Last week, I took Nathan Heffel of Colorado Public Radio over Trail Ridge Road. As we drove, Nathan interviewed me about my book, A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky. (A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road)
Our trip started with a gobble when we saw wild turkeys on Deer Ridge, where US 34 and
US 36 meet. I’ll have to update my book, because I didn’t know that turkeys had returned to Rocky. These birds were probably hens, foraging in the ponderosa pine litter for pine seeds and other edibles. (Let them eat pine nuts)
Nathan found a long striped turkey feather that one of the hens had dropped. After
inspecting it, we put it back where we found it. This is a National Park, after all, and we didn’t take anything from it except some great memories.
In the krummholz, we stopped at one of my favorite places on Trail Ridge Road – an ancient game drive used by Archaic and Ute peoples for thousands of years. It was difficult to get to, but worth showing to Nathan.
The cold wind blew steadily from the north as we carefully struggled our way across the
tundra to a low saddle in the ridge. Since the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, deer and elk have made the autumn migration up and through the low spot to descend to the valley on the other side; they continue to do so today. The ancient people knew this, and laid a trap for the animals.
The early people built dozens of small piles of stone in two converging lines. Within each
pile of rocks, they put a short stick, and at the top of the stick, they tied a piece of buckskin to flutter in the wind. Deer and elk won’t pass between these fluttering flags, and so the piles of rock form virtual “walls”.
The evening before the hunt, the men took their positions just over the crest of the low saddle, downwind of the path the animals would take. The men hid behind big rocks and
blinds dug into the shallow soil, and spent a frigid night on the tundra. In the morning, the women, children and elderly walked up the slope, slowly driving the elk and deer before them. The animals bunched up as they passed between the two lines of rock walls. When the elk or deer reached the blinds where the hunters were hidden, the hunters sprang up and shot the animals with arrows or spears. This was a very successful way the people could get extra meat for the winter; game drives were used for thousands of years.
It is important to note that I don’t encourage people to strike out over the tundra. The reason people don’t live up here is that it is very dangerous; not even the native people spent any more time up here than they had to. At 11,000 feet, you get tired, dehydrated and disoriented far faster than you realize – both Nathan and I had problems catching our breath and tired quickly. As we came down, even though I knew exactly where I was going and what I was looking for, I had trouble finding the van.
In addition to the danger to people, walking on tundra is dangerous to the plants. Although these plants can survive tremendous wind, cold and drought, they cannot stand to be broken by hiking boots. They can be killed by an incautious footstep. Their loss takes hundreds of years to replace. (tundra fall)
After the game drive, I took Nathan to the Alpine Visitor’s Center to peer over the edge of the Fall River Cirque, where the Fall River Glacier began. The word cirque comes from the French word for circle or ring. And that is what we saw – a circle three quarters of a mile across and half a mile deep, cut into the mountain by thousands of years of ice sliding down the valley.
By now, it was evening and time for our final stop of the day, in Beaver Meadows. There, we saw, and more impressively, we heard, elk bugling.
In the fall, elk and deer migrate down from the high country to mate. The elk gather in the open meadows, or parks throughout the mountains. The parks of Rocky Mountain National Park are some of their favorite places to come.
Once in the meadows, the male or bull elk try to gather a harem of female, or cow elk. The
bull that we were watching had gathered about a dozen cows. He spent the evening running from one side of the harem to the other, head thrust out, keeping the cows in a tight bunch.
One of the cows got fed up with the bull’s bullying, and trotted through a gap in the human spectators lining the dirt road and into the meadow beyond. The bull glared at the people along the road, but he wouldn’t follow the cow because that would separate him from the rest of his harem. Finally, he let the defiant cow go, and returned to the others.
As I watched the bull trying to keep the females together, I realized that while the cows had been grazing constantly, he hadn’t had a mouthful. It is still early in the season. If he keeps up at the pace he was going, he is going to burn off all the fat he stored through the summer and go into winter in poor shape. Such is the cost of a harem.
Bull elk call the cows to them by bugling. The name is somewhat misleading, because elk bugles are actually more of a whistling call. They are mesmerizing to hear.
When I was a girl, the etiquette for listening to the elk bugle was that you stayed quietly in your car so that everyone could hear them. Few people had heard about elk bugling, and so it was a rather lonely, but tremendously rewarding pass time.
Fast forward to today: Elk bugles are so beguiling that people come from hundreds of miles away to hear them, lining Rocky Mountain National Park’s roads where ever harems are to be found. The influx of people means that what you hear today is gravel crunching under car tires, car doors slamming, people chatting, and, through all the background noise, possibly some elk bugling.
But occasionally, as the elk begin to be more active, the humans settle down to watch and listen. As they did, we heard the eerie whistling calls of the elk. Nathan had a field day recording the bulls.
Finally, though, the elk moved up into the darkening forest, and we called it a day.
To hear Nathan’s interview of me, go to Colorado Public Radio Colorado Matters (Colorado Matters). The interview will air September 29 at 10:00 am, and repeat at 7:00 pm.
My thanks to Nathan and Colorado Matters for taking the time and interest to interview me about my book. It was a wonderful experience. Merci, gracias, danke, domo arrigato – all the ways I know to say thank you.