Where I was going backpacking in Cliff Dwellings National Monument was something of a mystery to me. I didn’t have a clue.
My pack was loaded with a week’s worth of food and six topographic maps, more than enough to let me wander wherever I wanted and hopefully avoid getting lost. I started off up the West Fork of the Gila River but soon came across a trail jogging out of the canyon to the right.
“Looks good to me,” I thought to myself and started climbing. I was determined that wherever I went for the week would be based on random decisions. So much of my wilderness experience had involved leading groups or scouting out potential routes for organized trips that the sense of abandon felt delicious.
Consequently, years later, it isn’t exactly clear to me where I went. I was more than happy to hike 4 to 5 miles in one direction and then 6 or 7 in another. The only thing I tried to avoid was backtracking. I do remember wandering through Woodland Park and Lilly Park as well as climbing in and out of several canyons.
I had brought along two science fiction books for evening and early morning entertainment. Southern New Mexico is UFO Country. I was also carrying my usual field ID book and one serious read, Aldo Leopold’s “Sand Country Almanac.”
Leopold had been responsible for the creation of the Gila Wilderness in 1924, making it the first specifically designated wilderness area in the United States, and, I might add, the world. People who love wild country and understand its intrinsic value owe a great debt to the man for his vision. I had read the book before but reading it again in the Gila Wilderness added a special significance.
I declared a layover day so I could savor it all at once. I was camped on a small stream located in a minor canyon and hadn’t seen a soul for four days. It was the perfect setting for getting lost in a book.
Some time in the early afternoon, a loud “Woooeee” shattered the silence.
“Big Bird,” I thought to myself. “Big Bird on steroids.” Aldo Leopold would have been up in a flash to discover the source. Of course he would have had his rifle with him. He was quite the hunter.
As usual, my only weapon was a dull three-inch pocketknife. Still, the mountain man in me demanded I get off my lazy tail and go exploring. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed out of the canyon. I was greeted by a broad, flat expanse of Ponderosa Pines but no Big Bird. “Woooeee,” I heard receding into the distance. I put on my stalking cap and begin to sneak through the forest.
“Woooeee!” Big Bird shouted behind me. I whirled around only to catch a glimpse of something disappearing behind a bush. Big Bird it wasn’t. Nor was it the ghost of Geronimo. It looked suspiciously like a cow elk that had morphed from stalkee to stalker. I wasn’t sure that I liked my new role but decided to play along.
“Woooeee,” I called out and jumped behind a Ponderosa.
“Woooeee,” I heard a delayed three minutes later. I stepped into the open to discover that my female companion had come out from behind her bush and was staring intently at my tree.
“Woooeee,” I shouted at her as she once again disappeared. We had a game. A cow elk was wooing me.
Years earlier I had discovered that much of the higher animal kingdom is quite curious about humans that don’t act like humans. I once had a similar experience to my elk chat with a coyote on the American River Parkway in Sacramento.
First I would hide and then he would hide. Finally, out of frustration, the coyote plopped down in the middle of the trail, raised its head, and began howling. I plopped down in the trail as well, raised my head and joined him. We had quite the discussion.
The elk and I continued our game for about 15 minutes when I changed the rules. I sat down in plain sight with my back against the tree. Instead of hiding she stood watching me for several minutes. I could tell the wheels were grinding away in her mind.
Suddenly she charged. I didn’t move from my seat but my adrenalin cranked up several notches. She was all of 10 feet away when she slammed on her brakes, lowered her head, stared me in the eye, and woooeeed again.
Half fascinated and half frightened, I didn’t budge. Several hundred pounds of frustrated female were looming over me. I had zero doubt that she could kick the stuffing out of me. She held my gaze, snorted in disgust, shook her head and trotted off.
Whatever conversation we had been having was over. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to camp. My first chore was to get out my guidebook. Female elks, it noted, can become rather aggressive and dangerous in the spring when they have calves. I’d been both ignorant and lucky.
After dinner I went for my evening walk following an animal path that ambled along beside the creek. I heard a snort and looked up. Five elk were standing on the canyon rim staring down at me.
The old girl had recruited some buddies to check out the weird human. Unfortunately, this time I knew enough to be worried. I was an intruder in their territory, a possible threat to their precious babies.
My worry level turned to panic when all five came charging down the canyon wall. One moose had been scary; now I had a whole damn thundering herd. Running was out of the question. “Think, Curtis,” went dashing through my brain.
The only thing I could dredge up was something I had fantasized I might do if charged by a grizzly bear in the wilds of Alaska. I started jumping up and down, scratching my armpits and screaming ooh, ooh, ooh! It worked for great apes, why not me.
For the second time that day, I heard the screeching of elk brakes. This time there was no standing and staring, however. The herd turned as one and charged back over the canyon rim, disappearing into the night. Somewhat satisfied with myself, I returned to camp and the security of my tent.
I wandered around for another two days, keeping an eye out for UFO’s, steering clear of cow elks and visiting sites where this or that pioneer had been killed by Apaches. The pioneers also did a pretty good job of killing off each other, not to mention the Indians. With my food running low, I finally ceased my wandering ways and hiked back to the National Monument.
I was ready for my next adventure, this time in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.
(Next blog: There’s a beaver standing on my tent!)