It was a beautiful fall morning for a horseback ride in the Rocky Mountains. Rob and I had mounted our horses and were ready to go with the guide when a tardy party of four arrived. A few turkeys milled about corral while we waited for the other group to get ready.
Soon we were off, following a winding, wooded, rocky trail as it switch-backed up the west side of the mountain. The Rocky Mountains are aptly named. Atop my horse, I am free to look all around and let my gaze linger without having to be aware of where I’m placing my next step on these rocky, rooted, narrow trails. The air is filled with the fresh scent of the pines and the aspens are turning autumn gold, shimmering as they quake.
It is quiet except for the footfall of the hooves meeting the trail and the occasional snort of a horse. It is beauty for all of the senses. Fall is the best time of year to be in the mountains.
We made our way to the crest of the mountain where the trees gave way to a sagebrush prairie and we began snaking our way back down the east side. The golden aspen stands color the landscape in every direction.
We passed a rafter of turkeys near a campground. Among them was a single, rare, red-phase wild turkey. The incomplete red pigments result in white and gold feathers, earning them the well-suited nickname, “golden turkey.”
At the base of the mountain, the trail turned to run alongside a quiet, two-lane road that heads out of town. We cantered along the flat, straight path, manes and hair trailing in the wind. To sail through the air on horseback in this smooth, fast gait is invigorating. As we approached a stop at a driveway entrance, we noticed a bull elk escorting his harem across the road and across our path.
It is rut, the elk breeding season. The screechy, rusty whistle of the elk bugles echo between the mountains. Bull elk have a reputation for being quite ornery, protective of their herds and dangerous during the rut. Rightly so. Our inexperienced, young guide remarked about the bull elk and then continued to lead us down the trail, passing between the big bugling elk to the right and his quiet ladies to the left. It didn’t seem like a good idea. Maybe we could have just waited for them to pass? And that’s just what the trailing four horses thought. They stayed where they stood on the other side of the driveway. So now the elk herd was split and our riding group was split. I offered to hold the line while the guide rode back to convince the other horses to come along. I meant that I could hold the line of horses and keep my horse from heading back to the barn. (We probably had 15 minutes left in our two-hour ride. Trail horses are notorious for pushing for home when they’re nearing the barn). The guide took me a little more literally, hopped off her horse, handed me the reins and walked back to get the others.
At this point, the bull elk came across the road, passing behind Rob and me on our horses and in front of the trailing four horses and our guide. The others were quite a distance behind us and the elk didn’t pay them any attention. We, however, were another matter. Once the bull elk joined his herd on our left, he turned to face us. He was growing more and more agitated at our presence as we stood to wait. “Just don’t look at him. It’ll be fine”, I said. As the elk began to snort and paw at the ground, Rob said, “I don’t think that’s working. We need to move.” When I turned to look, the angry elk was flaring his nostrils and I could see his breath. He. Was. Huge. It felt like he was 30 feet away, although he was probably 30 yards away. Still not much more than a blink of an eye if he decides to charge. Yep, time for plan B!
Surprisingly to me, our horses didn’t seem disturbed by this noisy elk one bit. The two horses under us were facing homeward, but our guide’s horse was facing backward. I turned the guide’s horse around and then gently urged my horse forward. We all trotted up the trail a good, safe distance and out of sight. The bull elk seemed happy with this solution and let the other four horses and our guide – on foot!- pass without complaint. We regrouped, our guide remounted and we continued on back to the barn.
Our guide, after admitting that this was her first job, asked us not to mention the elk encounter or the cantering, which isn’t allowed, back at the barn. Sometimes naivete results in pretty amazing encounters. And as long as it all ends well, the guide gets a learning experience and we all get a story to tell!