Wild Music From the Mountains

I WAS driving through eastern Oregon on my way to visit my brother. High in the Blue Mountains, I stopped and hiked away from the highway and the car and watched dusk capture the mountains. A beautiful musical sound, as if from some unknown wind instrument - rising in pitch and then falling, followed by several deep, short sounds, as if from a lightly struck, hollow-sounding drum - resonated through the high conifer forest.

I couldn't tell where the sound came from, left or right, far away or fairly close to me. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. When I heard it again and then again, I was no closer to knowing what it was or how to describe it.

My brother told me I had heard an elk bugling. A male elk bugles to impress female elk and to notify other males that he is powerful and able to defend his right to the females he has gathered together. The almost percussive coda to the bugle is a series of deep grunting sounds, perhaps to demonstrate the animal's size and strength.

Many years passed before I heard an elk bugle again. I took a job caretaking a hay-and-cattle ranch on the confluence of Camp Creek and the north fork of the Burnt River in northeast Oregon. I repaired fences in the spring, irrigated meadows through the summer, helped harvest hay late summer, and then repaired irrigation ditches.

Nights turned cold. Aspen trees and willow bushes took on fall colors and dropped their leaves. Elk began to bugle.

Meadow fell away to the river about 150 yards below the house. Across the river, several hundred yards of meadow rose gently to a heavily forested, sharply rising ridge. From that ridge, at dusk, an elk bugled. The wild music and the deep grunting sounds echoed through the small mountain valley. From far south on the ridge, another elk answered. I thought there was a third bugle, but it was so far away I wasn't sure I heard it. It could have been just a memory of the far-carrying, mystical sound that has echoed through and above the forest for thousands of years.

Often in the spring, summer, and fall, elk came down onto the meadow near dusk to browse the lush, irrigated grasses and the clover that grew wild among them.

The ranch owners encouraged me to keep the elk off the meadow if I could, to preserve the hay crop. One evening, about 70 elk came down from the timber onto the far edge of the meadow. I started the motorcycle provided for getting around the ranch and took off. As soon as I went around the barn and down onto the meadow, still nearly half a mile from the elk, they headed back up the hill into the timber.

I roared into the timber after them. Up the ridge a ways, I shut off the engine and listened. I didn't hear any elk. I thought they were probably miles away and still on the run. But elk, I was soon to learn, would never make any effort to fit my ideas about them.

I started the motorcycle and rode back down the ridge. The trail runs just inside the timber, parallel to the edge of the meadow. I thought at first my vision was fooling me; we imagine all sorts of things in dim light, but then I realized I was fooling myself. The elk really had returned to the meadow ahead of me.

They cut across in front of me at an easy trot, not even a hundred feet away as I rode back onto the meadow. They trotted up into the timber, except for two older females, who stood at the edge of the timber and watched me until I was within 50 feet of them; then they followed the herd up the ridge.

I didn't try to turn them off the meadow after that. My employers had said keep them off if I could, and one attempt showed me I couldn't. Cattle eat the largest part of the grass and forbs in national forest, where the elk would eat if they were kept off the meadow. Elk browse through the meadow but leave most of what grows there, so there is hay to feed the cattle through the winter. It seemed only fair to let them continue to use the meadow.

When we lived near Bailey, Colo., elk frequently traveled across the ranch, browsing the meadow as they went. One morning at 2 o'clock, an elk bugled from the meadow, less than 100 yards below the house. His self-contained wind instrument was in excellent tune, and he gave it a thorough workout, with breaks of only a few minutes.

For about the first hour, I was thrilled that I was close enough to hear every note. By 4 a.m., I began to wish he would move up the ridge on the other side of the pasture. By 5 a.m., I thought of going out on the front deck and yelling at him to knock off the noise. I was stopped by the knowledge that his species laid claim to those mountains and bugled there millennia before folk of my ilk moved in. We usurped the land with little thought or consideration. At least I could give him the freedom to sound off from where he stood.

About daylight, all became quiet, and I slept as hard and fast as I could until it was time to get up and go to work.

The next fall, we drove from the Continental Divide down toward Bailey after dark, on our way home from vacation. A male elk, with an impressive spread of antlers reaching toward the sky, with about a dozen females attending, crossed the highway close enough that I had to stop the car.

We rolled down our windows, and I called to him, ``Bugle for us. Bugle.'' He did. He faced us, stretched his neck forward, elevated his muzzle, and gave forth a long bugle. Rising and falling tones echoed across the high Rocky Mountains. He punctuated the end of the bugling with deep grunting sounds. After a moment's silence, I said, ``Thank you.'' Then he and the females walked into the night.

They went their way - into the wild, into the dark night, into the future of their species - and we went ours. We moved down the highway behind headlights, modern people caught up in mankind's world, but we were touched deeply by that contact with the wild world. We were filled with hope for the future of all our wild companions on this earth, hope that our human companions would always understand the need to leave room for all the wild species.

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