There you are, bundled up in an open horse-drawn sleigh in Wyoming amidst the largest wild elk herd in North America, thousands of the majestic animals all around.
The sleigh is like a tiny ship surrounded by a vast sea of wild animals. Great waves of these huge wild creatures restlessly swirl about you, sometimes almost at arm's reach.
If you love the out-of-doors, it's fascinating to see masses of large animals in the wild -- and quite unusual. This is a rare close-up peek, the kind of intimate look you once got in those charming old nature movies Walt Disney made.
You are awed by the sight, and think this must be what it was like for frontiersmen of centuries past to see the great herds of animals that once roamed the North American continent.
To the side of the sleigh only a dozen yards away, a pair of young bulls, heads lowered, spars with their heavy sets of antlers. The antlers click noisily, a distinctive sound that draws your attention to dozens of other sparring bulls in every direction you look.
This time of year, they are only practicing; the action gets serious during fall's mating season when to the victor goes the "harem." After a few moments, the challengers back away and return unharmed to pawing at the snow for the grass buried beneath.
But not all of nature's endings are happy. On the outskirts of the clustered herd, easily visible on a hillside, several large coyotes pace and wait. If an old or sick animal drops from the group, the coyotes will move in for the kill.
It takes a few minutes to grasp what you are seeing, here in the rugged northwestern corner of Wyoming: Teton Country, Yellowstone Country. This is not a zoo -- the elk aren't fenced -- and no zoo could hold such numbers. These are wild animals, shy of humans and rarely observed in their summer range.
For some reason, they tolerate the sleigh, drawn over the frozen snow by two Belgian draft horses. But don't step off, warns the driver. A human afoot could very well set off a panicky stampede.
Each winter, thousands of Rocky Mountain elk pour out of Wyoming's mountain wilderness, driven by heavy snows from their high summer meadows. They swarm down the hillsides -- bulls in full antler, pregnant cows and the previous season's calves not yet a year old -- seeking forage in the wide, flat valley called Jackson Hole.
It is a massive, danger-filled migration that may date back as many as five centuries, a rare vestige of pre-pioneer days.
The elk arrive in the valley singly or in twos or threes -- or dozens or hundreds all at once, if winter comes early -- a steady river of life silhouetted against a new-fallen snow on the distant ridges. Some may have traveled more than 65 miles following ancient paths out of the back country to the traditional winter-feeding ground.
Gathered within the valley confines, they form a herd averaging about 7,500 animals most years. They make a stunning spectacle that unfolds at the foot of the snow-draped Grand Teton Mountains, a backdrop of rather awesome grandeur itself.
Before settlers arrived, the wintering elk had Jackson Hole mostly to themselves and other wild creatures. Now they share it with the community of Jackson, an Old West summer resort town (it retains its wooden sidewalks) that has developed into a major winter sports center with great downhill or cross-country skiing during the day and lively cowboy bars at night.
Just outside Jackson, about 24,300 acres of elk range are protected as the National Elk Refuge, the only elk refuge in the country. The refuge lands, extensive as they are, amount only to about a quarter of the winter range in the valley once open to the herd.
An eight-foot-high chain-link fence runs along the southern edge of the refuge. But it wasn't built to keep the elk in; it's there to keep them out of Jackson's streets. The refuge really is that close to town. Residents use its few miles of plowed roadway as a convenient jogging path.
The settlers, when they showed up in the late 19th century, began fencing off the valley to raise cattle. Jackson itself occupies what was once a traditional grazing area. Increasingly, elk and cattle competed for the same food. In the severe winters of 1909, 1910 and 1911, hungry elk often raided the ranchers' haystacks, but thousands died of starvation.
Once numbering 25,000, the Jackson Hole elk herd diminished greatly, and its survival was threatened. Finally, in 1912, growing public concern brought about the creation of the refuge. Its purpose is to protect refuge lands, which are being added to, and to feed the elk when they can't reach the grass beneath deep snow and ice.
The Jackson Hole herd now numbers 12,000, a fairly stable figure. About 7,500 of them feed on the national refuge and the rest at 22 Wyoming state game-feeding stations.
Increasingly, the refuge is becoming a major Jackson tourist attraction. You sense the elks' importance to the community when you spot the four arches that form the entrances to the town square. They are built from hundreds of interlocked antlers.
