The bachelors: Roosevelt Elk at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
We call them the bachelors, the four young Roosevelt Elk that inhabit the open prairie by the Visitors Center at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The young males are old enough to be threatening to a bull elk with a harem, and so have been cast out to wander on their own.
When we arrived, the bachelors were slowly grazing their way along the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, and we stopped The Epic Van some yards away to take pictures out the window. They weren’t as impressed with us as we were with them, barely giving Epic a glance as they sauntered across the road.
The Roosevelt Elk are named for Teddy Roosevelt, and these bachelors have some of the larger-than-life presence he had. They are young studs with impressive racks, beautiful coats and something of a swagger.
There are several herds in the area, including a large one at Gold Bluffs Beach, where they wander among the bushes along the Beach Road, and one with numerous females on Davison Road, just south of Prairie Creek.
I love to watch them all, but I’m somehow infatuated with the bachelors. Maybe they remind me of my 20-something son and his friends, frisky, hopeful youths at the threshold of adulthood, just waiting for their turn on life’s stage.
For the first couple of weeks, we would see the bachelors each day in one part of the prairie or another, placidly chomping on spring grasses, or lying down chewing their cud. One late afternoon, as we returned from a hike, they were gathered near the Visitors Center, one gazing at his reflection in the window of the closed bookstore. One sunny afternoon, they were in the area just south of the seasonal housing where we were parked. We joined our fellow residents at the picnic table watching them wander, flanked by the neighborhood herd of black-tailed deer.
Then one rainy day, they were gone.
I watched and watched, wondering where they were. Were they in among the redwoods waiting for the sun to reappear? Were they trying to worm their way into a nearby herd? Had they gone south to find warmer surroundings?
One of the other volunteers, Rene, has become an elk expert in her month here, often setting up a table of antlers, bones and hide, sharing her knowledge with visitors.
She tells them how the Roosevelt Elk are one of four types in the country, the others being the Tule in central California, the Manitoban in the Northern Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain in the Rocky Mountain West. How the males grow antlers that can weigh up to 75 pounds, bone with fuzzy skin on top, sometimes lengthening an inch in a day. How in the spring, the fuzz sloughs off and, eventually, the antlers fall off. How the calves are born around the end of May. How each elk has a distinct click in its ankle, and when moving through the woods, they can identify each other by the sound. How, when the clicking stops, they know an elk has halted, possibly because of some perceived threat.
Rene piqued my interest, and I picked up a book on elk from the gift shop.
I read about the ivory tooth they have, a remnant of a long-lost tusk, a prize gathered by Native Americans and used in trading. I read about their four-chambered stomachs, one to store food and the other three to digest it. How they eat rapidly, up to 18 pounds of grass in one sustained graze, warily watching for predators, then lie down to re-chew and digest. Lying in the prairie, their buff coats blend in with the grasses and their antlers with tree and brush branches, making them difficult to see.
I read how they weigh up to 700 pounds, can run 45 miles per hour and jump eight feet high. How the guard hairs in their coat are hollow to insulate them from winter’s cold. How, during rutting season, they stomp out wallowing holes in the prairie, urinate in them and roll around to coat themselves in scent.
I listened, and I read, and I watched for their return, like women used to watch from widow walks for ships to return from the sea. Each morning, I would gaze across the prairie, looking for their antlers shining in the fog, their distinctive buff backsides as they ambled across the road, their regal necks as they lifted their heads, twisting to scratch their sides.
And then, one afternoon, they were back. We came out of the trees from a long hike and there, in the prairie, were the bachelors. But now there were six of them. The four youngsters had convinced two pals to join their crew.
I sat on the redwood bench at the edge of the prairie and watched as they play-jousted, hearing the clatter of their antlers as they tussled with each other.
Now, again, each morning, I watch them. They are starting to lose their antlers, one at a time, looking oddly askew until the other falls off. They wander and graze, stroll through the campground, and watch the humans quizzically.
One evening, a couple from Denmark came to deposit their camp fee at the kiosk but were stymied by the bachelor’s grazing there.
“Could they be of danger to us,” the man asked. “Oh, yes,” I told him. “They look calm, but they’re definitely wild.”
A few days later, a park worker told me how, at one time, there had been a larger herd at the prairie, but some were poached.
He said it was good to see more of them in the prairie this year.
“I hope later we see a female here,” he added, the longing for a renewed herd evident in his voice.
I’m betting on these bachelors to bring one home.