Closer and closer they came, a dozen or more, until they congregated in a tight knot by the snow fence, a snow fence that is permanently in place, here in this land where the peaks of the mountains are always white. Where two weeks ago, in June, snow was still falling. Where waterfalls tumble into rivers that run so fast their water churns up green and brown.
The elk stood by the now-closed gate in the fence. They were used to passing through the gate at this time of day, walking across the dirt road, and grazing in the green pasture on the other side. Now there was a horse in that pasture, and so the gate was closed.
The elk stood uneasily on the other side of the fence.
If they wanted to, they could just leap it, said someone who has watched the elk for many days now. You can’t believe how high they can jump.
The elk did not jump. They stood in their tight cluster, conferring. It looked as though they were having a planning meeting.
The gate is closed. What should we do?
Eventually, one of the elk turned and faced the direction from which they had come. He lifted his head toward the mountains and began walking. The other elk turned and followed. Something startled them and they began to run, back across the green meadow, up and over the rise, disappearing in the distance.
The horse in the pasture began to run then too. He had once been a wild horse, a Nokota, and someone had worked with him for years until he allowed that someone to ride him. He had acres of grassland to run on, ridges to hide behind, dips to take shelter in, and in winter his coat grew long and shaggy so that he was happy to stay outside in all weather.
Farther down the road there was a gravel pit, and a den within it that contained a fox and his family. The fox had been courted by a man who lived nearby, and over time lost his wariness enough so that he would appear at dusk and carry food given to him by the man back to his fox family.
In the nearby town, bighorn sheep lolled in the sun in front of a small church. Their coats were falling off in clumps of fur, smooth undercoat visible beneath.
The nest of a river eagle rose high beside the dirt road, long ribbons trailing from it.
You are in grizzly country, every sign at every entrance to the park read. Be aware.