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.
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.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
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.