Sunday was the opening act for what is shaping up to be a stellar autumn in the Ozarks.
Elk starred in this show which included cameo appearances from whitetailed deer, wild turkeys, armadillos and a special guest star, a golden eagle.
My adventuring partner and I largely suspended our travels around the state during the heat wave, but the arrival of cooler weather has put us on the road again. Our destination Sunday was Steel Creek Recreation Area in Newton County near Ponca.
Our first stop was at Ozone Recreation Area, a delightful U.S. National Forest Service campground on Arkansas 21. This is one of my favorite places to visit in the fall. The campground comprises about a dozen spacious sites in a long loop beneath an airy canopy of mature pines and hardwoods. A stiff wind hissed loudly through the trees, creating a virtual storm of confetti from dislodged leaves.
This place has a unique scent in the fall, and also a distinctive feel. Clouds crawled swiftly across the azure sky, accented by the glare of richly diffused light.
I have camped at Ozone scores of times since October 1987. Several of the annual Crutchfield Family squirrel hunts have been held here. It was also the headquarters for a remarkable deer hunt with Mesfer Al Hlafi nearly a decade ago. Site No. 5 is my usual headquarters, but I have camped in them all.
From there, it was a short drive to Boxley Valley. On the way to Fallsville, my passenger swore she saw a 12-point buck feeding at the edge of the woods near the road. She called the tines horns.
"I wouldn't have seen it if it hadn't thrown its head up when we went past," she said. "It had twelve horns. I swear it did." Her tone defied me to dispute her.
We doubted our passenger once before while driving to Tyler Bend Recreation Area. She said she saw turkeys in a field at an impossibly far distance. Her nephew and I said they were probably vultures or crows. Incensed, she demanded that we turn around and look. She had indeed seen a flock of wild turkeys at an impossibly far distance. She felt vindicated and dared us to ever dispute her again.
In Boxley Valley, elk were still in the shade of the woods, so we made a quick stop at the Ponca General Store before crossing the mountain to Steel Creek. At the entrance to Steel Creek in 1993, I met Jurgen Heisse of Stuttgart, Germany. He and his wife were riding through the Ozarks on a tandem bicycle. Heisse emptied his packs to show me all of his gear. His pride and joy was his portable espresso machine.
Because, Heisse said, a trip of that magnitude required some allowances for decadence.
At Steel Creek, my companion and I parked near the bathroom and walked downriver past the first bend on a gravel bar. A meager amount of water trickled through a rock garden before entering a deep pool immersing a giant boulder. The watercourse has changed a lot in 30 years, partly because of a rock fall that occurred in 2014 when a massive chunk of sandstone sheared away from the face of the bluff. Before that happened, I used to catch fish from the parking lot to well past the boulder pool.
A leisurely picnic ended at about 6 p.m. My companion was anxious to return to Boxley Valley while it was still light so we could see elk. The fields were empty until we reached the southern end of the valley. Two big bulls were in a field near the river. The walked quickly to join a cow and another bull in a separate field. Periodically they stopped, locked horns and sparred lightly. We could hear their antlers clacking. They were a long way distant and did not appear to be approaching the road.
"That's probably all we're going to see here," I said. "Let's go back toward Ponca and see if any are in those fields."
A mass of dark shapes in a different field compelled me to stop. They were nine wild turkeys feeding contentedly. Exiting the truck, I called to them with a diaphragm that I keep in keep in my glove box. The turkeys stood erect as I called, and then they started chasing each other around the field. I glanced down the valley and saw the tawny bodies of elk glowing in the evening light.
We parked on the road to the Ponca canoe access on the Buffalo River. Fifty yards from the gate were 30 elk. Most were cows, but there were also three yearling bulls. Presiding over the harem was a monstrous 5x5 bull with a neck swollen from hormones, rubbing antlers against trees and fighting.
The herd bull had a special dislike for a young 2x2 bull that showed a little too much interest in the cows. The herd bull wanted to teach the upstart a lesson, but the upstart maintained a healthy distance. Having vanquished the young bull, the herd bull inspected several of the cows. One in particular commanded his attention, but she was yet ready for breeding. Soon, the herd bull lost interest in the cow and started feeding, his rear to the herd.
A second bull entered the field alone. He had a tall, wide, 6x6 rack, but its body was smaller and lighter than that of the herd bull. He strode purposefully to the edge of the herd. Most of the cows moved quickly toward the herd bull, but the challenger cut off four cows from the harem.
That's when the herd bull turned to see what was causing the commotion. He walked quickly toward the challenger, forcing the challenger to abandon the cows and retreat to the edge of the woods. As the challenger grazed, the herd bull pawed the ground with its front hooves and plowed the dirt with his antlers. He threw back his head and belted out a loud bugle and then lay down in front of the cows, glaring menacingly at the challenger.
"He's a year away from seriously challenging the old boy," I said, "Next year he will be in his prime, and he'll run the old guy off."
They maintained their standoff until after sunset. It was mostly peaceful, but their activity will get more intense in the coming weeks.