By Bob Holzhei
The Pigeon River Country State Forest, consisting of 110,000 acres spread over three counties in the state, is located at Gaylord, MI. It is a tourist destination where visitors can view elk in their natural habitat. “Elk viewing is one of the most popular area activities,” according to Kristie Walcott, Director of Marketing & Communications with the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau. The Gaylord CVB even has an elk viewing page on the tourism bureau’s website.
“Four staff members take care of the elk and the herd is overseen by a licensed veterinarian that provides medical care on an “as needed basis,” stated Alan Zielenski, Supervisor, Department of Public Works, city of Gaylord.
I was spellbound as the very slow tour drive began in the fenced in area. As the outing began, my mind traveled back in time to an earlier era. I found myself in the late 1800’s traveling in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of horses on the frontier. I reminisced how my great, great, grandparents might have lived.
“In the late 1800’s there was a business called Project Nature that housed a variety of wildlife, including elk. When Project Nature closed in the early 90’s, the elk were moved to their location on city property. This also makes our Elks Lodge, the only ‘Live” Elks Lodge in the nation,” added Zielenski.
We did not want to spook the elk lying nearby. Many elk were lying along the fence line under the cover of shade from the sun. Photos captured the many majestic elk. In this case, a picture was worth a thousand words. I felt like I was traveling back to an earlier era in wild Michigan when the land was unspoiled. In a time of settlers within small hamlets, forging out a life in the wilderness for their families.
What is the history behind the current elk herd? Elk were extinct in Michigan during the 1800’s. In 1918, seven Mountain Rocky Elk were relocated to Gaylord from the Western United States. The herd grew to 1,500 elk in the nearly 1960’s, dropping down to 200 elk in the mid-1970’s, due to poaching and reduced habitat quality. Over the past 40 years, public and private elk wildlife management has contributed to the success of the current population. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been a vital part of the rehabilitation of the elk herd. The habitat consists of open and natural forested areas. The unspoiled surroundings are the result of cutting timber, planting crops and controlled burns.
Gaylord has a City Elk Park allowing visitors to view the elk from their cars. Currently in the park there are 30 bulls and 10 cows in a 108-acre fenced in area. Feed for the elk each week consists of four round bales of hay, a supply of sugar beets, corn and vitamins.
The older bulls fight for dominance and the opportunity to breed the cows. “One time two bulls were fighting, while a smaller bull went to service a cow,” added Zielenski. Observation details including maps with directions are available at the Gaylord Information Center. An additional elk viewing experience is available at Thunder Bay Resort located at Hillman, MI.
“People started requesting information on elk viewing opportunities. In addition, we offer a wagon or sleigh ride through the forest, arriving at a log cabin where a gourmet meal is provided to our guests, cooked on 125-year-old cook stoves,” added Jack Matthias at Thunder Bay Resort. This unique outdoor opportunity has become so popular that making reservations ahead of time is recommended.
Thunder Bay Resort has been recognized as “one of America’s Best Attractions! The award-winning elk viewing, horse-drawn sleigh or carriage ride, gourmet dinner and wine tasting event is ‘a real fairy tale’ as was declared by USA Today. Fox News Online declared it as ‘a Top Ten’ event!
The horse-drawn carriage or sleigh ride whisks guests “over the river and through the woods,” to the resort’s elk preserve to view Rocky Mountain Elk in their natural habitat. At the Elk Antler Cabin a warm fire awaits with a gourmet dinner including a pear & apple dumpling, shrimp cocktail, homemade chicken noodle soup, a sweet Napa salad & croissant, crown roast of pork with roasted skinned potatoes and a white chocolate mousse filled with pizzelles with fresh raspberries.
“Elk viewing dinner rides have now become part of destination weddings, holiday parties, and murder mystery weekends. With five carriages or sleighs, the capacity for the experience is 104 guests,” added Matthias. This year Thunder Bay Resort celebrates its 30th year anniversary. Over 120,000 folks have experienced the magic of an elk bugle and a gourmet meal! In concluding, Zielenski said, “Gaylord is known as a four-season outdoor recreation area offering boating, fishing, hunting, swimming, kayaking, rafting, hiking, biking and golf during the summer months. Come visit with us.”