Picture Courtesy of Joey Benton & Helen Elsner

It's a glorious winter day. So much sunshine and warmth demands to be enjoyed and a walk in the woods is a necessity today. It's the best season for elk watching, so that's my choice. I pick a place I know well just east of Pruitt. I used to live just over the hill and as I park at the end of an old farm road, now closed with a locked gait, I could tell many stories about coming down this same road to swim in the river or play neighborhood softball in the fields.

The short road runs a beeline between two small wooded ridges for about a quarter mile. There are songbirds in the trees and I recognize some of the tunes, particularly the cheerful "wet year!" call of the cardinal.

The big river bottom field is not level. It slopes from the tree line down toward the river, then there is a brushy bank. The fishing hole we always called "the dripping bluff" is just below that bank. It's the best goggle-eye hole on the river! I stood waist-deep in the water one day last summer and cast against the bluff and never caught one but pulled out redear sunfish as fast as I could reel. I kept enough to fry a pan full and threw the rest back for next year.

As I walk the length of the field, I find evidence of earlier residents. Bits of arrowheads are everywhere and I remember when it was privately owned and regularly plowed and local folks brought tow sacks (that's a gunny sack, Yankee) to pick up the arrowheads in. Now, it belongs to the federal government and never gets plowed, but it was disked this year as part of a habitat improvement project and some of the relics have surfaced again.

The upper end of the field is fringed with tall cane, but I know there has to be a good trail to the water. I'm finding lots of sign of elk, tracks and droppings, and somewhere, they are going through. Sure enough, at the very top of the field there's a good trail towards the river. Once through the cane and down the bank, there's a remarkably level stretch for half a mile or more that runs upriver parallel to the water. Floods sweep it regularly and there's no underbrush, but the big trees remain. There's an almost cathedral hush here, far from any road or houses, sheltered by the trees, and out of season for floaters on the water I can see flashing just ahead. The ground is soft, deep in rich black soil, an accumulation of silt and rotted wood from the deadfalls. The trail of the elk is easily followed but I also find where something, feral hogs probably, has been rooting in the earth. I'm told the hogs are extremely shy and I'll admit I've never seen them. Yet, I'll admit I'm also a little leery of them and have thought about carrying a hand gun on these solitary expeditions.

I saw a mother bear with three cubs one time on the edge of the field. I guess she knew she couldn't make an orderly flight with the three little ones, so she just stood still and watched me. I stood still and watched her, which would have been kind of a funny game of "blink" had not the little ones, oblivious of my presence, continued playing in the edge of the field. We continued the staring match until I got bored with it and walked on, well to my side of the field, and she decided I was no danger and gathered up her cubs and moved off into the woods.

I am reminded, too, of the time I put a canoe on here and floated down the river. A little white heron was fascinated and went with me. It would fly over my head, land around the bend and wait until I caught up, then go on to the next bend. We made a mile or more in that pattern.

I walk a good distance up the river. It's easy walking, except for stepping over occasional deadfalls. At least its winter and I don't have to check them first for sunning snakes.

There are river otters making a home in those rocks beside the bluff on the other side. They don't seem to mind company and have come out to play even with people swimming here. I suppose if I'd wait I might see them today, but I've started too late in the day and I'll have to keep moving to find my elk and walk out before dark.

I find evidence, too, of beaver work along the banks. Surely they're not trying to dam the river! I've found beaver dams on a lot of the small tributaries, but can't recall ever seeing one across the Buffalo.

I find some elk at last, three cows who have come to drink Standing right at the water's edge, they look like they have come to pose for a picture, their 15 minutes of fame in the local newspaper. I, of course, have not carried the camera with me.

Yet, the picture I take is more lasting then anything printed on paper. I'll carry it home inside my head and remember it just as I remember the bear family and the otters. On the days I can't be outside watching the wildlife, they'll come to keep me company and remind me that time must be made for such things. I'll keep finding that time somehow and treasure it as hours when I went out and looked at creation and agreed with God that it is good.