Sometimes luck is on your side, and the same is true for wildlife.
That was the case for an young cow elk rescued April 18 from a mine shaft in the Rio Grande National Forest near Creede.
In moment of serendipity that day, hiker Chere Waters decided to visit the old mine shaft off the Bachelor Loop Road she had visited years ago.
“I don’t know what it was, but something was drawing me to go up there,” Waters said, according to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife press release.
Her internal compass led her and a friend a mile up a hillside directly to the mine shaft, then curiosity kicked in.
“It’s the scariest thing, it’s at the edge of some trees, so it’s hard to see,” Waters told CPW.
After tossing a rock in to get a sense of its depth, she belly crawled to the edge as her friend holding her feet.
“I looked in and see this animal in there. I was so surprised, I couldn’t believe it,” said Waters, a 34-year resident of Creede.
They called the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office, and two hours later, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers Brent Woodward and Jeremy Gallegos arrived, along with sheriff’s personnel.
“When I got the call, I was told that a deer was stuck in a hole,” Woodward said. “But they thought the shaft was only about 10 feet deep. When I got there I could see it was an elk and it was probably 30 feet down.”
The elk’s tracks could be seen at the edge of the hole.
The 250-pound elk was darted with a tranquilizer by Woodward from above. Using a winch from one of the trucks, Terry Wetherill, Mineral County Emergency Search and Rescue manager, was lowered into the hole to place straps around the animal.
Wildlife officers occasionally are called to rescue deer and elk from fences, but pulling one out of a mine shaft was a first for the area, said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski.
“Sometimes you will see old bones at the bottom of a mine shaft,” he said, but in this case destiny brought a timely rescue.
The elk was slowly pulled out, and its condition described as “pretty beat up.” The elk had been in the shaft two or three days.
“It’s amazing those ladies saw it,” Woodward said.
Back on the surface, the officers examined its condition. No broken bones or injuries could be detected, said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski.
Then Gallegos administered a drug that reverses the tranquilizer effects. It took a few minutes for it to stand up on shaky legs.
“When she stood up, she moved a few yards, turned and looked at us for a few seconds and then turned and trotted away. It was great that we could get her out alive,” Woodward said.
A YouTube video shows the elk waking up and looking around. It tries twice to get up, then saunters off toward a tree line.
Creede was part of a silver boom in the late 19th century. There are dozens of old mine shafts in the area, but most of them have collapsed and filled in, Woodward said. He was unaware of the one that trapped the elk. The walls of the shaft are still secured with timbers, and the opening is estimated to have been there for more than 100 years. “It’s dangerous, it’s in the shadows, and until you’re 20 feet away you don’t see it,” he said.
Wetherill is talking to officials at the Rio Grande National Forest office and Mineral County to determine ownership of the shaft, and efforts are underway to cover it.
Waters and her friend stayed for the rescue and took pictures. She said they were so happy that the elk survived. But Waters, who owns C. Waters Gallery in Creede, said she’s still wondering what took her to that particular spot last Saturday.
“I was just so called to go to that place,” she told CPW officials.