EACH YEAR, 3 MILLION travelers make their way to Estes Park to take in the grandeur of Rocky Mountain National Park. When friends and family come from far and wide to visit my husband and me, they find the perfect vantage point to snap several photos of Longs Peak, and then they turn to us and ask, “Where can we go to see the elk?”
We have lived in Estes Park long enough to have developed a sixth sense about where the elk can be spotted. It’s easy during the height of rut in the fall, when they come down from the tundra to rule the town. Herds of cows ushered by bulls with impressive racks halt traffic as they cross the streets. Their crazed romps create additional hazards on the golf courses: elk droppings, deep hoof marks, excited tourists, and the roused elk themselves.
High-pitched bugles – the mating call of the wapiti – pierce the air day and night. But even in the summer, when these majestic animals retreat to higher ground (to escape from the crowds as much as to enjoy the cooler temperatures, I suspect) we locals know where to find them. Although these wild animals are not our pets, Estes Park residents feel a sense of ownership for the antlered companions with whom we share this valley.
Which is why, on Nov. 11, 1995, when our unofficial mascot Samson, a 1,000-pound, seven-by-eight-point bull, was illegally killed by a poacher’s crossbow, the community of Estes Park was seized with anger and grief.
“The town went nuts,” said Jim Boyd, center controller at YMCA of the Rockies, where Samson met his deplorable demise. “Everybody was outraged about the incident. People on talk radio wanted to take the poacher and string him up a flagpole,” Boyd said, one eyebrow raised.
In our mountain hamlet where massive bull elk are as common as cows in a great Plains pasture, Samson’s stature earned him patriarch status. He was a seasonal resident at the YMCA of the Rockies for about 6 years, said Boyd, beginning right after the rut each year and going through the winter and into March. He would make the rounds on the Y grounds, where he had become trusting of humans and was admired and respected by staff and guests. Indeed, it was the guys in Buildings and Grounds who named him – after a man with god-given supernatural powers in the Bible’s Old Testament.
“After he was finished with the girls,” Boyd paused to see if I understood his meaning, “he would come to the Y and collapse; just lie on the ground outside my office for days, looking in my window while I tried to get my work done.”
“Could you at least look the other way?” Boyd asked the curious fellow.
“He learned to bang my bird feeders with his antlers until the seed fell. While I refilled the feeders, he’d bluff-charge me to get the seed and I’d bluffcharge him back,” Boyd chuckled. That trusting relationship between animal and human was what made Samson’s unnecessary death so shocking.
“The whole town was very upset,” said Scott Pope, vice president/chief financial officer at the Y of the Rockies and the cameraman who took the famous photograph of Samson resting in the snow.
“People felt connected to him,” Pope added.
It has been 17 years since Samson was taken from us, but his legacy remains. Samson fans from across the country donated funds toward a larger-thanlife bronze sculpture of the royal bull; it stands at the intersection of U.S. Highway 36 and Colorado highway 7 in Estes Park. Tougher anti-poaching legislation was passed the year after Samson’s death and has become known as Samson’s Law.
Perhaps the most impactful endowment Samson left with us, however, is a great number of descendants passing on his glorious trophy genes, generation after generation.
Samson lives on!
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