The 45-minute sleigh rides begin at the refuge's visitor center, about four miles north of Jackson. They run every day from about mid-December to April 1, when the elk begin to move back to their mountain retreats as the snowline recedes.
More than 25,000 visitors climbed aboard sleighs last year, many of them skiers on a day off from the slopes at Jackson Hole Ski Resort at Teton Village, a dozen miles to the west. But more and more travelers, says refuge spokesman Jim Griffin, are making a special trip to Jackson just to see the elk herd.
And, so they tell him, to savor the winter beauty of the surrounding mountains.
The elk may come to Jackson Hole for the feed, but they managed to pick a magnificently scenic valley in which to spend their winters. It sits in the midst of one of the nation's largest concentrations of protected wilderness and national park lands.
The refuge itself is mostly open, rolling fields of grass, though only occasional tufts appear through the otherwise smooth blanket of crusted snow. Small streams fed by hot springs gurgle through the fields, easy to spot because of the cloud of steam rising from them. Giant trumpeter swans float on ponds that never freeze.
To the east, the fields give way to forested foothills and, beyond the refuge, to the slopes of the Gros Ventre range. But it is the dramatic view to the west that rivets. The craggy peaks of the Grand Teton range rise abruptly 7,000 feet above the valley floor, looking in their mantle of snow like a trio of white-bearded giants.
You step into the sleigh dressed in your warmest skiing clothes: thermal long johns underneath, a heavy wool cap pulled tightly over the ears and insulated boots to keep your feet tolerably comfortable. The sleigh seats about 20, and if you are lucky there's a spare blanket or two to wrap around your legs. The ride is short, but plenty cold on a January day that will never climb above 10 degrees.
The elk herd usually divides into three or four groupings of 1,500 to 2,000, and the sleigh heads for the nearest cluster. The ride itself is great fun. How often these days is anyone carried over open fields in an old-fashioned sleigh?
Surprisingly, the elk don't bolt when the sleigh glides into their midst, though individual elk give it a watchful glance or scramble out of its way. They run with head held high, chin thrust outward. When the sleigh stops, and it does frequently on the tour, the elk seem to ignore it completely.
Over there your eyes catch a massive bull, imperial under an impressive crown of antlers. The youngsters sporting only a pair of short unbranched antlers called "spikes" are yearlings, born in the spring of 1983. The bulls shed their antlers at the refuge beginning in March, and they are gathered by the Jackson Boy Scouts and auctioned in the town square on the third Saturday in May.
Auction day is a big Jackson celebration, a street party drawing bidders from as far away as the Orient, who claim ground elk horn has medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities. Also bidding are belt buckle- and button-makers. At $6 a pound, the Scouts took in $44,000 from two truckloads of antlers last year. A small amount they use for troop programs; most they contribute to the refuge to help feed the elk.
Two female elk nuzzle each other just in front of the sleigh. Another pair, in what looks like an irritated squabble, rises up on hind legs and boxes briefly with their forefeet. Overhead, two swans sweep by in elegant flight. A perfect opportunity for superb close-up photos.
The elk are handsome animals, dark brown in color -- but slightly comical, too, with their bright blond rumps. Some may live 15 to 20 years or more. The sound they make is strangely high-pitched for such large animals (450 to 800 pounds), birdlike almost, an eerie, whining call that whirls around you.
To one side of the sleigh is a very sick-looking bull, its ears drooping, its coat shedding badly. Griffin suspects it has been infected with scabies, a troublesome parasite plaguing part of the herd. If the bull loses much more fur -- protection against the harsh winds -- it likely will become food for the patient coyotes. Generally, the animals are not treated for illness or injury at the refuge.
"Nature is hard," Griffin says, and the visitors from Ohio and California and Washington, D.C., nod solemnly.
A short movie and slide show at the visitors center, a restored log cabin, provides an informative introduction to a year in the life of the elk. Elk are widespread in the United States, mostly in the West, and are not an endangered species:
* Spring is "the season of renewal." Bulls shed their antlers (growth resumes soon after), and the herd drifts from the refuge in late April looking for new grass. Calves are born off the refuge from May to mid-June.
* Summer is a time "of plenty." The new calves fatten in mountain meadows, losing their white spots. Antlers, velvet-covered during regrowth, reach maturity in August. The animals are sleek; their coats have turned reddish.
* With fall comes "challenge." September and October is the rutting season, when the bulls clash antlers in earnest to gather a harem of cows. Now their awesome bugling -- that's really what it sounds like -- matches their size. Their coats grow thicker.
