This page has had its share of unconventional Valentine’s Day tie-ins.
Photograph courtesy of arkansas.com
[dropcap]A[/dropcap] year ago I wrote a two-feline valentine. It was for Tiger and Precious, the cats who have been kind enough to share their home with us for nearly a decade.
Two years ago I reflected on my fondness for The Beatles, because Feb. 9, 2014, marked the 50th anniversary of their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
And three years ago I wrote about how I love the folks who promptly take old washers and dryers, exercise equipment, and just about anything else I manage to haul to the curb.
This entry is about a Natural State experience that always takes my breath away: spotting elk in Arkansas’ Boxley Valley.
Perhaps you’re saying, “Elk? In Arkansas?” Yes, these animals roam Boxley Valley, a beautiful Ozark spot about 25 miles southwest of Harrison, as well as thousands of adjoining acres.
Elk once were native to Arkansas. Their numbers declined, however, as settlers spread westward. By the 1840s they had disappeared from the state, according to A Century of Conservation, by Joe Mosby, a book the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission published in 2014.
About 35 year years ago, the commission began restoring these creatures in the Natural State after working out a trade with Colorado wildlife officials: fish fingerlings for elk. Between 1981 and 1985, 112 elk from Colorado and Nebraska were released near the Buffalo River in Newton County. The commission estimates the animals have since multiplied into a herd of about 450. They range over some 315,000 acres, of which about 85,000 acres are public property.
If you’ve not seen one of these critters up close, you might be surprised. An adult stands about a foot taller at the shoulder than the average white-tailed deer that’s common in Arkansas. Plus, an elk is massive; a typical male weighs between 700 and 800 pounds, compared with about 150 pounds for a white-tailed buck.
My wife, Julie, and I visited the valley late one afternoon last fall. I had seen these magnificent animals several times, but never with her. She and I last visited five years earlier, but a couple of swans on a pond were the most exciting things we saw that day.
So, one Saturday this past October, after a quick trip to Bentonville and Rogers, we headed toward elk country, along scenic mountain roads through War Eagle, Huntsville and Kingston. Taking Highway 21 east out of Kingston, we soon began the descent into The Valley, and my heart began to race. Let me tell you, virtually the moment we turned off Highway 21 onto Highway 74, which runs through the valley, we saw something that told us we had arrived at the right place at the right time: people pointing.
There were eight to 10 cars and trucks pulled off onto the highway’s shoulder, and around each vehicle was a gaggle of folks looking up a hill at a half-dozen elk. I parked and had just begun to gawk when a fellow came out of a nearby home and said politely, but loudly enough for everyone to hear: “They’re trying to cross the road. You’re blocking their path.”
We got back in the car and moved on toward a few spots where I had previously seen elk. As I drove, I replayed in my head the scene we had just left. I admired that fellow’s civility. If I had been him, and lived in that house, I don’t know that I could have been so polite to a bunch of strangers parked in front of my house.
A short distance up the road we found more people, many with binoculars, observing about 30 elk as they placidly grazed in a large field. Altogether, that afternoon we saw about 100 of the animals. We were surprised at one point by a young one that crossed the highway right in front of our car, went down an embankment, and leapt effortlessly over a fence. We were awed.
With night fast closing in, we stopped for one last look, this time next to a field that held 20 or so elk. We had been there maybe five minutes when one bull tilted its head back and began bugling, making the high-pitched call of a lovesick elk. Then we heard another bugling somewhere back in the woods. The sounds bordered on the surreal.
Savoring the memories of that trip now, I’m thinking it’s about time to head back to Boxley Valley.