The big blue bus pulled up outside the lodge at the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg. It was before we were all really awake, to be honest. Our group was eager to find seats and make our way.
There was an autumn chill in the air, and the fog hung heavy above the treetops. Our journey to see the elk had begun. Just 45 minutes earlier, the group inhaled breakfast and strong coffee, fuel for our early morning adventure. As the bus rumbled along the backroads, the sun began to peek out from behind the gracefully arched mountaintops.
Park Naturalist Rodney Gardner threw out tidbits of information that kept our minds occupied during the drive. “Just a couple of mountains over is Loretta Lynn’s home place,” which was later another incredible staple of our tour.
The tour itself can be as unpredictable as the elk, Rodney explained, with viewing best in the fall and winter. After their habitat was compromised by human settlement and over-hunting in the 1880s, the elk population in Kentucky was nearly extinct. In 1997, 1,500 elk were reintroduced into the state. Today the herd is 11,000 strong, making eastern Kentucky the second largest elk population in the country.
The bus made its way to the top of the mountain and came to a stop. The waking mountain, wrapped in early morning stillness with its welcoming chorus of birds was something almost magical. Rodney got his call out, and it echoed through the air. All of a sudden, a lone cow emerged from the grove of trees. She looked over at us for a few minutes and then began to graze. Her silhouette cut an awe-inspiring sight in the pink fog that lingered on the field.
Next, we gathered on the airplane taxiway. Rodney began calling. Within minutes, we all heard a long whistle pierce the air: a bugle. The bull answered twice. The sound was haunting. As the elk emerged, we learned they are larger than imaginable, with weight teetering on 700 pounds.
For me, this tour was an inspiring look at the mysteries of a creature in its natural habitat and the thrill of a chance encounter. After all, the world belongs to the elk again, and their home is preserved and restored. I feel lucky to have caught a glimpse, and I am satisfied to know they are thriving once more.
Eastern Kentucky has the second largest elk population in the country.
The Floyd County coal mining town of Butcher Holler is the birthplace of country music legend Loretta Lynn.
The Sugarcamp Mountain Trail System has many breathtaking views.