Anyone who's frightened by noises in the night and is planning to hike Pennsylvania's remote Quehanna Trail, take note: The ungodly wailing that sometimes drifts through the dark woods is only an animal. Granted, it's a beast the size of a midsize car and crazed by hormone-induced lust, but it's generally harmless.
Elk, an icon of the West, also roam the big woods of north-central Pennsylvania. Eastern elk were hunted to extinction in this part of the state by the 1860s, but a herd of western elk was introduced around 1915, and the species has thrived in the appropriately named Elk State Forest.
Hikers on the 73-mile Quehanna Trail, which
loops through Elk and Moshannon Forests, are more likely than anyone to see and hear this eastern wildlife oddity. The trail travels through some of the wildest country in Pennsylvania and treats backpackers to campsites in spectacular stands of white birch trees.
During the rut (mating) season of fall, Pennsylvania's elk are highly active. Bulls are on the prowl forming harems. To get females to come hither and to ward off competitors, males throw back their massive antlered heads and bugle, sometimes all night. The eerie sound, which can carry for miles, begins with a low bellow that rises to a wavering high pitch and is held until the suitor runs out of breath. For good measure, the bull adds a series of grunts. In this neck of the Northeast, it's an exciting call of the wild.
From I-80 in DuBois, take PA 255 north for 25 miles. Turn onto PA 555 east and continue for 5 miles to Medix Run Road. Turn right and drive several miles to the Quehanna trailhead.
Mid-September to mid-October.
The Elk of Pennsylvania, by Ralph Harrison (Pennsylvania Forestry
Association, 814-766-5371; $8). Pennsylvania Hiking Trails, edited by Barbara Wiemann, (Keystone Trails Association, P.O. Box 251,
Cogan Station, PA 17728; www.kta-hike.org; $17.50).
Elk State Forest District, (814) 486-3353; www.state.pa.us/forestry. Free maps of Quehanna Trail are available upon request.