If a tree falls in the forest ... oops, wrong analogy. If an elk bugles on the Missouri River Flats, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Is the sound in the hearing or in the making? Is sound real only if it is perceived? What if I am not there to hear it, and the elk move on with a sense of something missing for the rest of their lives? These are important questions.
In my quest for answers, I decided to drive south to the Missouri River at Slippery Ann to view the gathering of the elk herds. I make this drive an annual event to celebrate the fall beauty and the rutting elk. Into my hamper I plunked thick, baked chicken sandwiches, liberally seasoned with slices of Walla-Walla sweet onions and local garden tomatoes — messy but yummy. A sweet rosy apple for dessert. I grabbed my binoculars and a camera and ready, set, go.
On the way south to the river, I like to take the back road with the self-guided auto tour that winds through the CM Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Every time I drive the tour I see something different. With the exploding fall colors set off by our unusually green grasses, the roadsides were exceptionally beautiful this year.
When I dropped down to the viewing area paralleling the Missouri River, cars were parked from the campground to the creek. Families and friends with coolers of food and drink had set up chairs in truck beds and alongside their cars, binoculars and cameras ready at hand. It was like a very long tailgate party. Some people hiked back and forth and stopped here and there to talk, quip and compare photos. I saw cars with license plates from all over Montana, many other states, and four Canadian provinces. I parked and set up my own chair and unpacked my lunch. I chatted with the couple in the pickup from Minnesota parked next to me. They had camped here for four days and were still enthralled by the spectacle.
From where I sat at the edge of the road, I could see one exceptionally large herd and several herds of a more moderate size. Right in front of me a bull elk, his head and antlers visible above the cattail reeds, trotted back and forth, trumpeting and protecting his harem. I never did get a good look at him, just his magnificent rack of antlers making the trek east to west and back again. And the sounds — oh, my, the sounds. There is no music like the high pitched bugle of a bull elk in rut. Such magnificent beasts!
The powerful bulls challenged one another, thrashed tree branches, and strutted on the run to attract and gather as many cows as they could. It reminded me of a lively Saturday night at the Vet’s Club.
I have read in a government pamphlet that the cows like to join the harem with the largest bull. It seems the larger bulls are thought to be better able to find food, to protect their family, and pass superior qualities to their offspring. I think we make that stuff up. Sure, it sounds good. But who can know what goes on in the mind, the heart, the hormones of a cow elk. Maybe she is attracted by the gleam in his eye, or his enticing musky scent, or the swagger in his trot. Now, the male, on the other hand — it is easier to figure out what is on his mind. Observe his actions, the trumpeting, the posturing, the challenging, the frantic racing back and forth trying to keep the harem where he told them to stay put and wait for him to return. Like I said, Saturday night at the Vet’s Club.
I stayed at Slippery Ann Flats glorying in the show in front of me until evening encroached. On the drive home, cirrus clouds layered the sky, perfect for reflecting the brilliant colors of the sunset. It looked like a sunrise and a sunset both at the same time, with a ghostly galleon moon sailing above the wispy clouds. I’ll go again, probably next week. I never did get my questions answered. So, if an elk bugles on the Missouri River Flats, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at www.