Back in late December, while visiting Gwen’s family southwest of St. Louis, we spent part of a Sunday afternoon driving through a wildlife park, St. Louis County Lone Elk Park. Boasting bison, elk, whitetail deer, turkey and waterfowl, this free outing is a hidden beauty in the hilly, colorful eastern Missouri landscape; especially appealing to people who enjoy wildlife and nature. It is definitely a picturesque park with life, however, exactly how “wild” is debatable.
Initially, the first thing I noticed driving into the park was that the gate was wide open as we drove in and didn’t shut behind us. Sort of expecting a Jurassic Park-type enclosure, how, then, did they keep all the wildlife in this place? The answer, I think, is that by feeding these animals and after they’ve been fenced in for so long, it must just be easier to remain, accept the food, forage on the land, and stay within the 546-acre fenced enclosure. They know where the fences and gates are.
Still, I really expected the animals to know exactly when the gate was open, and it’s still kind of peculiar to me. Either they want to be there, or they’ve been conditioned somehow to remain confined and the gate can be left open for most of the day, without the animals knowing the opportunity this presents. Or they know it’s no opportunity at all. We never did see any kind of park ranger, which you’d think they need to ensure animal safety and keep track of herds.
But I digress, this park really is a cool place, and – being free – makes for a quality, different way to spend the day.
The only thing that I didn’t get to see was the bird sanctuary – Gwen wouldn’t go down to that area because she said the birds are caged and tied down, and it’s sad and even inhumane. That made me want to go down there even more, if nothing more than to see what sort of system they had in place that would make a girl who dove hunts think something inhumane. Not that I think dove hunting is inhumane in the least – especially once you marinate them, stuff them with a jalepeño pepper and wrap them in bacon – it’s just that the tolerance of such a girl would seem to be higher. What I really thought was, Those cages must be tiny. And, on second thought, who wants to see such a thing?
Once past the turn off for the bird sanctuary, we entered an area that serves as kind of the bottoms of the park. There’s a rather small lake (I’d guess around 50 acres), and the road runs around the lake and through forest and grassland. As soon as we reached the lake, we were surrounded by a herd of elk, and I was in awe. The only time I’d seen elk before was while hunting them in Colorado, so the tameness these exhibited really caught me off guard. Looking to the left, I was observing a bull with four or five cows, when a reflection off the windshield caught my eye and I turned to my right to see another cow staring at me about 2 feet from the passenger-side window. The best elk we saw, by my standards, was a pretty mature-looking 4-by-4 (8-pointer). For whatever reason, all of these elk didn’t seem to have the sleek coat that you’d expect to see on a wild, roaming animal in the heart of winter. I’ve never heard of confinement causing mange, if mange is even what this was (true mange is caused by a parasitic mite, so it’s hard to say).
Moving on around the lake and entering the bison area (with a sign posted on another open gate indicating you shouldn’t exit the vehicle), you begin to ascend up an incline to what presents the highest, best view of the entire park. About a quarter of the way up, we saw four or five cars pulled off the road and knew what that meant.
Seeing a group of about 10 bison at various stages of maturity, and this being all we saw, I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like to see a sea of these front-heavy, robust animals with humongous heads stretching to the horizon, or, better yet, shaking the earth during a stampede.
Once to the highest point in the park, it’s pretty cool to roll the window down and stare off into the hilly timber, never quite sure what you’re going to see next.
For anybody in the area, or for those who find themselves passing through St. Louis, this would be an ideal place to stop in and picnic. I know there are two picnic areas, and there may be a third, complete with picnic tables and barbecue grills. The only two rules that come to mind are no pets – even if kept in the car – and don’t exit the vehicle in the places that are marked. What other place can you picnic in a setting like this? Yellowstone sure, but I know of none others around the Midwest.
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on Google+.
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