Come to Benezette in the winter and experience serenity

Life is good in Benezette all year long. But in the winter, life is serene. And if you are a fan of Pennsylvania’s wild elk herd, now may be the time to plan a visit.

Elk County, Pennsylvania is known as the home of a vast majority of Pennsylvania’s 1000-head wild elk herd. And Benezette is the epicenter of the greatest nature show of fall: the elk rut season. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the area during August, September, and October every year to witness the magnificent mating season of the elk.

Winslow Hill Road which starts in downtown Benezette is jammed with visitors during the rut because there is a good chance of seeing elk up close from there. Traffic slows to a halt as cars dive to the edge of the road when an elk is spotted. Since the road is already narrow, when cars are parked along each side of the roadway, sometimes only a sliver of roadway is left for drivers to negotiate. As exciting as it is to see elk, visitors quickly learn that patience is a highly regarded virtue when driving Winslow Hill.

But once the rut reason winds down, and the bugling grows silent, the town returns to a sense of normalcy. A drive up Winslow Hill Road is like any other drive without traffic jams. Cabin and cottage rentals are more easily found, especially on weekdays. And wait lines vanish.

The good news is that even though the tourists have gone home, the wild elk continue to live in the area and are still quite easily seen. They are as magnificent as ever. Maybe even more magnificent.

Imagine a beautifully huge, wooly-brown, antlered bull elk silhouetted against a white snow background. It doesn’t get much more artistic than that! And they are here, as if waiting for enraptured fans to visit them again.

Brenda Maholtz, owner of Hazelnut Cottage, a tiny upscale cottage in the center of town chatted recently about life after the tourists go home. She is a school bus driver by day and a part-time waitress by night at the Benezette Hotel, one of the best places around to grab something to eat. “We are still here during the winter. The roads may be a little difficult to navigate depending on the weather, but it’s a great place to live and to visit.” Brenda’s place is usually booked months in advance, as is every place in the area. But during the winter, some openings come available. And there is nothing like the convenience of staying right in the center of the elk action.

Sylvia Ruffo from Benezette Wines echoes Brenda’s sentiments. During the tourist season, the winery has long lines and is filled with the hubbub of people coming in and out of the store. Now, in the winter, there is time to chat. And to share stories. Want to know where the elk are frequenting lately? There is time to ask. Want an update on the status of the township roads since the last snow storm? In comes her husband who has been plowing in the township plow truck and willingly answers your questions. Be sensible and think before you go on some of the isolated back roads, but by all means, enjoy yourself. If you visit, be sure to check out their Elk Life souvenirs and their great coffee.

The Benezette Hotel still hums with activity once it opens at 11 am every day. But getting a table there is easier these days than during the fall tourist season. The food is still terrific, the atmosphere is still the same, but the lines aren’t as long.

Do the elk seem different during the winter? Yes and No. The mountains no longer reverberate with the sounds of bugling and there is no need for the bulls to rush around protecting their harem of cows from other bulls. The is a real relaxed sense here now.

The bulls still have their antlers (the antlers shed in March) and they still frequent their favorite spots. A drive along Winslow Hill often results in a chance to see elk. Visit the places tourists visit in the fall and more than likely elk will still frequent the same area. Just remember to search at first light and last light of the day.

Elk are perfectly suited to winter weather. All of the elk have a wooly winter coat of fur now which does a great job of insulating the animal from the cold. Elks’ bodies are also built to produce a particular type of heat. Elk are ruminants, which means they have rumen in their stomach that helps digest their food. But as a by-product of the digestive process, rumen also produces heat. Those big heavy legs also help them navigate heavy snow and dig up forage under the snow.

And stands of evergreen work well for places to rest and sleep, away from the harsh winter weather. Look for elk to shelter on south or southwest facing slopes which often have some protection from the wind and have good sun exposure.

But there is one major difference in what a visitor will see when they spot elk in the winter. There are “clubs” of elk these days.

The cows herd together with their calves and with some the younger elk, those with small spike antlers, antlers that are single with no branches on them. It’s the “Cows Club”. And they will herd together until the rut season again in the fall. There will be a time in the early summer when some of the cows will leave the group to give birth to their calves. But once the calves are a few weeks old, they will join the group again. There is safety in numbers for all of them.

The adolescent bull elks herd together during the winter too. On our last visit, we ran into what I dubbed the “Cool Kids Club”. A group of rag-horn and spike male elks were herded together. They nuzzled one another, played together, and even sparred with one another in play fights. The rag-horns sported antlers of 3 to 5 branches or points. It was fun to watch their antics together. Someday, they will move into the older bulls’ group.

The third group of elk we saw during our last visit were what we dubbed “the Old Bulls Club”. The smallest bull elks in these groups had antlers with six points. But many of the bulls in the winter herd were much bigger, with many sporting 7 and 8 tines on each antler. It felt that this group was “by invite only”. And there was no animosity among any of the bull elks who only months before were battling each other for mating rights to the cows. During the winter, all of the elk are quite content to be together. It does really feel serene in Elk County in winter. And it is fascinating to see so many big bull elk in close proximity to one another. It’s a real heart-thumper.

It was gratifying to see the elk herd in good shape as they survive the winter months. The health of the wild elk herd rests on the management of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. They ably plan for the health of the herd. Another major player in the work that is done with the wild herd is the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, an organization located just outside Benezette. The non-profit organization provides assistance in improving hundreds of acres of land in the middle of the elk habitat surrounding their headquarters and in orchestrating conservation education programs across the nation.

In the winter, the Keystone Elk Country Alliance Visitors Center on the Winslow Hill Road is open on weekends. Feel free to visit and see the great work they are doing in support of the wild elk herd.

As a photographer, seeing elk in the snow is an experience that ranks among the best. But a few “rules of engagement” remain. A long telephoto lens allows for great photos without stressing the elk. Elk are huge animals and although they may be acclimated to humans, they are wild animals and need to be respected. Keep a distance from any elk you see. (100 feet or more.) I take my cues from their body language. They always watch me. If they seem alerted or stressed I back away. Use trees and other barriers to stay back and to give them space. Although the elk seem more docile now than in the rut, don’t be complacent. Be safe.

Do you want to try your hand at photographing elk in the winter? Then come to Benezette and see what art you can create.

If you want to experience all that Benezette has to offer in a more relaxed atmosphere, then come experience what serenity feels like.

And if you want to see Pennsylvania’s wild elk herd as they live their days in a more relaxed post-rut atmosphere, then come now.

Benezette…and the elk…await.