We go later than normal this year. We’ve heard of the crowds, and the changes on the “hill.”
But, a year without hearing a bull bugle is like a year without sunshine.
As the time on the clock ticks forward, change is expected, but not always welcome. Ginger called to tell us her bed and breakfast was for sale. We were stunned; we had been staying with her at the Bennett House Bed and Breakfast in Benezette, Pennsylvania, for years. However, when we spoke with her we understood, it was simply too much work for one person. Ginger is a woman whose glowing reputation is known everywhere we go.
If you’re interested in purchasing her establishment, or simply want to stay one more time, give her a call at 814-787-4842. Just to warn though, her bookings are limited, and she will be closing in early December.
So we depart with little knowledge of what we might find. Would the hill still be worth a visit, and would we find the Visitor Center to be as crowded as reported? What about those elk that had been hanging around the area? Would they still be there?
After a chat with Ginger, we headed into the unknown. For the first few hours we saw nothing but some squirrels. We circled the area, and found ourselves on the popular Dewey Road. It was at one of the few remaining pull-offs that we spotted our first elk, a cow, and she was pretty far away. Then we waited, and heard a bugle—oh what a magical sound! It wasn’t long before another bull bugled, and then another.
The bulls were still checking out cows, but you sensed that the rut was almost over. The bulls still showed interest, but the majority of cows weren’t being too receptive. I took a couple of shots just to be sure I had at least one bull on my photo card, when another one stepped out. A few more clicks of the camera, and we were off again.
We decided to check out the Elk Country Visitor Center, and were halted by an employee as a lone cow crossed the road. The young cow seemed like a greeter, as she slowly ambled into the woods, and stopped as if to watch the string of cars she had successfully brought to a standstill.
I asked a Department of Conservation employee what stage of the rut the elk were in. He explained to us that the rut began nearly three weeks before our arrival, and then halted when the heat wave hit. During the following week, after the temps cooled off, they started again. He claimed most of the cows had already been tended to. “Maybe,” he explained, “there will be one more go around next week.”
Traffic wasn’t quite as bad as we expected, although there were close to 800 vehicles in the parking lot and three buses loading and unloading people. When night descended, we had photographed at least five different bulls, heard the bugles of bulls both great and small, and the squeals of many cows. Basically, the limited number of lookout areas was packed to the proverbial gills.
After a hardy dinner at the Benezette Hotel, we returned to the B&B, met the other visitors, and had a late night talk with Ginger. Suffice to say there was camera equipment scattered everywhere, and everyone had seen elk.
The next morning, the fog had us “socked-in,” so we leisurely prepared for another photo excursion. Ginger told us she had seen three bulls in one area around 3:30 in the afternoon, and gave us a vague idea of where to find them.
After another one of Ginger’s delicious breakfasts, we traveled to and hiked areas where we had found bulls in the past. But, once again found nothing until that magical 3:30 time slot. As if on cue, the bulls and their small harems arrived right on schedule.
Watching a bull rake the lower branches of an apple tree to loosen the fruit was absolutely thrilling. After he could no longer shake them loose, he reared up to reach them. Obviously, the memory cards in both our cameras and minds were filling quickly.
We snapped photos of bulls, cows and calves in a short period of time, knowing we had limited amounts of light left. Soon we were looking for Ginger’s bulls, and found all three of them within 100 yards of one another. The same bulls that had fought each other over the cows were now side by side, apparently breaking off into bachelor groups.
We spotted two more bulls on Dewey Road, and then went back to the Visitor Center. Karen and I were both thrilled with the photos we had taken, but thought we would give the center one more try today. But, action up there came slowly, and as evening began to set in, our cameras were having a difficult time gathering enough light because of the overcast skies. So, we left earlier than we normally do. We had photographed 11 different bulls, and that seemed to fill our appetites.
“It can’t get any better than that,” I said to Karen. “I guess you want to go home?” she replied. “Heck no, tomorrow is supposed to provide sun and plenty of it, which might extend our shooting time.”
A broad smile came across her face, “I was hoping you would say that!”
Again the next morning, there was a dense fog blanket, just laying there, bringing some magnificent peace to the valley. During the day, we were able to gather photos of whitetails, turkey, and yes, even more bulls.
Little did we know the best was yet to come. That evening the bulls were going bananas. Arriving early, we expected a long wait, but then a bull came up over the hill, bellowing. He walked within 10 feet of us, offering every photo position possible.
We followed him to the last viewing area, and found at least eight more bulls, all herding cows and calves. The big bulls bugled and grunted, but never really challenged the smaller bulls — if you consider a six-by-six small.
The biggest bull, I called him “king of the hill,” feinted a few charges, but then came right past us and entered the woods. Coming closer than anyone expected, he was less than 10 feet from us, just munching on acorns. Now it seemed as if all the bulls in the area where bugling. The scars of those previous fights were worn like a badge of honor, broken antlers and all.
We were told that these bulls could have lost as much as one-third of their body weight during the rut. Now they would become more nocturnal; heading back to the high country and trying to replace the weight they had lost.
In all the years we have been there, that last night was nothing short of incredible, a memory we will never forget!