This piece on my elk battle was originally published in Reader's Digest in 2001. However, I am going back to do another residency at Banff this September 2016 so I am blogging it. I think it is worth republishing since there is never enough known about rutting.
I’ve never been a good student. Whatever is happening in the front of the class usually fails to captivate my attention. On the plane I’m the type that never listens to the disaster routine that the stewardess regurgitates about all the different ways you could die and the heroic ways the person at the emergency exit could save you. Instead I read the En Route magazine and wait for the drinks trolley.
True to form at the orientation lecture at the Banff School for the Arts, high in the Alberta Rockies, where I’d gone to take a mystery writing course, I tuned out the forest ranger who dressed like a Canadian Mountie in a pointed hat and high boots. Instead I checked out the anthropological differences between the mystery writers and the poetry writers. The Elmore Leonard wannnabes were muscular, smoked filter less cigarettes, wore tight black pants, had short spiky hair and red lipstick. The poetry writers were wan with Botticelli hair, wore wire rimmed glasses, ironed blouses (where did they find them), baggy pants, and no makeup. The New York writer beside me was also happy to ignore the lecture on “The Emergency Measures in the Event of a Bear or Elk attack” and regale me with her mystery plot about a lap dancer who kills men with pelvic thrusts.
Instead of listening to the content of the lecture we focused on the form. As this giant blonde Albertan told us about the annual rutting of the elk, the New Yorker said she wouldn’t mind mounting the Mountie, or locking horns with that Nelson Eddy of the new millennium. She said she had a weakness for men who wore pointed hats and tagged horns.
As those around us diligently wrote down what to do when faced with an elk, of course those in the poetry section used fountain pens, we giggled uncontrollably saying that for sure these guys had seen one too many episodes of wild kingdom. We agreed that men in charge had to have a “Beware Schtick”. It’s part of “the territorial imperative”. Translated it means, “Hey man, we are in the know. This is our turf.” In New York it’s Central park at night and taking a cab to Harlem and here in Alberta it’s bear and elk. Men are here to tell you what’s dangerous and the women are here to be scared. But as the New Yorker said, it had its appeal. She said it got to “the inner gatherer” in her. I agreed they didn’t make those coonskin Davy Crocket caps for nothing. It’s all part of the collective unconscious.
She found elk a tad more frightening than I did for all I could imagine were those guys who called themselves benevolent, wore Wall Mart suits had flushed faces and folded their arms across their chests and then flapped their hands in greeting to one another. I think they had a secret handshake and horns on their hats. (Wasn’t the father on Happy Days an Elk?) Actually they are sort of scary when you think about it. Would you rather run onto a two or a four- legged elk in the forest?
The muscular Mountie, or as the woman from Vancouver in my class referred to him as the “I’m Game Warden”, earnestly regaled us with how important elk horns have become to the Alberta economy. According to studies at the University of Alberta, testosterone increases at least fivefold when men take ground up E.V.A., or Elk Velvet Antler for the initiated. Women may take it as well since it does not increase testosterone, but only enhances oestrogen. I guess that means they don’t grow horns. One can only imagine what women do with more oestrogen: freeze more casseroles, laugh harder at men’s jokes, begin to find Tom Jones even more attractive, buy a Victoria’s Secret preferred customer card?
I always wondered why all those elk and deer horns were such a big deal. I don’t know why people scoff at Freud when what he says about sexual motivation seems to be fool-proof. I should have known when even our bicycle courier at work wears one of those silly hats with turquoise felt elk horns sprouting from the crown that sex, in the form of male virility, was behind the whole thing. People that live in the Rockies have elk horns mounted on the front of their car grills the same way the MTV’s on the east coast have Black fly bug screens. Over every fireplace the doe-eyed elk follows your gaze and no matter from what angle you look at him, he appears to be gazing back at you, silently begging you to get over this dorky velvet horn thing and get him down off the wall.
The next morning I was leaving my forest cabin and lo and behold there were three giant elk that had to weigh around 1000 lbs. and have a five-foot antler span. I decided even though they were blocking the way I’d just motor between them. However, as I stepped forward they closed rank. I inched ahead. One began scraping his hoof on the pine needled forest floor. I wondered what that meant. I thought it had a Hemingway ring of “I’m ready to take you on little lady since these Rockies are my turf.” It was one of those classic I’m charging numbers. At least that’s what bulls in the cartoons used to do when smoke came out of their noses and ears. Weren’t all those horny quadrupeds in the same genus if not same species? One lowered his head so his antlers were parallel to the ground and, more importantly, perpendicular to my heart.
