It will be dark soon, and all is still. Then, in the distance near the tree line, there is movement. Three Rocky Mountain elk are resting.
Except this is Michigan. And now there is more movement, emerging from trees beyond this field. Three become 10. A bull elk’s antlers sway with grace, about 40 pounds atop his crown.
This is the Pigeon River Country State Forest, home to the second-largest free-ranging elk herd east of the Mississippi, and a prime spot at a prime time for those who want to view these magnificent animals.
“It is pretty spectacular and can be something visitors are going to remember for a lifetime,” says Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau.
It is also free, and this year is measuring up to be special: there are more elk to be seen in more than 20 years, some 1,370, according to a February survey—twice as many estimated in a 2014 aerial survey. (Of eastern states with herds only Kentucky, with 11,000 elk, has more.)
All are concentrated in or around about 100,000 acres called “The Big Wild.” One of the largest blocks of undeveloped land in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula includes more than 100 acres of century-old white pine, and northern hardwoods with old growth beech and maple trees remaining from the original forest.
THE BEST TIME TO SEE ELK IS FALL
Brian Mastenbrook, a wildlife field manager at the Department of Natural Resources’ Gaylord station, says autumn is the best time to see elk, when bulls are beginning to round up a harem for mating. Their piercing bugle floats though the air, warning another suitor or a wayward cow.
“In September and October, when elk are in the rut, when they are mating, a bull tends to have a bunch of cows in a big open field, keeping them near him,” Mastenbrook says. “You are also more likely to hear bugling then.”
A bull’s height is around 5 feet at the shoulder, and weight can be 350 to 900 pounds, about three NFL linemen combined. Antlers grow annually on males, whose summer coat is deep red-brown; the head, neck and legs grow dark brown as temperatures drop.
The giants of the forest—graceful even at nearly 1,000 pounds—can be seen almost anywhere in Michigan’s Elk Capital: Vanderbilt, Wolverine and Gaylord at the western border; Atlanta and Hillman at the southeast. One needs only a willingness to sacrifice a little sleep, a discerning eye and binoculars to pick out the animals about an hour before or after dusk or dawn. Maps are critical, pinpointing the dozen fields planted with various feed such as rye, alfalfa, buckwheat and clover to attract elk.
INTO THE WOODS
In Michigan’s elk mecca, twisting dirt and seasonal roads pass manicured viewing areas, plus oil, gas and logging sites. Many roads are unmarked. On this September morning, it is wet at Inspiration Point. You must walk, though not far.
Distant bugling floats high-pitched moans. Twice. It can be heard from the point’s top elevation, a bull’s message to his harem, or his challenge to a challenger. Mating season is now.
This deep-woods romance was revived nearly 100 years ago, after the native elk disappeared from Michigan in the 1800s. In 1918, seven Rocky Mountain elk were released near Wolverine. Today, every one of Michigan’s elk is descended from the original seven.
At Inspiration Point, two hikers approach its peak. Raindrops drift amid bright-red Siberian cranberries. The tall grass shifts. A bull elk and two cows slip through the drizzle. One hiker points two fingers above his head: antlers. They track the animals briefly. Finally, one hiker shoots all three from yards away with his long-lens Nikon D3.
But there are easier ways to see an elk.
AN EVENING WITH ELK
When Jack Matthias opened Thunder Bay Resort in 1971, he knew he needed more. As summer wound down, his golf customers disappeared.
The answer was all around him: elk.
Today, Matthias’ resort, near Hillman about an hour east of Gaylord, almost guarantees encounters with some of the 36 elk on his 160 enclosed acres. The adventure, which lasts about four hours, begins with a horse-drawn carriage or sleigh ride to the log Elk Antler Cabin, where local wines and a five-course dinner prepared on a 100-year-old cook stove are served beside a crackling fire. Lodging packages are also available. Children nine years and older may participate. Tours are available most of the year, but especially as fall moves into winter, “it is just magical,” says Matthias, 75.
“It is literally over the river and through woods. It’s like stepping into the past, and the food really is gourmet quality.”
SEE THE CITY SLICKERS
When all else fails, stop by Gaylord’s Elk Park.
The city maintains an elk herd of about 70 contained on 108 enclosed acres with viewing areas near the Elks (of the fraternal organization variety) Lodge just off busy Grandview Boulevard.
“I went out this morning and saw 30 elk,” says Beachnau, the area’s tourism director.
IF YOU GO
PIGEON RIVER COUNTRY STATE FOREST: michigan.gov/dnr Pick up a map of designated viewing sites at the DNR office in Gaylord or the local visitor information center. To download a PDF of the map search elk viewing brochure at michigan.gov/dnr.
GAYLORD VISITOR INFORMATION: gaylordmichigan.net, (800) 345-8621
THUNDER BAY RESORT: thunderbayresort.com, (800) 729-9375
ELK VIEWING TIPS
The best times to view elk are dawn and dusk, and about an hour or so after or before. Watch tree lines especially.
A good map is critical. Many roads within the forest are not marked. If you pass an unmarked road headed to your destination, pen an X in color on your map. It’s like bread crumbs, and will make returning easier.
Fill your gas tank. There are 100,000 acres here.
Your cell phone is largely useless. Even GPS can blink out. Let someone know where you are headed, and when you expect to return.
Bring a compass: Trees along the dirt roads can have a heavy canopy. It can help keep one’s bearings during many twists and turns.
FIVE SITES FOR SPOTTING ELK
East-side turnoff on Black River Road: A huge field perhaps four miles south of M-68 between Atlanta and Tower.
Tin Shanty Road and Sawdust Pile Trail: This loop, east of Gaylord, circles a designated elk-viewing area with short hikes.
Inspiration Point: Foundations from the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp remain near Osmun and Clark Bridge roads.
Fontinalis Road: About three miles north of Sturgeon Valley Road, near the Cheboygan County line, there is a small cleared parking area and field.
East Sturgeon Valley Road: A DNR-signed elk-viewing area about eight miles east of Vanderbilt.
This article originally appeared in the 2016 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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