One of my favorite things about Wilderness Volunteers trips – besides the hard work, the great people, the good food, and the spectacular views – is the wildlife. I still remember the first time my brother and I saw elk – which for two teenagers from New Jersey was a big deal. We were building new trail along the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, and were determined to see some bulls on our day off. We hiked for hours in the 95 degree heat, sun beating down on us as we crested 7500 feet, yet the only signs of elk we saw were the pellets they left behind on the ground. It was getting late. We were getting tired. Our patience was wearing thin. It was the end of the road and we turned to head back to camp. As fisherman say, we were “skunked.”

And then we heard him. A massive twelve-pointer, just forty yards away in a hollow beneath us, had his heart set on running over a hearty young aspen with his antlers. We were spellbound, and stood there motionless on the trail above. Dropping to the ground and out of his sight, we army-crawled forty feet to a large rock that overlooked the hollow below, and saw not one but five enormous bulls casually grazing. They were awesome!

We watched them for twenty minutes, awestruck by their size, beauty, and antlers. We had hit the jackpot! Naturally, we snapped a few photos to document our trophy find (though we somehow failed to see the tall blades of grass in front of the camera lens, which, as seen below, are in perfect focus. If you look closely, you can make out the body of one of the bulls. Guess that’s a free photography lesson!)

On every WV trip since this one – my first one – ten years ago, I keep my eyes peeled wherever I go. There’s something magical about being in the wilderness knowing that you just might get lucky and see something – be it an elk, an eagle, a bear, a bobcat, a moose – who knows! It makes me feel alive and keeps me coming back – both to the woods and to WV. You simply can’t beat it.

Read more volunteer reviews of Wilderness Volunteers trips in the Winter 2009 Newsletter. Whether you’re new to backpacking or a seasoned mountain climber, we’ve got a trip for you. And be sure to vote for your favorite WV free day activity in our latest poll!