Wild Watch

Hunting for animals with your eyes

Published online: Sep 14, 2018 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors Kris Millgate
Viewed 1282 time(s)

It’s dark. So dark you fumble for your headlamp to light your steps. It’s cold. So cold you scramble for a coat to warm your core. It’s quiet. So quiet the urge to whisper ‘hush’ to your children is strong. They’re excited for the early morning adventure and calm is tough to muster, but they must. The adventure tanks if animals know you're coming.

            The sun is 30 minutes from rising as you leave the lot and trail toward old ranch buildings in Harriman State Park. The fog is a few hours from lifting as you hear cattle calling farther out passed Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, but that’s not the call you’re here to hear. You’re here for elk.

         It’s fall. Bull elk started bugling a few weeks ago.  They’re wild version of challenging the competition and serenading a female. There are plenty of both in Harriman. The park is closed to hunting. Harvest pressure surrounds its borders and the animals know it. That’s why game concentration goes up in Harriman in the fall and that’s why you’re going in.

            You open the gate passed the barn. The kids giggle with anticipation. Horses hoof the dirt thinking you’re there for them, but you’re not. You could ride into the meadow, but the kids are eager. Let them run instead.

            Moisture swirls through the grass in a way that’s creepy in a cemetery, but serene in this place. It means the wind is calm so the sound of bugling elk will carry clearly. This is going to be a solid morning show. You can feel it.

            You switch your headlamp off as the sun comes up. The tree line is 10 minutes away. Moving quick to keep up with skipping babes, you remind them to be silly silently because the wild is close. Two cow elk are eating grass 200 hundred yards away. Their heads pop up, noses sniff our approach. They look. You look. They run. You walk. If you’re lucky, they won’t tell the others you’re coming.

            There’s a two-track trail on the other side of the last fence. You unhinge the wire and wood gate and that’s when you hear it. It grabs your gut deep and you know it’s not a human whistle. It’s the start of a wild scream. A scream that develops into a long, wailing bugle. A bit like a steam engine on rails, but with the pitch of life a train doesn’t have. It’s a bull elk using every note it knows to say, “see me.”

           You see the bull.  A large male half in shadow and in all its glory. Heavy rack, broad chest, sturdy back, strong legs. Head tilted back so far for perfect acoustic delivery that the tips of the points on top of its head seem to scratch along the arch of its spine. Mist curls out of its mouth as it wraps the tune, looks your way then moves into the trees swallowed by full shadow.

            No one speaks. No one moves. Not even the kids. This is what you all woke up early for. Take off your coat and keep watch. The day is rousing and so are the elk.

Things to take



Bear spray



Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho Falls where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. See more of her work at


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