Cornered by a Bull Elk at Trapper Lake

Bull Elk Standing Above Trapper Lake
A bull elk in velvet standing in a meadow above Trapper Lake. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The landscape at Trapper Lake was quiet and empty. The nearest camper was 2.5 miles up the trail. The sun was beginning to set and a stillness overtook the lake, producing immaculate reflections. I got my camp setup tucked away in the woods away from the lake, then immediately went to take some photos of the landscapes. A large cascade flows from beaver ponds above the lake, feeding it its primary source of water, produced farther up on Mount Moran. I proceeded to explore the vantage point, but before I could focus on anything, a large bull elk came strutting out of the nearby woods and into the meadow I was on the periphery of, bordered by the lake.

Without a care in the world, let alone concern about me, he headed directly where I was standing. Always willing to avoid a confrontation with wildlife, I quickly leapt across the rushing runoff, my foot getting a bit wet from the last minute escape. I was now stranded between two especially swelled runoffs, with no dry escape likely in either direction. Below me was the lake, above me was the beaver ponds. As for the elk, he was perfectly content to graze on the grass where I was standing. My only move at this point was to wait until he was done.

He was taking his time, though, in no rush to finish with no concern about the consequences of my predicament. While I wasn’t in any immediate danger, a few signs that I’ll eventually need to move were growing more evident. The sun was continuing to sink lower, already behind the mountains when I had arrived. The temperature, with the sun, was cooling rather quickly. Naturally, I was in only in a thin long-sleeve shirt and shorts. To add to the annoyance, mosquitoes were coming out in stronger forces. I was cut off from camp and beginning to get chilly as the minutes began streaming by.

A half-hour came and went and the elk hadn’t budged. My only progress was devising a plot that would see me going around the lake in the opposite direction, but that posed its own unknowns that could end up worse than trying to run by a bull elk. For starters, there was obviously no path, so there would be substantial bushwhacking through some rather dense looking woods, which also happens to make for great sleeping areas for bears. On top of that, I wasn’t sure if I could even safely get across Trapper Lake’s runoff. Even if I did, there were still yet more dense woods to get through. Though a small lake, the journey could easily take another thirty minutes, at which point the elk would surely have moved by then.

With the temperature still falling and mosquitoes homing in on my location I began getting antsy. It was time to take action, but I didn’t have any idea where to start. The bull elk still had yet to move from what must have been a spectacular patch of grass. I thought of throwing a rock behind him to try to startle him a few yards away, enough to at least let me slip by along the lake’s shore. The only problem was I couldn’t find any loose rocks. Then I looked down into the creek and noticed a few lining the bottom. I grabbed one, and lobbed it nearby, but generously away from him, just enough to get him to hopefully move out of concern. All he gave was a slight flinch and never even picked up his head. I got braver and took another firm step toward the creek, but he didn’t care. I began to wonder if he’d care if I crossed, but getting within ten yards of a bull elk wasn’t something I was willing to risk.

The desperation was beginning to sink in. The sun was now very low, the temperature downright chilly for my attire, and I was tired of standing there. The other route had too many unknowns, so I’d have to figure out something else closer to the elk. I looked up the creek for an answer, and found a possible one just up the creek a few steps that wasn’t visible from my previous vantage point. The thick brush lined the creek, but there was an opening where I could squeeze my way through and continue upstream and away from the elk. It was still risky, but thus far it was the least risky plan. My instincts took over and I went right into action.

I leapt onto a rock in the middle of the creek. At last he looked up suspiciously. I paused for a moment, then jumped upstream again and onto the other side, directly behind the bushes, obscured from his view, but his large frame was still visible to me. I was no farther away from him than I was before, but I at least had an out this time. A minute or two passed and he once again resumed his meal. I forced my way rapidly through the bushes with the limbs snapping and shaking as I went through and emerged slightly uphill from him, and yet still looking up at him. I didn’t pause though. Exposed, I continued heading up parallel to the stream and toward the woods where he had originally emerged. I ducked behind some nearby bushes, now a safe distance from him, according to Grand Teton National Park’s recommendations. He resumed eating once again, indifferent to my schemes and plotting.

I safely made it back to camp where I added another layer before heading right back out to see his whereabouts. Naturally, he was already much farther upstream, closer to the woods once again and completely clear of where he was blocking me. I continued shooting more photos around the lake until dark, likely adding another mile simply to avoid his unpredictable ambling.

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