Matthew LaGrange of Grapevine, Texas, said he has always been lucky when it comes to seeing wildlife in the parks he has visited. In Colorado last month, the chairman of the Dallas Christian College psychology department had his closest wildlife encounter, and the experience was captured by a photographer.
“It was unbelievable,” said LaGrange, who was attending a church conference in Estes Park, near the east entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. “While it was happening, I didn’t realize how dangerous it was to be within 10 feet of a rutting bull elk.”
During a conference break, LaGrange decided to try his hand at fly-fishing with fellow pastors Dan Scates, who lives near Estes Park, in Loveland, Colo., and George Compton, from Seattle. Scates often fishes along a scenic stretch of the Big Thompson River, and that’s where the anglers headed.
“As we were driving, we saw some elk in the river and I remarked how cool it would be if they came down to the area where we were headed,” LaGrange said. “We hadn’t been fishing long when a cow elk walked out of the trees about 25 feet away and started drinking from the river. We then heard a bull bugle in the distance, and I asked Dan if we should be worried.”
LaGrange’s guide thought it sounded like the bull was quite a distance away, so the men kept fishing. Another cow elk drifted in, then a third and a fourth. The anglers apparently were fishing at a favorite watering spot.
Cars began pulling off the nearby roadway so motorists could view and photograph the spectacle of anglers in proximity with elk.
A mature bull weighs more than 600 pounds and can be very aggressive during breeding season. Elk in a park have little fear of humans, and that makes them particularly dangerous.
One of the cows walked between Compton and LaGrange, who was about to ask his guide what he should do when he heard a noise on the bank and turned to watch a majestic bull appear just 30 feet away.
“It was a dream come true to be that close to such an incredible animal in such a beautiful place,” LaGrange said. “Then I noticed that the bull was looking first at George, then at me, and I began to rethink the situation. I tried to recall what I’d learned in Boy Scouts about whether to avoid eye contact or run from wildlife or just what I should do.”
When the bull walked into the river and began nuzzling a cow just 10 feet from LaGrange, he decided it was time to move away. He momentarily lost his footing on a slippery rock, but he managed to regain his balance and safely retreat from the elk.
“It was an amazing moment,” LaGrange said. “I was literally giddy. I called my wife to tell her what had just happened. It was then that someone said a bull elk had attacked a guy the previous week. It made me wonder if the crowd of observers was waiting to see if that would happen to me.”
LaGrange said he hopes to attend the Estes Park conference again next year but plans to view local wildlife from a safer distance.