Stuck Between an Elk and a Hard Place

This is guest post by Brad Colburn, you can connect with him on twitter 

If you’d asked me three years ago if I thought I would come face-to-rack with an elk I would have laughed in your face.  At the time, I was living in Baltimore City and teaching in one of the toughest schools.  The prospects of seeing wildlife of any sort – outside of squirrels and rats – was unfathomable.

Well, life sure has a funny way of thrusting you deep into the unknown.  Three years later my fiancé and I are frozen in our tracks.

Why?  We inadvertently stumbled into the path of a herd of Elk.  From one cow’s body language she was none too thrilled…and that wasn’t the first peeved elk we came across that cold October night.

So, how’d we get to that magical moment?

Two days prior, I touched down at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport after a grizzly 5 hour flight from Maryland.  Regina nabbed me at baggage claim and we headed back to the apartment she’d started to settle into already.  Regina accepted a job in management at a top outdoor retailer in Phoenix back in August.  I still had some loose ends to tie up back in Maryland, so she drove cross country to the Valley of the Sun knowing full well that our adventures would begin soon.

The next morning after a bacon-infused breakfast we began to pack for our first adventure; an overnight trio to The Grand Canyon.  I never really had the chance to see The Grand Canyon.  My trips as a child were limited to the Eastern seaboard.  I was used to lush wooded areas and the Appalachian Mountains thirsty for hikers.  This trip to the canyon was going to be something.  I wasn’t expecting it to be overwhelming.

The drive to Grand Canyon National Park is a healthy 5 hours from Paradise Valley, Arizona.  You’ll rarely get bored during this trek.  Arizona is unique in this way.  If you start in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area – like we did – you’ll go through a small stretch of urban areas. The next thing you know, saguaro cacti are whizzing by your car window as the High Desert welcomes you.  For those not in a region where cacti are prominent, they’re like your ordinary tree. Except they hurt…a lot.

On a side note…the arms on a saguaro cactus act as an age verifier like the rings on a tree.  It takes 75 years before a saguaro cactus will grow an arm.

For several hours, those saguaro arms point you in the direction of GCNP.  But before you get there, you will enter scrub brush country.  This is the classic “cowboy” area.  Random cattle rustlings are a very real possibility.  We’ll save that story for the next article.

Once you claw your way through the scrubs, you’ll eventually reach civilization in the form of Flagstaff.  Flagstaff is worthy of a series of journal entries, and time may tell if we get to them.  For our purposes, we visited a small trail shop called Peace Surplus.  Some gear stores are very streamlined.   This place?  The exact opposite…and that’s why I liked it.  No matter how tidy you keep your gear it’s going to get messy and jumbled.  You’ll have to scramble around to find your headlamp for that midnight cat hole run on day three of a long weekend excursion. Going to Peace Surplus is like getting lost in the Narnia of Gear.

Another noteworthy thing about Flagstaff is that it’s the last chance you’ll have to reasonably fuel up before making the last leg of the GCNP journey.  Gas and food prices increase as you approach the Canyon.

After we fed the Scion, we ventured north. Around Flagstaff is where the desert and scrub turns to forest.  At this point in the journey I started feeling more at home.  I was looking out at trees, greenage, and government-controlled forest fires.

As quickly as it appeared, the cleansing fire’s smoke disappeared.  It was almost like a velvety purple curtain had been lifted, because just within the line of sight was our pinnacle; Grand Canyon National Park.

I can’t put into words the buzz in the car as we received our tourists map and instruction from the park rangers at the tollbooth.  We barely heard what they said as we pulled off towards our lodge.  Once we checked in we grabbed a quick lunch and a nap. The elevation change from Phoenix can really effect you.

I barely slept.  I had been dreaming about this moment since I was in grade school learning about this mile deep wonder.  I hurriedly gathered myself for the night and we were out the door.

We arrived at the South Rim just in time to enjoy the last precious moments of sunset. The Canyon resembled a dusky blue and purple ocean with scattered whitecaps kissed by the sun.  Even in the low light, I was awestruck.  Just knowing what was in front of me was enough to take my breath away.

We continued to stroll along the South Rim and came around to the side of the El Tovar Lodge.  As we turned the corner, we saw flashbulbs and hushed excited chattering.  We soon realized what had everyone’s attention.

We were standing five feet away from a behemoth of a bull elk.  He stood about six feet tall at the withers and had a rack about as big across.  We lost count of the points.

For an outdoors adventurer just starting to dig into Arizona, this creature was majestic.  More people with their cameras began to appear and the elk was beginning to show signs of aggression.  We decided to make our exit and continue exploring the south Rim.  We took up a trail that wound around the eastern side of the rim out of the way of man made lights and distractions.  One magical moment switched my mindset over from East coast to Arizona in an instant.

As we continued on the moonlit trail, the wind started to pick up.  We drew our hoods tight and trudged on.  Out of nowhere, we heard someone whisper loud and harsh off to our left.  We looked at each other, and then gazed ten feet over to the canyon ledge.  A gust of wind had swooped through the canyon.  With whatever currents fly through the canyon, the gust of air was pushed upwards and out with such a force that it resembled human speech.

Immediately after that, we heard the bugling of elks.  If you’ve never heard this sound before…well…you need to experience it.  It’s the bluegrass equivalent of animal noises:  the elk’s bugle is high and lonesome.  Once you hear it, you are transported to another world.

At this point I had more adrenaline coursing through my veins than a hiker on his last gas.  We made our way to dinner.  We could barely talk about anything other than the night’s events.

We had no idea that breakfast the next morning would top that by leaps and bounds…


  1. Vicky Kline says:

    Wonderful! You transported me with your story! It is as if I were there!!!! – Vicky

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