A massive bull elk with antlers the size of an SUV sits placidly among the petunias in a yard in downtown Benezette, Pa. Perhaps he's tuckered out from the rigors of the fall rutting season. Then again, maybe he's come to town in a funk, depressed that he's alone while stronger bulls have gathered harems of up to 40 females.
All I know for sure is that he's one of about 800 elk that roam sections of various counties in north-central Pennsylvania, and that Benezette, in Elk County, is the heart of their territory.
To see hundreds of elk mating, fighting and making a lot of noise, head to Elk County in north-central Pennsylvania.
(Commonwealth Media Services)
In winter, when food is scarce, elk walk the streets of town looking for a handout. In fall, the bugle calls of male elks echo through the hills and mountains. Tourists in the know gather, hoping to see a fight as bulls lock horns in their quest to win mates. Unlike moose, however, elk have never been known to attack humans.
Somehow I lived the first 20-some years of my life within an hour's drive of Elk County unaware that these huge but graceful animals existed outside the American West. It's an unintentional secret that Pennsylvania tourism officials are intent on revealing.
This fall, the state opened 23 elk-viewing stands in the area and outlined a 127-mile scenic drive for elk watching. They gave a 12-county region that includes Elk County a name, the "Pennsylvania Wilds," and began touting it as the wildest, best-preserved natural area between New York and Illinois.
They have the facts to back them up: The region's 36 state and national parks and forests cover about 2 million acres of land, including 86,467 acres of wilderness. More than 16,000 miles of flowing water traverse the mountainous, heavily treed and widely overlooked region. There are 2,067 wild trout streams. Many of the small towns that dot the landscape have a single stoplight, if they have one at all.
During the Civil War, draft dodgers came to this area to hide out in the wilderness and seek work as lumbermen. It's not quite that wild now, but you could no doubt disappear for a while. There's a little cabin in the woods I ran across named "The Wife Dodger," so it's at least wild enough for that.
A small handful of upscale lodgings grace the region. One town, Ridgway, once the home of lumber and mining barons, is in the midst of a revival after a long siege of economic depression.
Ridgway residents boast of once having more millionaires than any town its size in the world, and the town still has enough mansions to suggest they could be right. The town in the 1900s was the home of the Hyde-Murphy Co., which carved the elaborate woodwork for the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Congress, the original Smithsonian Institute and many other noteworthy buildings. Many of the original mansions in Ridgway had their woodwork done by Hyde-Murphy. But when the timber and mining industries declined, so did the mansions, in some cases turning into rooming houses. In recent years, though, residents have renovated about 40 of the graceful homes, turning three of them into bed-and-breakfasts.
The tradition of woodworking lives on in an odd way -- Ridgway is home to one of the world's largest chainsaw-carving conclaves each winter. Sculptors come from around the world to demonstrate their skills, and each one must donate a carving for an auction that raises money for the Make a Wish Foundation and the Ridgway YMCA.