Fall is not my favorite season. It’s not that I don’t think the leaves are pretty as they slowly die, or that I’m not ready wear my favorite sweaters. It’s not even that I miss summer, although I do dread the insidious Pumpkin Spice Everything. (I like pumpkins but there’s such a thing as overkill.) It’s mostly just that it rains a lot more in the fall, rendering local trails impassable for a few weeks, and I’m excited for it to be winter already.
You know who loves fall, though? Elk. They love it. These guys are seriously, literally, horny for fall.
The elk were out in force as we drove down Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park this week. Typically, you can spot wildlife in a national park by keeping an eye out for the telltale sign: dozens of brake lights and parked cars along the side of the road. Where there are Griswolds, the old saying goes, there’s charismatic megafauna.
This particular Monday night, I was a tourist, too. In light of a day of terrible news (yet another mass shooting, plus the death of Tom Petty as the shit icing on a shit cake), I needed a win. As I drove to Estes Park in a sleetstorm (“You don’t have to keep driving if the roads are getting worse,” my mom and Bix kept reminding me), it became increasingly crucial that we seek the elk rut.
“All I want is to see some elk,” I insisted, “and I want to see them in a national park. We are having fun, goddammit!”
So it was with great pleasure that I pulled onto the road to Cub Lake and parked behind a crotchety NPS volunteer in full traffic-directing regalia.
“You’re just in time for the show,” he announced. “Although,” he mused, watching a handsome bull sidle up to a grazing cow, “it might be an adults-only show here in a minute.”
Here are some very cool things about the elk rut, which, admittedly, is a very gross word.
- The bugling! These majestic creatures make a sound like a creaky gate opening and shutting in the breeze. But they don’t need WD-40; they just need some lovin’.
- Bugling is a show of strength, obviously. The bigger the bull, the more resonant their call, which is how the ladies know whose genes they want AND how the younger bulls know not to mess with them. Kind of like toxic masculinity at work, but also, the cows basically get to pick and choose.
- Other ways the bulls attract gals include rolling in their own urine for that distinctive musky smell, and also covering themselves in dark mud because lady elk like ’em tall, dark, and handsome.
- Cows have distinctive smells, too! The emit different odors when they’re ovulating than they do when they’re pregnant, so once they’ve done the deed, the bulls will finally leave them alone to eat some goddamn grass in peace for once.
- When one bull tries to horn in on another’s harem, they’ll get into it with a spectacular antler-to-antler battle. You can tell they’re gearing up for it when they start thrashing their antlers through the grass. The ladies usually just keep grazing, moving out of the way only if they are in imminent danger of being run over.
- If two bulls are harmoniously coexisting amongst a group of cows, it probably means one of them has already gotten the last laugh and impregnated them all.
- You should always keep your distance from wildlife, but during the rut, park officials recommend you stay either in your vehicle or at least two bus lengths away, lest a bull take you for competition and aggressively gore you. It happens!
- You are about as likely to see elk on the golf course in Estes Park as in the national park.
I’m happy for the elk in their moment of debauchery, and I’m also ready for them all to get their mating over with already, because then it will be ski season at last.
Cover Photo: Bix Firer