It was a late summer day in 2011. My friend Jenny and I wanted to take advantage of some of the last days of mid-day hiking we'd be able to do before school started--for Jenny, her first year of teaching, and for me, my first year of seminary. Imagine the scene of two cheerful young women hopping energetically out of the car and skipping to the trail with arms interlocked and giggles pouring forth from our smiling mouths. Now tone it down about 10 points and you've got the scene. Optimistically ominous, no?
The trail we chose wound through a wildlife management preserve. On this specific trail, the wildlife being managed and preserved were elk. We weren't sure how many we'd actually see as we tromped about, but as we rounded a bend, we saw a young elk scamper across the trail in front of us. Whoa. Then we saw another. And later a clump of about three with giant, fuzzy elk horns. We began to feel uneasy under their gaze: we were not entirely welcome in these parts. But, when you're on a loop trail, and you're about halfway around it, there's not much you can do but keep hiking. And so we did, with a cloud of anxiety descending further upon us with every step and with every elk glare we endured. After a particularly intense staring down, we came into a more open timber with no elk in sight. Whew. Finally, we could just walk and talk and laugh and look at trees.
But suddenly, an elk came dashing up from our right. Thinking it simply wanted to hustle across the trail in front of us, I stopped, yielding the right-of-way to this rather large female. But she stopped, too. We stood like this for a moment, but then Elkie took first one step forward, then another, then another, and before we had time to think, Jenny and I had dashed to put a tight grouping of three young trees between ourselves and Elkie. Elkie was clearly not pleased. She stomped. She rolled her eyes. She began to drool and grunt.
Guys, if you have never stood three feet from a stomping, eye-rolling, drooling, grunting elk, let me not recommend it. But, if you really want an idea of how intensely disarming this situation is, then let's imagine... You're a kid, and you've been playing all day, having a great time. Only, oh great, here comes your mom. And she's not just sauntering up to call you in for supper. No. She has clearly caught you doing something terrible and forbidden, something you only vaguely recollect. But you can see that her memory has not been addled by the fun of the day. She knows exactly what you've done, and her certain stride tells you that she knows exactly what she's going to do to you. And all you can do is stand there and watch her come at you and you shrink down to being one foot tall and you hope you are invisible but oh no here she is and she sees you and you are screwed. This is how we felt as we stood, with nothing but three young trees between us and a clearly pissed off lady elk.
Jenny, foreshadowing her incredible bravery, decided to begin to back up the hill. Once she had about 25 feet between her and Elkie, she encouraged me to do the same. Only, Elkie hadn't taken her eyes off of me while Jenny was moving. I took a step back, and Elkie was clearly not pleased. I took another step back, and she hoisted her two front hooves off the ground a couple of inches to tell me just how not pleased she was. I instinctively crouched. And now here I was, crouched in the leaves in front of an angry lady elk who would not let me move. And here I was two minutes later, still crouched. And five minutes later, still crouched. I crouched for a long time, people, trying to figure out how to get away. Could I crawl? No, she would stomp me. Could I run? No, she would stomp me. Could I skip away giggling? No, clearly I would never skip and giggle again.
So after about 10 minutes of crouching, my knees hurt. Slowly, I rose, calling back to Jenny that I was going to back up to her. I asked her to tell me if there was anything to hide behind. Just a fallen log about 10 feet behind me. I could dive behind that. Great. So, I began my slow movements away from Elkie, one awful step at a time. For a few paces, she just looked at me. At the time, I thought it was her way of saying, "OK. I can see how ridiculous this is getting. Let's just call it even." But in retrospect, it was more of her way of saying, "Is this girl serious? Does she really think this is going to work." Because just as the log came into view, Elkie stepped forward authoritatively. And then she began what would clearly be a running start at me.
But before I could dive to my left behind the log and hope to shield my head from her horrible hooves, something incredible happened. Jenny, armed with a long stick in one hand and a large rock in the other, charged around me. "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR," she screamed, and waved the stick in front of both of us, the rock cocked in her right hand to throw if Elkie didn't get the message right away. But she did. Elkie was clearly shocked and outmatched, and as Jenny screamed, "GOOOOOO!" I scrambled up the hill, gratefully putting distance between myself and Elkie. Jenny ferociously followed behind, still clutching her weapons, and Elkie stood confused in the background. I will never forget this picture of my best friend, having just saved my life with a stick and rock, fleeing her defeated enemy, because it made me laugh so hard I couldn't keep running. And when Jenny, adrenaline pumping, yelled at me, "Come on!" I laughed harder. I laughed all the way up to the road where Jenny dropped her weapons and finally laughed too.
Jenny and I still marvel at our narrow escape, shaking our heads at the situation. And yet, when we tell the story to others, nobody seems to understand the true danger we were in.
THE LESSON: Do not hike with elk.