Alissa and the elk

A friend said he wanted to hear more about the elk story I posted on Facebook, so here goes.

A girl from Bible study asked me to do the Slacker’s Half Marathon with her at the end of June.  It’s called Slacker’s because it’s all downhill.  You start near the summit of Loveland pass (which is just shy of 12,000 feet) and run down the mountain to the city of Georgetown (elevation: 8500 feet).  I’m sure my hips will hate me.

I decided that since I only live at 5300 feet, it would probably be a good idea to get some altitude training in.  Thus the plan was born to drive up to Estes Park once a week for a run (elevation: 7500 feet).  Plus, any excuse for me to go to Estes…

For those that don’t know, there are elk everywhere in Estes.  They pretty much stay away from the main strip of downtown because there’s so many people, but they’ll cross the road, hang out in people’s front yards, and love the golf course next to the lake.  If you see group of cars pulled over, it’s because they’re taking pictures of elk.

Sometimes I stop to look at them, too, but mostly I’ve gotten over it and have just reached the point of being annoyed by the silly tourists.

I parked at the visitors center and took off a loop around the lake.  The path splits at a Y and I initially decided to take the right-hand trail to go counter-clockwise.  But then I changed my mind and decided to go the other way since I went counter-clockwise last week.  Ran across the grass to the other trail (see abrupt change below).

Had I initially gone to the left, I would have had to pass a big sawhorse-type barrier that was blocking the path.  I saw a group of people walking up to it, and I saw another group of people further down that had walked around it and were still on the trail.  I saw it from a distance and being that this is Estes I thought, “Yeah, elk, leave them alone, blah, blah, blah.”  I saw a paper sign tacked up on a nearby tree that said, “No dogs in this area,” and thought that was probably a smart idea.

I continued heading down my newly chosen path, passing the people who had walked around the barrier.  Came around the bend through some trees and about ten feet off the trail was an elk cow, who lifted her head to look at me.  I looked away to ignore her and made to continue running past her on the trail.

Immediately she lunged at me like she was planning to chase me.  Whoa!  I’d never had the Estes elk do anything but ignore me.  I stopped and backed a few steps down the trail, and she walked toward me, matching each step.  So I stopped and she stopped, and we stood there about 10-15 feet from each other.  A staredown.

I tried taking another step away, and she took another step toward me.  Does she want food?  I thought.  Have tourists been feeding the elk (stupid!) and now they want food?  I couldn’t think of any other reason why she’d keep following me if I was backing away.

The wheels spun in my brain.  I knew with bears you’re supposed to play dead, and with mountain lions you’re supposed to fight back.  But I couldn’t remember ever being told what to do if confronted by an elk.  She wasn’t that big, and there was a tall fence behind me separating the golf course.  Worse case, I could roll under that fence and maybe it would slow her down.  I wasn’t sure if a small elk could jump such a tall fence.  Instead I decided to just stand my ground and not move, since that seemed to be the only thing that didn’t antagonize her.

This video still is from about the same spot on the trail.  Add about ten feet between that man and the elk, and that was my situation.  I had not heard that a day before a woman had been trampled by an Estes elk in her front yard and was in the ICU.  So I was a little scared, but not as much as I probably should have been.  If anything, I was mainly annoyed that I had driven an hour up here and now wasn’t going to be able to do my run.

I glanced over my shoulder and through the trees could see the brightly colored shirts of the people I’d run past, stopped further down the trail watching all this.

After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a few minutes, she turned away a little and I took one step away.  Then she turned some more – as though she had either lost interest in me or was going away.  I took another step back.  And then another.  I backed down the trail around the bend until I was almost near the tourists.

They all stood there frozen with their mouths agape.  “Why didn’t you keep going so you could lead her away from us?” a man joked to me.  I gave a sarcastic laugh and told him I wasn’t interested in elk chasing me, and that I’d just go for a run another day.

Still annoyed, I headed back to my car but first stopped to take a closer look at that barrier.

“TRAIL CLOSED.  PROTECTIVE MAMA ELK.”

Oh #*$&.  I realized the bullet I’d just dodged, and I kicked myself.  Kicked myself for not stopping to read the sign.  Kicked myself for assuming I knew enough about elk to stay safe.  Kicked myself for thinking since other people were walking around it that it must just be a notice and not a warning.  Cripes, I just followed tourists.  Tourists!  Never follow the tourists, Alissa.

Next week, instead of Estes, I think I may head to Nederland for my run instead.  It’s higher elevation anyway…

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