Escape to Pennsylvania Elk Country ushers in fall’s arrival
Heading back to school amid a pandemic — with mask mandates, extra sanitary precautions and the potential for synchronous online learning now on the table — is chaotic for both teachers and students, which in our family includes both my wife and me, as well as our brand new first-grader.
Throw in a hurricane leading to school closures and a flooded basement during that first week back, and one can easily feel the stress levels rising like water in a sump pump drain pit. Certainly not ideal, but we weathered the storm (literally) and were mostly dried out by the weekend.
Come Friday night, I was relaxing by a campfire ring, gazing at the stars of a clear Benezette sky while my family slept soundly in our camper just paces away. As I slipped an ice cold can from the cooler, I mentally envisioned the massive bull elk I might see in the morning. All cares and worries melted away.
This long overdue escape to the Pennsylvania wilds for camping and elk viewing was just the ticket to put my mind at ease during an extended Labor Day weekend. It was a trip I had purposefully scheduled, hoping it would get me fired up for the fall season, while simultaneously serving as a punctuation mark for summer’s last stand. It delivered.
Our home away from home was the Big Elk Lick Campground — a designated horse camp by design, with access trails leading directly to prime elk locations for riding enthusiasts hoping to encounter the large cervids from horseback.
While our family-style pop-up trailer was not one of the equestrian varieties like most other campers, my son did mix in a bit of horseplay, while my two-year-old daughter was naturally, at times, stubborn as a mule. I tied up my dog just like the neighbors did their geldings, but I wouldn’t dare tell my wife to giddy up. Regardless, we fit in just fine!
As many mornings go in Elk Country, we awoke to fog at dawn each day. Checking the typical viewing locations — Winslow Hill, Dent’s Run, Woodring Farm, Elk Country Visitor Center — we caught glimpses of elk through the mist, but we were more successful at finding what we sought by getting out of the truck and exploring the public access walking trails after the fog lifted — or even exploring other areas off the beaten path by vehicle.
Out of respect for local landowners, those roads remain unnamed here but surmise to say elk also exist in many other locations — especially in the outskirts of Benezette. Those willing to take a drive and maintain sensibility about respecting others’ property, can still be treated to chance elk sightings away from the crowds during busier times of the year.
After a morning of soaking in the sights, we’d return to camp for a late breakfast cooked on the gas-powered camp stove — conveniently set up on the tailgate for no fuss kitchen duty. Mid-days were spent lounging around camp, taking a walk, or stopping by the KECA Visitor Center for educational activities the kids loved — especially the film experience with three surrounding screens, interactive narration, and special effects.
By mid-afternoon, an early dinner was started in the Can-Cooker, be it savory venison kielbasa with root crops or Greek marinated pheasant cutlets with fresh garden veggies. We ate well in preparation for evening wildlife watching, and even snuck in a side trip to Elk Life, a small café located at the base of “the hill” in Benezette, for ice cream and mini donuts.
During our evening rounds, we saw plenty of elk in addition to some deer, turkeys, and a bald eagle, which made for great photo opportunities — something an outdoor writer can always appreciate beyond simply being out there and enjoying the experience. One bull paused just long enough from raiding a local orchard for me to snap a gorgeous shot of him surveying his surroundings. Subtle hues of red foliage foretold fall’s impending arrival, and it made me smile.
On Monday morning, our final chance to see elk before packing up and heading home, we opted to walk the trails at the Visitor Center one last time. As the sunlight peeked through the treetops and a cool September breeze swept across the valley, a bellowing bugle emanated from the timber below. While we couldn’t spot the bull, we heard him gathering his harem for the action-packed weeks ahead.
While I returned to work the next day, our brief respite to elk country confirmed what I hoped was true. The signs are all there … fall will be here soon enough.