I recently stretched my “Pennsylvania Wilds” horizons by visiting the western headwaters of the Sinnemahoning, the elk country near Benezette, PA. Along with wife Leighanne, son Brent, and Catherine (Brent’s partner), I enjoyed a ramble through the little mountain town in Elk County, Pennsylvania.
On our first approach to Benezette along State Route 555, we knew we were getting close when we came to a roadside picnic area with what appeared to be a large statue of an elk. We joined several other vehicles pulling off to have a look at things. We had just passed Medix Run, the stream where George Harvey learned to fly fish when a kid, a stream where at least one U.S. President also got to do a little casting. We had passed the mouth of Medix where the stream mixes into the larger Bennett Branch Sinnemahoning (a polluted water due to acid run off from the nearby coal fields). I knew for certain we were tourists when I heard Catherine exclaim to Brent, our driver, “Stop! It’s alive! I saw it move!” She was right, a bull elk was moving there amidst a group of out-of-towners taking photographs. The young folk among us were urban dwellers, but they knew a live elk when they saw one!
The bull was shy but unafraid as it slowly walked away and as we followed. A second bull joined us (lots of bull, for sure!) on a well-worn path through the woods. The animals entered the clear and sterile waters of the Sinnemahoning. Elk are clearly much larger than deer, larger than everything in their family other than the moose. Bull elk weigh anywhere from 700 to 1000 pounds. We watched these two step cautiously across the stream and disappear.
From Benezette village (heart of the 835 square miles of elk country in the state) we drove several miles uphill to the modern Elk Country Visitors Center off of Winslow Hill Road. The center functions as an interesting, interactive hub of all the elk viewing in the state. In fact, there were plenty of elk viewing areas all around Benezette, but the mild mountain air had us feeling hungry so we passed them by in favor of the Benezette Hotel and Restaurant where (after viewing more elk– mainly females and young– in the village proper) we ordered the renowned elk burger that’s produced from farm-raised animals. Elk, in my opinion, tastes a little gamey at first, like strong venison, but it went down very well with all the trimmings and a jar of beer. In this case, eating a bit of elk seemed like a good way to get acquainted with the essence of an unfamiliar animal, even if it came from a domestic yard rather than the wild.
I had seen my first Pennsylvania elk years before while fishing Cross Fork Creek in Potter County. The encounter was unexpected and amazing. I remember thinking at first that I had stumbled on alien deer or horses on that forested stream. This was Pennsylvania and not the Rocky Mountains, for crissakes. But doing a little research I realized that elk (aka wapiti) were native to the state; they had been exterminated by the 1860s and then become the subject of a reintroduction effort in the early 20th century. In 1913 the PA Game Commission started the introduction of 177 elk from Yellowstone National Park to the wilder districts of northern and central Pennsylvania. The most successful planting of elk occurred near Benezette where the herd slowly grew to about 800 wild animals today.
Fall is a great time to view these animals. It’s the elk rutting season, and the bugling of elk is common music along the Bennett Branch Sinnemahoning Valley. With the onset of winter, elk have come down from the high pasturelands for the relative ease of valley life. The animals are an everyday sight in and around Benezette. Hunting is allowed on a minimal basis. A small number of elk hunting licenses are granted by lottery each autumn to help maintain a healthy herd. It’s fun to encounter these massive ungulates in a scenic Pennsylvania landscape.
After we ate a bit of domestic elk and tasted beer and wine at the Benezette Hotel, we stepped out to the car, but had to pause for one more look at a group of elk. Five animals had grazed down to a grassy expanse directly across the street.