By Anna Kline
The big blue school bus pulled up outside the May Lodge at the Jenny Wiley State Resort and Park, bright and early. Well, the early part is right but it wasn’t bright outside, and there was no sign of a sunrise yet. It was long before we were all really awake, to be honest. We were a small group of seven, but were eager to find a seat and make our way.
There was an autumn chill in the air and the fog hung heavy above the treetops. Our journey to see the elk had begun.
Just 45 minutes earlier, the group inhaled breakfast sandwiches and strong coffee, fuel for our early morning adventure. The road snaked through miles of wilderness, past a few houses here and there, and finally a gas station, which was the last chance for a bathroom break for a few hours.
Our destination was Martin County, where some of the best locations are to view the repopulated elk herd. As the bus rumbled along the backroads, the sun slowly began to peek out from behind the gracefully arched mountaintops.
Our guides, Park Interpreter Rodney Gardner, and driver, Ken Idle, threw out tidbits of information that kept our minds occupied during the drive. “Just a couple of mountains over is Loretta Lynn’s home place,” Ken pointed out.
The tour itself can be as unpredictable as the elk, Rodney explained. Viewing is best in the fall and winter, beginning with the mating season in September and October. “If it’s too hot outside, the herd will stay in the woods.”
By the 1880s, the elk’s habitat was compromised by human settlement and over-hunting, which sadly wiped out the entire population in Kentucky. In 1997, a little more than a century later, the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife reintroduced 1,500 elk into the state. Today the herd is 11,000 strong and its territory spans a 16 county-wide area of free, roaming space all the way from Martin to McCreary counties.
The bus made its way to an office building on top of the mountain. By now, the morning sky was shades of pink, orange and yellow, and the fog still clung to the air. We gathered in the empty parking lot, cameras at the ready, and surveyed the surrounding fields. Rodney began to squeeze the elk call in his hand. The sound it made was a cross between a dog’s squeaky toy and a large bird. Someone in the group heard an answer call from a deep distance. “They could be miles away,” Rodney said. “Females want to hear a nice, strong bugle [from a bull], and a nice set of antlers is what she notices next.”
The dense fog continued to make visibility an issue, so Ken and Rodney decided to press on to the next location to give the sun a chance to burn through. Our trusty driver jokingly told us to keep our eyes peeled so “I can do my job and stay on the blacktop.”
There was one false alarm when we drove past a field dotted with square hay bales. The early morning fog played tricks on our eyes, because at first glance it looked just like a field full of elk laying in the grass. It could happen to anybody.
The morning wore on and the sun rose higher, increasing visibility only a little. We drove down what looked like a neighborhood cove and circled around to a stop. The waking mountain, wrapped in early morning stillness with its welcoming chorus of birds was something almost magical. Rodney got his call out again and it echoed through the air. All of a sudden, a lone cow (female), emerged from the grove of trees. She looked over at us for a few minutes and then began to graze. Her silhouette cut an awe-inspiring sight in the pink, raspy-looking fog that lingered on the field. She gave us enough time to snap a few pictures and then was gone, back into the safety of the woods.
Within minutes, we all heard a long, slow whistle pierce the air: a bugle. The bull answered twice. The sound was haunting.
Ken then drove us to the Big Sandy Airport, a location the herd visits regularly. We gathered on the airplane taxiway and Rodney began calling. Within minutes, we all heard a long, slow whistle pierce the air: a bugle. The bull answered twice. The sound was haunting.
Later that day, Rodney and Ken took another group out and were able to get within 10 feet of a bull and “his harem” as Rodney calls it. It’s all a game of chance.
I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me, this tour was an inspiring look at the mysteries of a creature in its natural habitat and the thrill of a chance encounter, which is appropriate for the circumstances. After all, the world belongs to the elk again and their home is preserved and restored. I feel lucky just to have caught a glimpse, and I am satisfied to know they are thriving here once more.
Prestonsburg elk tour dates in October:
Saturday, Oct. 7
Sunday, Oct. 8
Saturday, Oct. 14
Sunday, Oct. 15
To make a reservation for your own elk tour, contact the folks at Jenny Wiley State Resort & Park and they will get you all set up.
Phone: (606) 889-1790