Confessions of a former couch potato: Elk and the two-syllable word.

In my last couch potato confession, I alluded to the process of learning to think like an elk — a helpful ability in the back country of the Scotchman Peaks, where elk are the main trail-makers. They are uncannily able to find the — ahem — “easiest” way from one spot to another, and, partly because they move in single file, it doesn’t take them long to make a trail. When faced with a blow-down across one of their routes it takes them just a few days to rework a trail around it.

This doesn’t mean that elk trails are easy to follow. They tend to disappear at the most inconvenient times and places, petering out in a dead-end cul-de-sac in a tag alder patch or disappearing into a patch of chest-high mountain mahogany. When I’m following an elk trail and this happens, I nearly always utter one, two-syllable word that calls into question the lineage of the critter who laid out that section of trail.

I will not repeat it here, for I have repeated it way too often already.

Once, in what turned out to be a test of thinking-like-an-elk ability, I led a Scotchman Peaks hike to the top of Sawtooth Mountain from the Ross Creek side. We began at the Cedars and made our way up the south fork of Ross Creek to just above the falls, and then we left the creek — topo map in my hand — and began angling up the mountain.

On the way to Sawtooth Mountain.
On the way to Sawtooth Mountain.

There were seven of us on that hike. The other six were of the other gender. All of us were not so happy sometimes with my route choices that day, as I had not yet — and still have not — perfected thinking like an elk. But, the others were all good sports, and they were all gamers, and we did finally make it to the top of Sawtooth. In fact, one of the hikers was in her early 70s, and there came a point when she wasn’t sure that she should continue. Nickie offered to wait while the rest of us topped out, but after being reminded that she would probably never be in that place again, she clambered on to the top with the rest of us, becoming one of my heroes in the process.

The top of Sawtooth is a magnificent place, all rock and sky, with a 360-degree view of the magnificent interior Scotchmans and more. I’m not sure elk go up there, although I have seen mountain goats on top. But, the elk navigate their way around the mountain, and we spent much of that day trying to take advantage of their paths, and learning more about how they do things in the meantime.

One of my more memorable moments came as we made our way down the mountain. One of my fellow hikers, a good friend of mine, had spent most of the descent next in line behind me, and had heard me use the two-syllable word a good number of times. We were approaching the creek — we could hear it running below us — and we were anxious to get out of the alder and back on the Forest Service trail. We were blitzing along a very strong trail that ended abruptly in a cul-de-sac, and before I could say a thing, my friend muttered the two-syllable word as well as I could have. We both broke out laughing, which, I’m sure, made the other five wonder, “What’s so damned funny?”

We were late getting back to the cars that day. In fact, we walked the last hour and a half in the dark. I’ve never gone out without a headlamp since. Nor have I given up trying to find a relatively straightforward way to get to Sawtooth Mountain. In that process, I have uttered that two-syllable word many times.

— Sandy Compton

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About The Author:

Sandy Compton has been program coordinator for Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness since 2009. He is also a storyteller and author of both fiction and non-fiction books, and the publisher at

In addition to his other duties, he runs the FSPW All Star Trail Team (, which works on Forest Service trails in the Scotchman Peaks. He is a trail surveyor as well, and a C-Certified Crosscut Bucker/Feller and USFS National Saw Policy OHLEC instructor.

Sandy grew up on a small farm/woodlot at the south end of the proposed wilderness and lives there still. He is also board member of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and a planning team member for the Northern Rockies Wilderness Skills Institute.

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  1. I love this story! Somehow I have this image in my head of you-as-Elmer-Fudd, tip-toeing along the trail, saying “Shhh! Be vewy, vewy, quiet…”! Inaccurate no doubt, but there it is in my head.

    It’s always a good idea to have a headlamp and maybe an extra snack bar in your pack when out hiking – you just never know what can happen!

  2. Don’t want to mess with your illusions too much, but you might want to think of me as Donald Duck or Yosemite Sam – sort of temper-prone and blundering along the trail. 🙂

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