Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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We were leaning against lodgepole pine trees, staring intently through our telephoto lenses when two women approached us.
"What are you looking at?" one of them asked.
"Oh, there are about a dozen elk way out across that meadow," I said. "They're kind of hard to see."
The lady wasn't impressed.
"We've seen all the elk we need to see today," she said dryly. "What we want to see is a moose. We'd even settle for a chocolate mousse. Have you seen a moose?"
"We haven't seen a moose. Where did you see the elk?"
As it turns out, the two women had encountered the rare urban elk that frequent the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
"We saw an elk standing in front of the McDonald's in Estes Park," came the reply.
I was tempted to ask whether the elk was waiting in line at the drive-up window, but restrained myself.
It's interesting how the quality of a wildlife encounter can be determined by the circumstances in which you find the animals. I'm certain I'd rather glimpse a bugling bull at a range of 600 yards in a mountain meadow than get a real good look at the same animal begging for french fries in front of a fast food restaurant.
Earlier in the day Friday, we were parked in the shade of Timber Creek Campground near the western entrance to the park in the Kawuneeche Valley. A four-point bull elk came wandering through the campsites, trying to control a loose harem of cows and calves. One of the calves stopped at a fire ring not more than 40 feet from us and began munching on the charcoal in the fire pit.
I had not observed this behavior before, and it felt a little strange. I don't know if burned wood is a good source of vitamins and minerals for growing young elk, or if we were witnessing a neurosis brought on at an early age by too much exposure to strange human beings. People were gathering to take pictures, and I couldn't resist committing a few mega pixels myself, but we soon retreated.
Rocky Mountain National Park, about 90 miles east of Steamboat Springs via U.S. Highway 40, Granby and Grand Lake, is a great place to visit in the autumn. You can walk on gentle nature trails, drive up to the snowy tundra at the Alpine visitors center at 12,000 feet and read about the legend of Squeaky Bob Wheeler's Hotel de Hardscrabble. The fall colors aren't remarkable in the park, but the wildlife can be. On previous visits, I have seen chocolate mousses trotting along the headwaters of the Colorado River. On one magical evening about a dozen years ago, we stopped in the same grove of lodgepoles where we met the inquisitive women Friday and watched a wildlife drama unfold.
There was a large herd of elk about 75 yards from us, and three mature bulls were competing to add to the size of their harems. There was much bugling and dashing about. It was a sight we'll never forget.
It didn't happen this visit - at least not within range of my 300-millimeter telephoto.
Actually, my best shot of an elk was of a five-point bull that perched on a road cut. I pulled off the edge of the road, rolled down the window and shot him with my digital point and shoot.
As the elk ambled off into the timber, I looked into my rearview window and watched a park ranger in a squad car turn on his flashing lights. I wondered whether I was going to have to dig my registration out of the glove box when I noticed him waving impatiently for me to get going.
It wasn't exactly a National Geographic moment.