Our packs settle down onto our hips, grounding our every step into the hard packed trail. As we steadily gain elevation, each breath is deep and fills our lungs with thin crisp air. The pines rise with authority into a deep blue sky dotted with clouds lazily floating across its expanse. The aroma of the pine is strong and forces us to be present and aware of their power and number. As we hike, we catch glimpses through the trees of towering granite peaks. We gain the highest portion of our trail for the day at 10,700 ft. and are rewarded greatly with breathtaking views. Letting our eyes follow our path down Odessa Gorge, they are drawn like magnets to the peaks that dominate the skyline - Flattop Mountain, Notchtop, and Little Matterhorn rest above 12,000 feet -watching over the landscape like vigilant protectors of this sacred space.
After the power of our surroundings fully sink in, we decide this would be a nice place to have lunch. We find a durable surface out of sight of the trail. We chat and pass around the tortillas and avocados; efficiently shoveling the much-needed energy into our mouths. As we eat and rest peacefully, a simple and calm comment drifts from my brother Zac’s tortilla filled mouth: “Check out this guy”. As I slowly turn my head around, I am unsure of what exactly he means by “this guy”. Maybe there’s a hiker that’s wandered over to our lunch spot, possibly a bird watching us curiously? As I turn slowly to look behind me, I am shocked and terrified at the presence of our guest. My eyes follow slowly from his hooves planted firmly into the ground, up to the tips of his horns cast starkly against the brilliant blue of the sky above. “This guy” is a coffee brown Bull Elk weighing nearly 1,000 pounds and boasting 12 horns powerfully protruding from his skull, and he is standing 5 feet behind me. I am a shrub to his towering 7 feet of muscle and grace. I am quiet as I realize the terror of being this close to such a beautiful and powerful creature.
His ability to so quietly sneak all of his 1,000-pounds to within 5 feet of me must be applauded. Though I was not thinking of applauding him at this moment, but instead how to get away from those 12 horns that could very quickly change this trip and my life if they were to get a hold of me. The 5 of us very slowly rose and backed away until we were at a safe distance and began to formulate a plan. While we were discussing how to continue eating our lunch without the pleasure of our unexpected audience, the elk was happily slurping at the handles of my hiking poles. We stood tall shoulder-to-shoulder and began to clap, yell, and blow our whistles in an attempt to scare the elk away from our lunch and salty hiking poles. Our friend, the elk, looked at us and confirmed that this attempt would not be worthy of his departing. Keeping a safe distance, we more aggressively yelled, clapped, and blew our whistles as we slowly walked toward him. He reluctantly honored this display and left us with hiking poles for another day. We sat back down on the rock and dirt and finished our lunches in peace but not without our heads occasionally peeking over our shoulders.
Now will this be an experience that will stay with me forever? Will this story be told around campfires and on backpacking trips through out my days? Most likely yes. But is this a story told too often? A story with very seldom a happy ending?
The Sixth Principle of Leave No Trace is Respect Wildlife. This principle is simple, exists for very good reasons, and holds very real consequences when it is not upheld. I tell this story because this is a perfect example of what can happen when we don’t respect wildlife. When we fail to do simple things like: keep a safe distance from animals, store our food safely, keep clean and tidy camps, and pack out all of our trash - we are able to see and experience the consequences.
Animals can lose their fear of people, which increases the number of negative interactions between the two. Animals can also become food conditioned, giving up their natural behaviors of finding food and instead seeking out humans for nutrition. This bull elk was a classic example of an animal that no longer holds a healthy fear of humans and has been conditioned to seeking out humans for sources of nourishment.
Although our story is a simple one of an elk sneaking up on a group of hikers to lick the salt from the handles of their hiking poles, it is part of a larger and more complex narrative - a story where animals fail to find food on their own, becoming dependent on people. A story where an animal is tagged and eventually killed by the land managers for consistently getting into peoples food and causing “problems”. A story where I spooked that elk, and he sent that rack of horns through my chest. These are stories that are too often told and stories that are completely preventable.
By subscribing to a simple set of ethics and being aware of what we can do to respect wildlife, we can reduce the number of negative interactions that happen between people and wildlife and in-turn increase the amount of positive. We can reduce the amount of animals that are exterminated due to these interactions, stay safe, and enjoy wildlife engaging in their natural habitat in natural ways.
Though my friends and I came out safe and sound from our interaction, we would have much rather been able to see that elk from a distance foraging on grasses and shrubs - not screaming at it, hoping it doesn’t run away with our hiking poles!
Life Lesson: Natural is Better
Ninjas for Nature – Roland & Dani
Leave No Trace’s Dani and Roland Mott are part of the 2014 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, Coleman, Hi-Cone, The North Face, REI, Smartwool and Yakima.