The Amish also make wooden furniture and knickknacks that are sold in small antiques stores and gift shops around the region, but you'd be making a mistake to come here seeking charming villages à la New England. The area's draw is nature, beautiful vistas and outdoor recreation.
There are 99 boat launches and 1,800 overnight camping sites in the Pennsylvania Wilds. The region is crisscrossed with designated trails, meaning they are marked and maintained. More than 1,100 miles of trails have been designated for hikers, 100 miles for horseback riding, 219 miles for cross-country skiing, 1,500 miles for snowmobiling. The more adventurous who prefer to hike, bike and ride without the guidance of government-issued signs can follow more than 2,000 miles of trails.
To see hundreds of elk mating, fighting and making a lot of noise, head to Elk County in north-central Pennsylvania.
(Commonwealth Media Services)
Bald eagles with wing spans of up to eight feet soar above the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Great blue heron and osprey breed at Parker Dam State Park, as unexpected here as the elk. Birders in the old-growth forest sections of Cook Forest State Park report sightings of parula warblers, dark-eyed junco, red-breasted nuthatch and blue-headed vireo, to name a few.
I've come for the elk, at least this time around. Jim Hoffman, one of a half-dozen or so guides available for hire through the tourism department, gives me the lowdown as we tour along old logging trails and dirt roads with names like Elk Terrace Drive and Porcupine Road. For the first hour, beginning at about 4 o'clock on an October afternoon, we see a flock of wild turkey, deer and numerous birds, but no elk. Our best bet is closer to dusk, Hoffman says.
Elk, he tells me, were once common throughout Pennsylvania. There are still bear, coyotes and eagles around here. But unregulated hunting by early settlers wiped out the elk by 1867. In 1913, the Pennsylvania Game Commission brought in 177 elk from Yellowstone National Park and attempted to reintroduce the species to the state. For some reason, the reintroduction was successful only in north-central Pennsylvania.
It's been so successful that for four years in a row, herds have been culled by hunters in a limited three-day hunt. This year's hunt was last week: Forty hunters who won a lottery were each given a permit to kill one elk. The hunters must hire guides and are required to stay clear of viewing areas and towns.
After all, some of the locals know the tamer elk by sight, and have given them names. Some years ago, Hoffman says, one female elk, known as a cow, joined a herd of dairy cows, hanging out with them in the field during the day and following them into the barn each night.
The bulls are a bit more intimidating. So when one old bull a couple years back became so tame that he was eating at birdfeeders, tearing clothes off people's clotheslines and looking into their windows, the game commission shot him with a tranquilizer gun and cut off his antlers.
"He was so traumatized that when he woke up, he ran off and never came near town again," says Hoffman.
Bull elk naturally lose their antlers each year, around April. Hoffman says that four local guys, all retired, target a bull with a great rack and follow it around 24 hours a day, taking shifts of six hours each, waiting for it to shed its antlers. Then they choose another likely subject, with antlers weighing 40 or 50 pounds. Asians who believe that antlers ground into a powder are an aphrodisiac pay $5 a pound for them, although I'd think that the spread of Viagra might start cutting into the profits.