Steamboat Springs Even with the best of intentions on all sides, even with a sturdy guide, even with a light breeze barely rustling the leaves of the aspens, it is a tense moment. In summer, as the elk finish giving birth to their calves, they are on high alert for predators. And despite their casual appearance, humans out for a gentle horseback ride through the forest could spell danger.
The moment of recognition between humans and other animals is often played out in a zoo, each of us in a cold sort of safety. But when the encounter is made in the forest, an elk that stares into the eyes of a human may very well be headed for a taxidermist.
The elk cows "mew" to wake their calves and warily eye the visitors. A mew is a squeaky cry that, when repeated ad nauseum by 40 or so elk, sounds like lunchtime in an aviary.
One elk does not stir. She is probably giving birth, figuring the six humans on horses do not pose enough of a threat to disturb the process.
Ray Heid of Del's Triangle 3 Ranch is used to these sorts of encounters. He has owned the ranch near Clark in North Routt County for 40 years and his family has lived in the Steamboat area for five generations. Although Heid has seen elk every time he has gotten on his horse this spring, each encounter gives him a thrill.
"Needless to say, I get excited every time I see those," Heid said.
Heid may be one of the few locals left in Steamboat who truly embodies the cowboy/skier myth that acts to represent the history of the city. This spring Heid rode a pack horse to Sand Mountain, climbed up and skied down. It was a six-hour ride, a two-hour climb and a 10-minute ski down, he said.
"I ride for a living six days a week and I ride for the fun of it on Sunday," Heid said.
Heid, who has ridden and skied with Steamboat legend Buddy Werner, his first cousin, has ridden horses all his life.
The horses walk for four hours across Heid's 280 acres and the 640 acres of State Land Board land he leases, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are carrying hundreds of pounds of flesh and binoculars on their backs. It is a nine-mile walk for the horses, but even with their heads down to the ground searching for food, they know the way.
The trail, which began at the ranch, ends at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Elk River Valley and part of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness at an elevation of 9,000 feet. Heid, the consummate storyteller, tells about the night of the blowdown in the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest, when his son and his friends sought refuge in a cabin as the forest fell. Heid went in with a chainsaw and spent 20 hours cutting through trees to get them out.
Heid offers multiple-day horseback riding trips along with two- and four-hour rides. Heid actually leads more rides in the winter, guiding groups through the snow on a day off from skiing. His is just one of the many horseback riding experiences in and around Steamboat Springs, however. Many ranches and private companies offer horseback rides.
And with the dense forests surrounding the cities and towns of Routt County, it's not unlikely one will run into some wild animals a brief reminder, perhaps, that we are animals ourselves.