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More elk calves and a lesson in Life and Death

“…that feeling in your stomach of “I don’t want this to be happening.” You try to escape it in some way, but if somehow you could stay present and touch the rawness of the experience, you can really learn something.”  Pema Chodron

Yesterday, this morning, and today were all one large event, the event that is Life.

In my post yesterday, I wrote about the dead elk calf.  This morning the mama spent a long time bugling for her calf behind my house on the top of the rise…a mournful sound of a mother calling desperately for her newborn calf.  I went outside and watched her.   I felt tremendous sadness for her.  I knew she didn’t know what happened to her calf, just that it was gone.

It reminded me of a time two years ago in the spring in the Beartooths.  A car hit and killed a cub of the year.  The grizzly mom spent a week roaming and calling for her cub.

There is nothing so sad in the animal world as that sound–a mother calling for her baby that is dead.  But I felt it was important for me to allow myself to feel this elk mother’s cries fully, and not push my own feelings away, even though it was difficult.

I stayed with her and listened.  And those bugles were low, guttural; not the high pitched sounds you hear in the fall from the elk.  Her cries came from a deep and ancient place, not unlike the cries of humans mourning intensely.

Today was the first really warm, beautiful day.  I decided to go up to a favorite spot, a place that overlooks a deep canyon, and have lunch there. (Unfortunately, I took my cheap camera) Its about a 2 1/2 mile hike up to the top of this ridge-line.  You pass through a forest until you top out at some high meadows.  At the end of the meadows are sheer cliff drop-offs.

View from afar of the spot where elk is. This is the meadow and cliff

As soon as I broke through the trees and began crossing the meadow to the cliff edges, I spied a lone elk.  She seemed a bit nervous at my presence (not unusual) but then I saw something else.  A calf lay nearby.  A wet calf.  She had just given birth and probably just finished licking the calf clean of the afterbirth.  I made a large circle and hid behind some rocks out of the wind.

Mom had taken off and left her baby there, probably hoping that I’d be more interested in following her and so not find her newborn.  I watched that little guy for about an hour.  Within about 10 minutes, he tried to stand up.  He struggled unsuccessfully with his weak legs.  Exhausted, he spent another 10 minutes resting.  But soon he tried again.  This time, although he still couldn’t stand up easily, he was getting stronger.

Keep trying...

First attempt to stand

I had a good feeling about this mom and her choice of a birthplace.  High up, the only entrance was on one side.  She placed the calf near a rock that had similar coloring as the calf.  And not too far beyond the calf was the cliff, where no predator could come from.  On my hike up through the trees, I saw no grizzly sign.  Grizzly sign was on the other side of the canyon down below near the creek.  If this calf makes it past a few weeks, he’ll be too fast for the bears.  But then he’ll still have to contend with wolves, who do frequent the area.

Cliff edge near where calf lies

If he makes it through a month or so, when the snows melt, his mom will probably take him up to the Absaroka Divide and head to the Lamar.  He’ll have a good year this year, more similar to what his ancestors used to experience before the long drought, because the grasses will stay greener for longer.  Then next January I might see him again when he migrates back down here for the winter.  He’ll be taller but still a youngster and still vulnerable to the wolves and the deep winter snows.  But he might just be one of the tougher ones, the lucky ones, and live into his adulthood.  Live to mate and make more elk and not be caught by a hunter’s bullet.   I surely hope so.