Janette Harrison knew the elk was in trouble when she saw it.
The large bull was buried up almost halfway by a slide of mud and debris that must have caught it when the spring thaw had roared through the canyon.
The view of Ghost Creek had taken her breath away when she first got there, not from its usual beauty, but from the huge change that had come over it. Instead of the two small creek branches forging their way around an isolated island in the middle, the whole area was flooded over with just a few hundred feet of swamp above the water level. Fallen logs connected the tiny scrap of land to the mountainside, but the scene was unrecognizable from her past visits.
The poor elk was pinned at the edge closest to Janette, facing the prospect of death from water or predator.
Janette dropped her heavy pack on the ground. It was filled with slices of salt block in small wooden boxes, her tools for the day. The town of Kemper had boomed during the last five years and the spreading population had begun to overrun the elk’s normal spring feeding. Freedom Conservationists, a group that Janette and her friend Gary belonged to, were setting up a salt lick on the other side of the mountain to lead the elk away from the town. Gary was getting the main lick in place while Janette blazed a trail to it.
Janette glanced down at the water and back at her pack. Not knowing what she’d need when she got over there, she took her knife, rope, and flare gun from the pack and shoved them into her jacket. If she got stuck with the elk, the flare gun might at least get Gary’s attention.
Carefully, she crossed the most stable of the logs. Janette approached the elk with great caution. It craned its head around and bugled a warning at her. She backed away and surveyed the situation. The bull’s eyes were bloodshot and he looked exhausted. A wall of mud four feet high had buried the elk’s hind legs. Driftwood and a heavy rock topped the deathtrap.
Finding a tree away from the water, Janette tied off her rope and made her way back down the hill where the elk lay. The bull swung his head to face her. It warned her again and lunged with its front feet, but its hind quarters were stuck fast. Janette stayed far from the elk as she searched for and found a stout branch about four inches thick. She wedged the stick under the large rock and put a smaller rock underneath it to act as a fulcrum. Janette strained with all her might, but the rock barely moved.
Leaving herself a little bit of slack, she tied the rope around her waist. Using her stick, she drew a thin line from the boulder to the edge of the rising river, at an angle away from the bull. She cleared away what debris she could by hand. Going down to the stream, she used the stick to bash the dirt at the edge into the water. The water rewarded her by rushing into the gap and eating toward the rock that pinned the elk to the ground. Again and again, using the strong current to her advantage, she gouged away at the bank.
When the boulder finally rolled, it was all that Janette could do to dive out of the way as it rolled into the stream with a crash.
The elk lunged free and headed straight for Janette.
Dodging to her right, away from the deadly hooves, Janette felt the bite of the icy water as she slid in and was yanked downstream. The rope around her waist caught and jerked her so hard that she thought she’d come apart. Her head snapped back as she was thrown against the bank.
She strained at the rope and pulled until she could get one leg up on the bank to use as leverage. Within minutes, she was safely lying on the ground not far from where the elk had been trapped. Her hands shook from a mix of adrenalin and cold.
The elk was just disappearing across one of the logs and into the trees above the trail.
“Not so much as a thank you,” she said to herself through chattering teeth.
Straining and hurting from head to toe, she made her way back to her pack. One ankle was swollen and there was an ugly welt around her waist where the rope had torn off a belt loop and slid above her pants.
She had a spare shirt and changed into that quickly, but there was nothing she could do about her jeans and boots. She shouldered her pack and made her way slowly up Pitchfork Trail, laying slices of salt to lure the elk to this side of the mountain. She heard Gary before she saw him coming so she sat down to rest.
“Hey, Janette. You look wet. Did you fall into the stream or something?” Gary asked as he caught sight of her.