I racked my brain. ( As opposed to the elk who had a rack on his brain). Now what had that Mountie told us to do? I hadn’t listened--story of my life. There was something about a phone number. I backed into the door and checked the automatic dial . There it was – “elk 911". I pressed the number and my adrenalin stopped pumping as the familiar voice of our favourite Game Warden said , “Elk 911. How may I help you?” I explained my situation. “Oh that’s our old boy Donnie. He’s kickin’ up his heels for the spring calving. Just likes to show off for the girls. You should see him in rutting season. He really goes to town.” After explaining that I was an angry, hungry and trapped Homo Sapien, he suggested I should hold up a large broom on the top of my head and then I should balance a hat on top of that and walk out and face the elk. In turn, the elk, would think I had a large rack, become intimidated and would disperse. Fearing that the kind warden was retaliating for our rude behaviour at orientation night, I enquired “Are you serious?” In a tone of one who had dealt with the doubting Thomas from the East on more than one occasion he said, “Trust me”.
What were my options? I held the broom handle on top of my head with a blue jays cap precariously balanced on the top of the pole and stomped out on the front porch and strode confidently, far more confidently than a I felt, down the porch stairs. Now I know elk aren’t rocket scientists, never having grazed in the Harvard yard, but were they dumb enough to fall for this? If an elk came out of the forest with a pen and pencil, even though I’m blonde, I am quite sure I would not have mistaken him for a writer.
But lo and behold the elk took one look at my new horns and tore away as though my rack compared to no other. I had an antler span of well over five feet and they knew it. Take that you velvet antlered single digit I.Q’d cowards. I confidently strode down the forest path and past a large group of music students from England who were on their way to breakfast. Naturally I looked a bit odd so I explained to the gaggle that I had to balance a broom stick on my head with a baseball cap swinging from the top of that to ward off the elk that were following me. However, when I looked around there were no elk. They had run off into the mountains. Being English they said they understood perfectly, and quickly excused themselves and rushed ahead.
Thinking I had put elk behind me, I went to class to begin an exercise in researching for accuracy in plot details. Our teacher suggested we work in pairs. My partner was a writer from Calgary who is currently writing a mystery story set in Banff with elk as the main focus. I wondered what kind of messuages was this? Who was the detective-- Bullwinkle? She patiently explained that the killer makes his murders appear to have been perpetrated by an elk gone wild. Sensing my scepticism, the elk- murder- writer told our group that there have been a plethora of human elk conflicts. In fact it was pointed out in Research Links, the Parks Canada periodical, that there were seventy-five incidents reported in Banff alone in 1991 up from three in 1987. The most current statistics suggest that the fatalities have now doubled. Last year a Japanese tourist was actually impaled while taking a picture outside of the Banff Springs Hotel. The elk murder woman asked me If I’d go with her at dawn, to hear the cry of the elk as it looks for it’s mate. Apparently they make an unearthly cry as though it were their last breath. She wanted to hear it so she could write about it in her murder description. I was writing a Freudian Murder mystery--what was I going to do-- take an excursion into her psyche, I petulantly thought as I trooped through the pre-dawn forest on her elk excursion.
Even in April we had to wear full winter gear-- even though by noon you could wear shorts a tee shirt. I guess that’s what they mean by mountain air. The first night nothing happened, the next nothing. Now I was getting too tired to write, but Donnie had become my Moby Dick. I, the Ahab from the east, was determined to find him. Up again at 5:00 a.m., stalking and finally we heard the unmistakable bellow. Elk-mystery-woman was ecstatic. It sounded as though someone was dying, literally being turned inside out. It sounded primordially eery and somehow gut wrenching, actually perfect as a murder mystery sound. I had to hand it to elk-murder-mystery-woman on the sound score. Was it a cow that had lost her young? Or the bull looking for someone to make his breakfast and tidy up his horns. The echo of the mountains threw us off. We kept losing the sound and finally we came upon it in it’s final desperate heave. There, doubled over a stump retching, was one of the British high school music students. He looked up green at the gills and said between heaves in a proper British chirp, “ I seem to be tossing my cookies on my way home from a rather protracted evening”. As an explanation for why we were stalking a drunken teenager at dawn, I offered, “Sorry, I thought you were an elk.”