We decide to leave the backcountry and drive a two-lane highway to one of the elk-viewing stands. Along the way, we spot in a fenced field a bull surrounded by four mates. "That's his harem, at least for now, until a stronger bull comes along," Hoffman says.
No one, he adds, has built a fence the elk can't get through. They can jump 10 feet high and walk through barbed wire, he says. They can run long distances at 29 miles an hour and short bursts of up to 45 mph.
To see hundreds of elk mating, fighting and making a lot of noise, head to Elk County in north-central Pennsylvania.
(Commonwealth Media Services)
Even at 200 yards, you can sense their power. Cows commonly weigh 600 pounds, bulls 1,000. But during the breeding, or rutting, season, August through October, bulls lose up to 100 pounds.
"They're always on the go," Hoffman explains. "Each cow is in heat for only 18 hours, and never the same 18 hours, so he's busy getting as many of them as he can."
We travel less than a half-mile when we spot the lone bull among the petunias. Diners from a restaurant across the street abandon their burgers for a look. Soon a dozen cars have pulled over next to the yard. A woman with a videocamera pops out of the sunroof of a passing car, yelling at her husband to slow down. It's easy to see, at this moment, why the locals are not unanimously enamored with attempts to draw more elk-viewing tourists.
In fact, the promotion of the area as the Pennsylvania Wilds has raised some suspicion, at least among some locals. The weekend I'm in the area, a front-page story in the Tri-County -- a newspaper that serves five counties -- was headlined, "Benezette Twp. Official: Tourism Promoting Area as Pa. Wilds May Force Residents to Eventually Leave the Township." The promotion, the township official warned, was part of a global master plan in which the United Nations declares a place a biodiversity area and the people are forced to leave so that the land returns to its natural state. As the story pointed out, state officials said they knew of no such plan.
Almost all the tourists in search of elk come during the rutting season. They like to hear the bugle calls, see the mating, and maybe a good battle. Elk use their antlers and massive bodies to fight, once in a while even to death. Additionally, if visitors plan it right, they'll also see the mountains aglow with fall leaves.
But the best time to see the elk, Hoffman thinks, is winter: The tourists disappear, the bulls still have their antlers, and when the leaves are gone and the ground is white with snow, the animals stand out against the vistas in all their grandeur.
By the time the sun begins to set during my visit, we are at the top of Winston Hill, an official viewing station. In the broad open field below, where the game commission has planted alfalfa and grasses appealing to elk, two bulls and seven cows peacefully graze at opposite ends of the field. The farthest mountain range takes on a bluish haze, while the mountains in front of it glow orange and red, in sharp contrast to the bright green field.
Granted, I'm sharing the view with a couple dozen other visitors. But only in these rural areas could it be considered a crowd. Everyone is quiet, caught in the private moment of a grand and beautiful sight.