Alice Trindle has seen thousands of elk, but her voice is full of awe when she spots the five bulls wading across the snowy meadow.
Alice Trindle, holding antler, shares facts about elk with the Davis family from Utah — from left, Dalton, Miranda, Brooklyn, Lisa and Ethan. (Baker City Herald/KathyOrr)
“Oh, wow,” she says.
As she watches, the bulls emerge from the forest to join a herd of 150 Rocky Mountain elk already gathered at the Anthony Creek feed site west of North Powder.
These five look like they just awakened after a night of indulgence — they walk slowly, and one has frayed orange baling twine wrapped around his antlers like a wild party favor.
“He got into somebody’s haystack,” says Susan Triplett.
Triplett and Trindle, who own T&T Wildlife Tours, have for the past 18 winters offered horse-drawn rides at this feed site run by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
ODFW runs 10 feed sites along the base of the Elkhorn Mountains, a program, started in 1971, designed to keep hungry elk away from ranchers’ haystacks.
The Anthony Creek site is the only place where the public can see the elk up close and personal.
And, Trindle says, this is the only place in Oregon visitors can take a horse-drawn ride to the viewing area.
From Baker City, go north to Haines then turn left onto Anthony Lakes Highway. Follow the signs for “Wildlife Viewing.”
T&T offer rides every Saturday and Sunday, with the first at 10:30 a.m. and the last at 2 p.m. Each trip lasts about 30 minutes.
It’s best to arrive between 10:30 and 1 p.m. to ensure a ride. If no crowd is waiting in the afternoon, Triplett and Trindle take the horses home rather than make them stand around in the cold.
After parking in the plowed area, visitors pay their way — $7 adults and $5 children — and then walk a short distance down the hill to the loading area.
Those unable to walk down can catch a ride from Mike Moore, who is helping with the tours this year.
Visitors ride on the “people wagon” — a sturdy metal trailer designed by Trindle’s dad, Bill, who passed away several years ago. The wagon is accessed by metal steps, or by an electric ramp for those in wheelchairs.
“We think it’s pretty unique,” Trindle said.
The wagon is pulled by two black Percheron horses named Waylan and Jed. Though nearly identical, Jed is identified by his floppy right ear.
After everyone’s seated, Trindle gives the command and the horses head to the elk.
T&T acquired the Percherons three months ago, and took a few trial runs to get them familiar with pulling the wagons, hearing the chatter of riders and also being surrounded by 150 elk.
They did fine.
“The elk were the least of their worries,” Triplett said.
Trindle stops the wagon in the midst of the elk herd where cows, calves and bulls munch away on the hay that Triplett, Trindle and Moore distributed before visitors arrived.
“We’re feeding them to keep them here instead of going to the valleys,” Moore tells the riders. “If we didn’t feed them, they’d migrate down and eat the ranchers’ haystacks.”
Then he turns the tour over to Trindle, who talks about the elk’s life cycle, behavior and antlers.
“Antlers are amazing,” she said. “They are the fastest growing bone in the animal kingdom.”
As she talks, one bull standing about 10 yards away holds his head up to survey his audience, then turns to the side to offer a better view — and pose for the cameras.
In addition to the live examples around the wagon, Trindle illustrates her talk by holding up a 6-point antler shed by a bull.
Triplett found the antler while riding her horse in the summer of 2007. She compared it to photos from past winters, and is pretty sure it came from the bull they affectionately named Dennis the Menace because he would roust the other elk that dared to rest after breakfast.
Dennis returned year after year, but he didn’t show up last winter.
“We think it was a parting gift for Susan,” Trindle said.
They have names for many of the bulls — “Scoop Loop” for one whose eye guards scoop upward, and “Curious George” for the elk that walks right up to the haystack while they load bales on the wagon.
Percherons Waylan and Jed pull the people wagon to the elk feeding site. The horses are new this year, and went through a few trial runs to learn the ropes. This is the 19th winter that T&T Wildlife Tours has hauled visitors to a meadow where elk munch alfalfa hay.(Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr)
They named George last winter, and this year a bull returned with the same behavior, but a bigger rack.
“We’re pretty sure it’s Curious George — he just gained a couple points,” Trindle said.
This year has also brought a good crop of healthy calves who are still a bit skittish around the horses and wagon.
“They’re not as used to us and our crazy tricks, but they’re catching on,” Trindle said.
To learn more about T&T Wildlife Tours, call 856-3356 or visit their Web site at www.tnthorsemanship.com and click on “Wildlife Tours.”