Close Encounter with Tule Elk

A few weeks ago, I went on what I thought would be an uneventful hike with Pete Forsyth. We decided we’d go up to Point Reyes to check out the Tule Elk Preserve along the Tomales Point Trail. Point Reyes is one of my favorite places in the world, Pete had never been, and Tomales Point Trail is a long, easy, and scenic trail, perfect for us since we were getting a late start.

I was worried when we arrived in Point Reyes, because it was foggy and cold. However, the weather patterns change quickly there, and it was sunny at the trailhead, and so we decided to push on for as far as it made sense. That turned out to be a great decision, even in light of the scary adventure that awaited us toward the end of our little jaunt.

The Tule elk were out in full force that day. I had been to the Preserve once before, but there were many more elk out and about, including many more full-horned bull elk. They grazed openly along the trail, no more than a few hundred yards away.

As we stared at the elk, I started telling Pete about a conversation I had had with a friend before a trip to the Boundary Waters last July. My friend and I had been joking about my lack of outdoor savvy when the conversation had turned to a recent grizzly mauling at Yellowstone. Those unfortunate hikers had come across a grizzly and its cubs along the trail. The hikers had apparently done all of the right things (although later reports indicated otherwise), but the grizzly ended up mauling and killing one of the hikers anyway.

My friend had suggested that the bear should have been euthanized, but I had defended the bear. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “You’re on its turf, and nature is not something to trifle with.” I told the story to Pete with a note of irony, given that I was standing completely in the open, a few hundred yards away from a few dozen bull elk, snapping away on my camera like a fool.

We continued to walk without incident, marveling at the natural beauty along the trail. Although we saw patches of fog, the fog always seemed to clear ahead of us, and we pushed along to Tomales Point, where we were treated to the raw beauty of the Pacific Ocean meeting Tomales Bay.

We lingered for a while at Tomales Point before heading back. Even though dusk was near, we knew we had enough sunlight to return before dark.

The walk back may have been even more beautiful than coming, as the late afternoon sun created wonderful hues along the hills. We passed some elk cows, lazily grazing along the trail, and we saw more fog starting to roll in from the ocean.

We were deeply immersed in conversation, and we didn’t pay much attention to the fog. Even as the fog encircled us, we still moved forward, unconcerned. We couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead of us, but it was still light, and the trail was not particularly treacherous.

We continued to press forward when we heard the sound of an elk bugling in the distance. I say now, with an air of confidence, that the elk was “bugling” (the mating call of a bull elk), because the noise sounded a bit like a bugle and because I looked it up on Wikipedia afterward. But the truth was that we had no idea what the sound was, and frankly, I still can’t say what it was for certain. We stood there for a few moments speculating, and we continued to walk.

A few moments later, we heard the noise again. This time, it sounded much closer, and it sounded like something had started galloping toward us. Now we were concerned. We couldn’t see anything ahead of us, but something was definitely moving toward us, and we had no idea what to do. Pete and I stayed calm and discussed our options. We decided to slowly backtrack to see if the galloping stopped. It did. Then we discussed our next move.

I couldn’t help but think of our earlier conversation about being on nature’s turf. Here we were on what we thought was a safe, comfortable trail, and we were suddenly thrust in a situation where we had completely no idea what to do. I was worried that a bull elk was trying to send us a message, and I wanted to listen to that message. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what that message was. That elk was standing between us and the trailhead. At this point, no one else was on the trail.

We briefly discussed going off trail, but we decided that staying on the trail was probably our best bet. We had seen elk on both sides of the trail, and we hoped that the elk considered the trail to be human — or at least neutral — territory.

Pete suggested that we forge ahead slowly, so we tried that. We moved about 20 yards when we heard the bellowing again, this time much closer and from both sides of the trail. We decided to backtrack again to higher ground and reconsider our options.

We still couldn’t see a thing because of the fog, and it was starting to get dark. We continued to maintain our heads, and we managed to joke about our situation, but I was scared. I had no idea what to do. We decided to check to see if our cell phones were working. Mine wasn’t (damn you, Verizon!), but Pete’s was (thank you, T-Mobile!). He decided to call his friend, Colin, who was an experienced hiker and camper.

Thankfully, Colin picked up. He suggested that it might be runting (mating) season, which might have explained the bugling, but he wasn’t sure what we should do. While his partner looked up the ranger station, he stayed on the phone and offered his thoughts. At one point, he asked if we had anything to throw. “Dude,” I responded, “we can find something to throw, but you’d better be damn sure that that’s the appropriate thing to do in this situation.”

At that moment, two hikers emerged from behind us in the fog, seemingly out of nowhere. They were locals walking home after an evening hike, and after hearing our plight, they assured us that they knew exactly what to do. Walk forward, keep moving, and the elk will leave us alone.

And so we did, this time with confidence, partially because they seemed to know what they were talking about and partially because if the elk did charge, they would hit the other two hikers first, leaving Pete and me additional time to escape. Having played basketball with Pete and having seen him run, I knew I would have a third buffer if necessary.

It was pitch black and still foggy. As we pressed forward, the bellowing stopped, and we moved quickly, mostly in silence. I kept my eyes on the trail, straining to see the path ahead, badly wanting to return as quickly as possible.

Suddenly, Pete nudged me. “Look!” he exclaimed. I turned my head in time to see one of the most surreal, hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. A herd of elk was walking alongside us in the opposite direction. They were close enough to see through the fog, and they moved quickly and with purpose. We kept moving, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them.

I was awestruck by what we saw. I have never felt so exposed to something so wild, and while I was still scared, I felt blessed to be experiencing that moment.

We got back to the car without incident, and after a beer and the warm ride home, I almost felt normal again. Still, thinking back, I am struck by how many things we take for granted in the world, how disconnected I am to the world around us, and how much I still have to learn.

2 replies to “Close Encounter with Tule Elk”

    1. In retrospect, you wouldn't have made a good third buffer, since I would have lost access to the only working phone. 😉

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