Adam Blauert

Adam Blauert: Reindeer games

Reindeer aren't native to California.

If you aren't successful in spotting one on your rooftop next Thursday night, the San Francisco or L.A. zoos are probably your best bet. They have visiting reindeer through the first few days of January.

This is California, so it's also possible to rent a pair of reindeer for your Christmas party. I'm not kidding! It's not cheap, but there's at least one company that provides the service regularly. Just do an Internet search for "California Reindeer Rental"!

Much closer to home and just as impressive is the herd of native Tule Elk at the San Luis Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos.

Elk are native to California, but were almost extinct by the 1880s. In recent years, the populations have been carefully managed, and now elk populations are stable or growing in many throughout the state.

Elk are a species of deer and are common across the western states. Tule Elk are the subspecies common to the grasslands and marshes of the Central Valley, while Roosevelt Elk and a smaller number of Rocky Mountain Elk are found in the northern part of the state. Tule Elk typically weigh 400-550 pounds, while Roosevelt Elk average 600--1,100 pounds.

The San Luis herd is one of the smaller ones in the state, but the size of the enclosure (761 acres) makes it likely that you will see many of them. I saw 26 elk in one group last Sunday, and several others in smaller groups. There are about 40-50 elk in the herd, the maximum number that the area will support. When the herd gets too large, some of the animals are relocated to other parts of the state.

If you go, make sure you bring a camera with a telephoto lens and a pair of binoculars. If the elk aren't near one of the fences, they can usually be seen clearly with binoculars.

A five-mile dirt road loops around the elk enclosure. The road was muddy when I was there Sunday afternoon, but I didn't need 4WD. It was passable for any vehicle. If you make the trip during wet weather, just make sure you don't park in soft mud. Stop wherever you see elk and wherever "no parking" signs aren't posted. Toward the end of the road is a raised viewing platform with a telescope, interpretive signs and wheelchair access.

It's is an easy morning or afternoon trip.

Still mostly undiscovered and underappreciated, this is one of the treasures of our county. I've never seen more than two other groups of people anytime I've been there, even on weekends. You may see many duck hunters in the vicinity, but you won't see many people near the elk enclosure.

If you go in the afternoon, stop for dinner at Wool Grower's in Los Banos after visiting the elk. One of my favorite places to eat and one of the most unique restaurants in the county, Wool Growers has served hearty French Basque meals in downtown Los Banos for decades. As soon as you walk in the restaurant, you'll feel as if you've stepped back in time at least half a century. Bring a hearty appetite and cash -- they don't take credit cards. Call (209) 826-4593 for more information.

In addition to the Tule Elk, you can also see the oldest building in Merced County on this trip. Built in 1848, the San Luis Camp Adobe stands on Wolfsen Road near the check station. The building was part of the Rancho San Luis Gonzaga, one of the early Spanish land grants in California. The adobe home is now protected by a pavilion and marked by a historic marker.

If you want to find Tule elk in other parts of the state, try the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Carrizo Plain National Monument or the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve near Bakersfield. Roosevelt Elk can be seen in many parks in Northern California, notably in Redwood National Park, Redwood State Park and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.

California's elk population has recovered so thoroughly from near-extinction that the Department of Fish and Game now allows limited elk hunting throughout Central and Northern California. You can find more information at: http://www.dfg.ca.gov

Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman and local historian who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

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