see these magnificent creatures and listen to their melodic bugling as they begin the fall rutting season. My longtime friend, Bill May, is accompanying me. May is a retiree of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, who managed a wildlife food and cover crew for the elk, and is now an elk guide. He will also share the conservation success story of reclaiming the abandoned mine lands that have become the elks' home.
In the fall rut, the forest resounds with the bulls' bugling - a series of vocalizations that mature bulls use to compete for cows' attention and to challenge opponent bulls. The call begins with a medium clear note, rises to a high pitch and ends in a shrill scream, followed by a series of grunts. It is one of the most distinct calls of the wild, akin to a wolf howling or the call of a loon, and it is enough to send shivers down your spine.
Females are attracted to the bulls that are the most dominant; that have the ability to gather and keep a cow group. The bulls must fend off other bulls that constantly challenge one another as the herd bull. Keeping the harem together is an exhausting job. In the open meadows and food plots one may witness quite a show.
Unregulated coal mining practices prior to 1977 left 250,000 acres of surface mine land unreclaimed and 2,500 miles of Pennsylvania's streams - many of them in the Bay watershed - polluted by acid mine drainage. With the help of grants, the spoil piles and dangerous cliffs were back-filled and graded, dressed with biosolids, seeded and planted.
The reclaimed mine lands have been planted in annual plants, grasses and legumes and it is in these "food plots" that elk spend the majority of their time foraging. The neighboring forest provides critical cover, and the combination mimics the habitat that elk in Western states thrive in.
Recycled paper waste products (wood fibers and lime) are being successfully incorporated into the barren soil, resulting in improved soil productivity, plant growth and eventually, improved water quality.
As I watch, one of the largest bulls Bill has ever seen - it easily weighs more than 1,100 pounds and has an impressive 8x8 rack that is easily more than 5 feet wide, 6 feet long and probably weighs more than 60 pounds - stands in a clearing. His "cow catchers" alone - the up front part of his antlers - are 2 feet long, well into the world record size.
His harem consists of 15 cows, which he defends gallantly. He noses the ladies, herding them into a tight group. Then the entire forest, from all directions, begins reverberating with the sound of bugling bulls.
Two satellite bulls emerge from the forest. These bulls are nearly as large as the king and next in line if he becomes too exhausted or proves incapable of breeding all of his cows. They strut their stuff, attempting to bugle as loud and frequently as the herd master.
Then raghorns - 2-year-olds, with still impressive 5x5 racks, skirt the edge, knowing this is out of their league but still wanting to be part of the drama.
There isn't five minutes that passes without the heart-quickening sound of an elk bugling and this goes on for hours. It is a moving experience to be a privileged spectator in this grand, wild show. And I never had to leave the watershed.