* The long winter brings "hardship." Every year on the refuge, the weak, the ill and the old succumb to the sometimes brutal sub-zero winds that sweep into the valley. About 235 elk died last year -- an especially hard year -- at least 54 from scabies but many others from "advanced age."
And during the fall migration, the elk are hunted on state and federal forest lands as well as certain areas of Grand Teton National Park and the refuge itself. Between 2,000 and 3,000 are taken annually from the total of 12,000. They are replaced by the birth of calves in the spring.
Hunting, especially on the refuge, is an ongoing controversy, but refuge managers defend it as necessary. "Hunting helps reduce elk numbers so their population is more compatible with limited winter range," reads an official statement.
As Griffin explains it, the alternative, and an unsatisfactory one, would be to let the herd grow uncontrolled. That could overcrowd the refuge, destroying the limited grasslands and encouraging the spread of disease among the animals.
"Carefully controlled hunting," as officials put it, is permitted for two to three weeks on a specified section of the refuge because a large portion of the herd -- a group that summers in Grand Teton National Park -- never steps outside federally protected lands. So there is no place else but the refuge -- and a part of Teton park -- to hold the hunt.
Only 40 hunters at a time (120 in a week) are permitted on 15,000 acres of the 24,300-acre refuge; they must enter by foot or horseback; and they can take only one elk. This fall's "harvest" -- the official terminology -- was 130 on the refuge.
The refuge doesn't hide the fact of the hunt from visitors, many of whom have come, obviously, as lovers of wildlife. The slide show, in fact, displays a successful hunter on horseback, and other information on hunting is offered.
You think about this, as you ride through the herd on the sleigh. These are the survivors of what must have been harrowing hours or days for them. And then you brighten when told of an odd development:
Some of these rascally creatures -- maybe old regulars at the refuge -- have taken to passing quickly through the hunting area at night, crossing safely into the fields where firearms are banned.
Refuge and Wyoming game officials gathered early one morning last month for an official count of the elk population. They swung aboard the three huge vehicles that every morning spread out a day's supply of concentrated alfalfa pellets for the elk.
Supplemental feeding begins only when the snow gets deep or the weather particularly cold. Some mild years it isn't necessary. This year it began the first week in January.
During the summer, 2,500 acres are irrigated to grow grass for natural forage. Except in the deep-winter months, this is usually sufficient feed for the elk. The tall grass of summer gives the valley the look of a lush prairie; by spring, when the elk depart, the ground has been nibbled bare.
On the morning of the count, the thermometer had barely nudged to zero at 8 a.m. A smoky haze from dozens of wood-burning fireplaces hung over Jackson to the south. Slender strips of heavy fog seemed to chase each other over the fields, occasionally wrapping an icy cloak around the crew clinging to the outside of the feeding trucks.
Our truck, a reconverted six-wheel-drive troop transport leftover from Vietnam, plowed easily, but unsteadily, through snowdrifts in search of the portion of the herd we were to count. For awhile, though, we were blanked out by the fog.
When I figured my uncovered nose must certainly be frostbitten, the fog slipped away, and there ahead were the elk. They saw or heard us at the same time. These are wild animals, but they were entirely aware of what the truck was bringing. They were in no mood to wait.
On they came, the whole mass of them racing toward us like a stampede, waves of them turning first one way or another, a tremendous sight. Most visitors, however, won't get a chance to see this since feeding takes place before the sleigh rides begin at 10 a.m.
How do you count a milling herd of elk?
First the truck laid two parallel strips of alfalfa pellets about a half-mile in length. (Each elk gets about seven to nine pounds a day.) Then, while the elk were lined up and busy feeding, the truck drove between the two strips, an official on each side making the count.
Accurate totals are necessary to make sure the right amount of food is being spread. The feeders remain with the herd for a half-hour, checking to see if all the elk, especially the calves, have a chance at their share.
Winter is the herd's season of hardship, but perhaps not so hard as their ancestors once had it.
A visit to the National Elk Refuge is brief, no more than 90 minutes to see the movie and slides and to take a sleigh ride, but it can be an informative and entertaining afternoon's break from the ski slopes.
And, maybe, because the spectacle is like nothing you have witnessed before, you will remember the elk herd of Jackson Hole, and the coyotes who watch, long after the rest of your winter holiday has faded.