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NATURE HAPPENINGS - January 2002

Wapiti, Wapiti
by Damian Fagan

Mr. FaganElkIt is a cold January evening, several years past. We drive through the stillness of night, our headlights illuminating the large hoar frost crystals that form atop the layer of snow. The crystals sparkle like the eyes of my long-gone father when he was in one of his trickster Irish moods.
We pass through thickets of gnarled Gambel’s oak, their leafless branches like the hands of some ancient crone clawing at the sky. Past the oaks the road rises gently and enters a dark forest of silent pines and clown-white aspens. This is our destination, our starting point, our entry point into the unfamiliar, yet comforting world of night.

As we pile out of the truck arranging hats and gloves and skis, the warmth of our ride vaporizes like water droplets on a hot skillet. The force of the heat dissipating into the cold night air is great enough to upset my balance, causing me to topple over onto the snow-packed surface. At least that is the excuse I use. I lay there momentarily staring upwards at a sliver of sky framed by towering trees. Most of the sky is bathed in high clouds, few stars are visible, and the moon, full as an expecting woman, casts a bright glow from its heavenly perch.

Minus the occasional friendly jab about “whose ideas was this any ways,” the night is still like a pane of glass. Though we try to keep our voices’ low, it seems as if we are shouting. Our words ring through the aspens and are lost in the blend of darkness and light.

Wapiti, wapiti, wapiti, wapiti, wapiti, wapiti...We set off, our skis gliding over tracks we laid down several days ago. The snow is deeper off of the road, so we slide along the roadway, climbing higher into the night. Only the thin layer of hoar frost seems to separate the sky from the earth.

From somewhere ahead of us comes sound, indistinguishable at first, then gradually shaped by their form. The movement of elk, several in the group by our guess, are moving parallel to us, brushing aside limbs and small trees as if they are but faint, summer cares. There are snorts and grunts, blasts of air as the animals try out our scents, test who is out there. We never see the wapiti, named by the Plains Indians for the light-colored rumps. The name “elk” is a misnomer, albeit argued only by zoologists, but it is the name English colonists gave this magnificent beast, even though it was actually a name used to describe a European moose. Nomenclature aside, these large ruminants move through the cover of darkness and disappear into the forest. We never see them again, but tracks of their passage cross and line the roadway.

Great Horned OwlWe continue higher along the road, climb out of the ponderosa and into ghostly forests of aspens. Able to regenerate vegetatively by suckering, supposedly somewhere in Colorado a huge grove of aspen grows and is considered to be the largest living creature on the planet. These groves here on the back sides of the La Sals don’t seem that immense; they are bisected by numerous roads and open meadows. We expect to hear an owl in this forest, its deep hoots barreling over the frozen ground. But there is no sound, nothing but the twinkling of stars far overhead.

Eventually, we turn around. The hour has gotten late and we are tired from a long day and longer night. We aim our skis downhill, get up some speed and feel surreal as we move through the forest we can barely see. At the truck we unclip from bindings and laugh and joke about the blurry downhill ride. As we load our gear into the back of the truck we feel elated, honored to have been a part of this night, and feel fortunate to have shared the cold with some hungry elk going wapiti, wapiti through the forest.

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