Wilderness still exists where elk can run free
Published: December 6, 2009
Modified: December 8, 2009 at 10:40 am
I’m stuck. After spending the last 30 minutes diving into an ever-deepening thicket of cedar, oak and thistles, the game trail I’ve been following through Styx Canyon has gone somewhere humans were not meant to go.
And then I hear it: loud thumps on the ridge ahead of me. Looking up, I see the bounding form of a large female elk fleeing over a granite-topped ridge.
It’s an awesome but vexing sight. Elk sightings are rare in Oklahoma, but I’ve already seen two on this trip to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area west of Lawton. I admire the old gal’s pluck, but I’m a little jealous that an animal that large can move so easily through this rocky and thorn-infested morass. She’ll cover miles of ground in no time while it will take me a good hour just to go a half mile out of the canyon.
And that is why I love this place. So much of Oklahoma is fenced, plowed, sectioned and developed. Even the wildlife refuge that surrounds Charon’s Garden is relatively tame compared with what I’m entangled in now. Welcome to one of the last wild places left in Oklahoma.
I’m not alone. Hiking buddy Johnny Hunter and his sister, Ouida Plumlee — veterans of hiking in the Wichita Mountains — are with me. Other than that, there’s not a soul around.
At the time of this little journey, the mountains are in their full fall regalia. The red, yellow and orange hues of broadleaf trees complement the deep green cedars. Rising above it all are the light browns, grays and pinks of ancient granite peaks whose ramparts guard Styx Canyon’s wild heart.
Much of our day was spent off-trail, and the going was slow. But we finally reached what may be the state’s most isolated mountain. In climbers’ circles, it’s called Mount Mitchell, named after a doctor who met his end in another part of Charon’s Garden.
Mitchell’s north face is steep and rugged. The rock tears at my hands as I seek hand and foot holds and do my best Spider-Man impression. House-sized boulders, sheer faces and deep crevasses threaten to stop our ascent and cut off any retreat. Mount Mitchell is every bit as wild as the countryside around it.
Finally standing atop Mitchell’s tiny summit block, I survey Charon’s Garden and beyond. A stiff north breeze wants to knock me back, but I linger a bit longer. With great effort comes great reward, which in this case is solitude and scenery. Only the distant roar of military jets reminds us of how close civilization really is. Other than that, there’s nothing manufactured here. Just the sounds of the wind, distant bird calls and, on occasion, rustling in the underbrush from creatures more nimble than me.
Assistant Local Editor