I got a chance last weekend to play hide and seek with a herd of elk and as sunset fell on Buchanan County, I was ready to admit defeat and call it an evening.
My wife and I and another couple, along with our van driver Dalton, had ventured out from Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentucky border to the little town of Vansant in search of Rocky Mountain Elk. I know what you’re thinking and before you go there, let me assure the elk had no trouble reading a map, but were there by design.
We left the Breaks a little after four Saturday afternoon and as we headed east on Route 83, the sun finally broke through after a cloudy day and the coolest one of the fall season. The long and winding road came to an end at an abandoned coal-mining site, one of many that dot the landscape in the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise.
On the drive over, Dalton, a 19-year old park employee from Lick Creek, Kentucky, filled us in on expectations for the evening. Thirty dollars bought you a ride to the elk site, an early dinner consisting of a chicken salad sandwich, slaw, cookies and a bottle of water and hopefully, plenty of elk to see. Dalton, whose primary position in the park is working on the very popular Zipline, doubles as a van driver when the customers for elk viewing outnumber the seats on the bus and on this day, he also had a hand in packing the lunches.
He shared with us on the way over he was always nervous that he wouldn’t find the elk and with good reason. Once we entered the first gate of the site, I was expecting to see an elk on every turn, but by the time we reached the location for our sandwich, we had seen one cow, but we were yet to see a bull.
While we were eating, my friend spotted an elk so far away that we weren’t sure whether it was a cow or bull until it moved enough for us to see a huge rack sitting atop its head. The average Rocky Mountain Elk weighs around 800 pounds, but from that distance, he looked no larger than a Mule Deer.
Primed by this sighting, we headed to what Dalton called the “other side” after the meal, now prepared to get a close look at a bull. Dalton got our hopes up by telling us we were making our way to the area where the largest bull he had seen was located. If only he had told the bull because he was no where to be found. In fact, other than a couple of white-tails, we were getting closer to seeing the sunset than any elk.
After going to every grazing area he was familiar with, Dalton finally pulled over to have a discussion with Avery, the driver of the bus. The conversation was not what you would want to hear if you were hoping to see elk.
“You got any ideas?” Avery asked.
“Not really,” said Dalton. “I don’t know where they could be.”
Avery suggested trying some roads they normally didn’t use and it was on one of these roads where we finally struck paydirt. As we drove along, one of our friends spotted a pair of bull elks and a cow on a hill side off to the left of the van. The cow watched and the bulls, with heads lowered, locked antlers and battled for supremacy and the affection of the cow.
Once the bus arrived and large numbers of viewers got off, the elk had had enough and meandered up the hill and eventually out of sight. With the sun beating a fast path towards bedtime, we headed back to the dining area since it had the best views of the sunset.
I jumped off the van to get a panorama shot of the last rays of sunlight, but as I reached the edge of the plateau, I spotted first two, then three and finally five elk in the valley below. It was the best viewing of the day, just minutes before our day would come to an end.
As we drove back towards the main road, a coyote darted by the van and then continued to run down the road, never leaving the headlights until Dalton stopped to lock the gate and take us back to the Breaks of the Sandy. It was a good day.
Elk Restoration in Virginia
The current restoration project began in 2012. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries supervised the moving of a group of elk from a large herd located in Kentucky. In the last five years, the Virginia herd in Buchanan County has grown to approximately 75 elk.
The original plan called for elk herds to be established in three coal counties, Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise. Residents of Dickenson and Wise counties argued against the introduction of the elk into their counties and the project was limited to Buchanan County.
While elk hunting is allowed in Virginia, it is not allowed in the coal counties and won’t be until the herd has reached a size the DIGF believes can sustain limited hunting.