By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
The GPS said it was a seven-hour shot via highway from Tupelo to where the thriving, free-ranging herd of elk was in Kentucky – which seemed an impossibility, but it was true.
Reestablished deep in the heart of coal country, in near-vertical counties home to some of the hardiest outdoorsmen found anywhere, the kings of the mountain have returned to a land that, by birth, once was theirs.
This herd is in its 12th year of huntability, a condition that seems set only to increase.
The elk were here before man and, for a long time, with man. Daniel Boone walked among them in the late 1700s as he led exploration of the territory and, after a hiatus of 150 years, their bugles echo through the valleys again. Still, the scenario all seems so out of place.
Almost like herds of long-extinct dinosaurs on Isla Nublar in Michael Crichton’s work of fiction, the elk have reappeared unchanged into a world that is somehow different, but this is no Jurassic Park. Kentucky’s herd occupies land reclaimed after strip mining, a process that replaces and reforests the mountaintops after coal has been extracted. Along ridgelines far older than the Rockies of the West, these Appalachian foothills have yielded their seams of treasure, but today they yield treasure still.
Another friend and I tagged along on Danny Cash’s hunt there earlier this week and the adventure was everything you’d find in the Rockies minus the altitude. The angles were steep but, rather than aspen white and gold, the colors were orange and red of the turning leaves on oak and gum, rough bark black in the rain.
The open meadows were wide, but they traded the West’s sage and sarvisberry for Johnson grass and blackberry briar. The mountains were the same in spirit, offering their own challenges. They defied forecasts of blue bird days and delivered changing weather at their whimsy. Fog became cloud became rain and the three rolled across peaks and snaked through valleys, flowing in the cold heart of a wind that moved like a silent river in the sky.
The elk, though, the elk were just the same. Wary as their western kin, followers of the same instinct, absolute masters of the dirt beneath their feet, the elk were what they’ve always been.
Walking the land they walk is a soul-quieting experience wherever they’re found, and hunting them connects us to nature in a way nothing else can. It’s comforting to know that connection can be made so close to home.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.