BENEZETTE - Where is Waldo? That is what my brain kept saying after spending three early afternoon hours looking for any sight of roaming elk. Where are they?
One Saturday in September, a friend and I made the trip to the home of the largest herd of roaming elk east of the Rocky Mountains - the small town of Benezette in Elk County - specifically to take pictures and do research for this article.
Two years ago, I visited the area at this time of year and saw about 20 elk. I was absolutely fascinated to see them right along the road and in people's yards.
So my friend and I headed out for the search. She never had seen roaming elk so I was excited for her first experience.
Elk used to roam freely in northeast Pennsylvania but, in 1867, they were all gone.
From 1913 to 1926, the state Game Commission brought Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park, South Dakota and from a private reserve in Pennsylvania to release back into the northwestern counties.
Now the population totals more than 900, and the best place to view them in the wild is in the areas around Benezette.
First, we traveled on an overcast day toward Benezette. Take Interstate 80 west to the Penfield exit past Clearfield; go north on Route 153, then Route 255 toward the towns of Weedville, Caledonia, Medix Run and Benezette on Route 555.
At the "T" in town, follow the signs north, slow and attentive, to Winslow Hill, a sweeping overlook area of the mountains in the distance, the rolling meadows and groves of trees.
As we walked to the wooden rail fence, we searched the landscape with binoculars. Nothing.
"Did you see anything," we asked nearby spectators. "No," was the reply. "Not today."
We traveled down a dirt road adjacent to the Hill viewing area. No elk, but we did see a group of horseback riders doing their version of viewing.
On to the next overlook. Again sweeping views, but no elk. Soon you become obsessed to ask those around you, "Did you see anything?"
The reply was the same: "No. Not today."
A man suggested going to Hick's Run Viewing Area. Off we went again, scouring both sides of the road. Thank goodness the sun finally had come out.
Hick's Run features a blind, a wooden structure with big cutout areas to view the elk but still be protected and out of sight from them. But, no elk. Where was my Waldo?
Time to see what's happening at the visitor center one mile from the "T" in Benezette. The Elk Country Visitor Center opened in 2010.
The beautiful lodge displays stuffed animals, elk racks and hands-on exhibits. Lift a set of elk antlers; how much does it weigh?
Enjoyable features include a 4D theater presentation and interactive displays, such as matching animals with their prints and how to interpret elk bugling, which is their mating call, and whistling.
Outside on weekends, visitors can take a horse-drawn wagon ride over the meadows and through the woods. Sleigh rides are offered in the winter.
Inside the center, a bank of windows overlooks the walking trails and the meadow beyond. Again, no elk in sight.
An elderly volunteer said there were some bulls out that morning and, by twilight, there will be lots of elk in the meadow. By this time, I was a "doubting Thomas."
Leaving the visitor center, we drove to a couple of places we had missed. At the last place, another spectator told us to wait another hour, until about 5 p.m., and there WILL be herds roaming about.
"OK," we thought, "maybe we will stay around."
We went back to the Benezette all-in-one general store, gas station and restaurant. I knew from my previous visit that the food was good though the decor is very basic. Delicious subs, chicken salad sandwiches on pretzel bread, french fries, homemade soup, fish antlers - don't ask me - and, of course, elk burgers.
For dessert, have the delicious specialty, mountain berry pie. There was none for us, though ... the last piece was served to the customer before us. So we settled on yummy blueberry pie and apple pie.
After we ate, it was 5 p.m., so we headed back to the visitors' center. The long winding road to the center was parked full of vehicles. As soon as we exited the car, we saw a large group of people looking out toward the meadow, and there they were! Three cows and two bulls - how exciting!
We followed the trail, where more and more people were gathered - families, people in wheelchairs, Amish families and lots of photographers - and we spotted more and more elk.
Then the bulls started bugling. They stretched out their necks and a guttural sound erupted from their throats. It was an awesome sound and sight.
Everyone lingered, not wanting to miss anything - the bugling, the fighting bulls, the running cows and those bulls that seemed to be walking right toward us, closer and closer.
Spectators are safe, if they follow the rules. Red-vested employees and volunteers constantly remind visitors to stay on the trails and not wander toward any elk.
We probably spotted more than 25 elk that evening. We were so glad we did not give up and leave early.
Our advice is to visit Benezette in the early morning or late afternoon between now and the end of October for the best viewing and bugling times.