Outdoors

The rough and tumble elk rut season

This weekend, why not take the kids out to see some sex and violence?

Translation: Elk rut season, the time when the bulls bugle and occasionally battle to decide who’s the leader of the herd, is beginning. And Friday through Monday, Northwest Trek is offering a family-friendly celebration of this sexed-up time of year.

“Vocally and physically, that’s probably the most active time for the animals,” said Ed Cleveland, the park’s head keeper. “At other times, they’re kind of calm.”

The sounds of the rut – particularly the bugling of the male elk – are probably the most notable part.

The bugling sound is made with the aid of each animal’s “whistling tooth,” Cleveland said.

“It is a haunting sound, a cry of the wild, not really a trumpet-blast so much as a high, alto-sax note, somehow plaintive and challenging at the same time,” Philip Caputo wrote in an article in Field and Stream magazine.

“It’s a very eerie sound,” said Gabby Huffman, Northwest Trek’s lead naturalist. “You don’t expect this high-pitched sound to come from this big of an animal.”

Sex and violence do happen, of course, but they aren’t likely to be inappropriate for children where the elk are concerned.

The breeding usually occurs a bit later in the season. And if it is seen from the tram, Huffman said, “We try to stay in the PG or G rating with our interpretation of what’s going on.”

For a PG-13 version of the elks’ mating rituals, the park offers weekend morning tours by reservation only during September and early October. Bugling and other activities are often seen and heard on regular tram tours at this time of year, too.

As for the battling, a lot of it is about showing strength – and comparing antler size.

“You’ll see more of the pushing and shoving than you will actually a true outright battle,” Cleveland said. “Usually, one will be pushed back enough that he’ll think, I’m out of here.”

“They line up their antlers very carefully so it’s similar to wrestling,” Huffman said. “They’ll push each other back and forth.”

Indeed, the bulls do sound a bit like professional wrestlers.

“Their neck muscles will enlarge,” Cleveland said. “The antlers can weigh 20 pounds on each side. The testosterone is running through them.”

And although it’s not all for show, in 25 years as a keeper, Cleveland has never seen a fight to the death.

“It’s like two teen-age boys,” he said.

“They puff up and challenge each other and maybe take a swing at each other but when it comes down to it, one of them backs down.”

And, he said, it’s a misconception that the winning bull fathers all the calves. Sometimes the lead bull will sap his strength before the cows are ready, and sometimes when two big bulls are competing, a younger one will take that opportunity to mate with a cow.

“Here at the park, when we try to do a pedigree, we list all the males that we have as potential fathers,” he said.

“We’re not necessarily watching every moment.”

Get Out of the Rut

What: Northwest Trek gets ready for the elk rut with a weekend of games, stories and activities.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday

Where: Northwest Trek, 11610 Trek Drive, Eatonville

Tickets: Free with park admission of $15.50, $14 for seniors, $10.50 for ages 5-12, $7.50 for ages 3-4 and free for children 2 and younger

More information: 360-832-6117 or www.nwtrek.org

Elk Bugling Tours

What: These morning tours during rutting season offer visitors a greater chance of seeing and hearing the action. Breakfast is included. The tours get a little more explicit about what’s going on, so they’re for ages 13 and older.

When: From 8 to 10 a.m. Sept. 12, 13, 20, 26 and 27 and Oct. 3 and 4

Where: Northwest Trek, 11610 Trek Drive, Eatonville

Tickets: $47, $45 for members; reservations required

More information: 360-832-6117 or www.nwtrek.org

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