Have a thirst for adventure? Call of the wild is in your own back yard
Every time I watch Bogey and Hepburn in the 1951 classic The African Queen, I contemplate the possibility of going on an African safari vacation. As romantic and adventurous as that sounds, I’ve never undertaken such a monumental endeavor. If you haven’t either, read on, because there are safari adventures right in our own Kentucky back yard.
As a result of one of the state’s most successful wildlife restoration programs, you can go on guided excursions to view and photograph wild elk. Tours originate out of Jenny Wiley and Buckhorn Lake state resort parks.
It all began in 1997 when the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources teamed up with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Shikar Safari Club to release 1,566 elk from the Western states onto reclaimed strip mines in eastern Kentucky. Elk numbers have grown to about 10,000, the largest herd east of the Mississippi River.
Elk are native to Kentucky, but were wiped out in the state by the late 1800s due to overhunting and habitat loss. Now, visitors have excellent opportunities to see these regal creatures that are once again part of Kentucky’s landscape. Imagine yourself on a safari, being driven by van across the dirt roads of the highlands and seeing a free-ranging bull elk with massive antlers staring you down. It couldn’t have happened 20 years ago, but it’s possible now, thanks to the restoration effort and the tours offered by the Kentucky Department of Parks. Elk viewing tours take place most weekends in January, February, and March.
On the other side of the state on the big twin lakes—Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley—there’s a safari of a different kind. Kenlake, Kentucky Dam Village, and Lake Barkley state resort parks host Eagle Watch Weekends in the winter, when visitors can board the 96-foot-long yacht CQ Princess, or go by land in vans in search of migratory bald eagles wintering on the lakes. These days you won’t have trouble finding them.
Down to 417 breeding pairs in the U.S. in 1963, bald eagles have made a huge comeback as a result of crackdowns on illegal shooting and the banning of the insecticide DDT, which contaminated their food supply. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle, our national symbol, from the endangered species list.
The population increase is evident on the lakes. “Last year we saw 66 eagles during just one boat outing, and they were all in flight,” says Nick Edmonds, veteran interpreter at Lake Barkley State Resort Park. “Each year is different. You may see eagles sitting, flying, or hunting.”
Patricia Hurt, a member of Warren Rural Electric Cooperative and a repeat visitor to both sandhill crane tours and Eagle Watch Weekends, says, “I can remember growing up in Kentucky and never seeing a bald eagle. But now I see them on each of the three state park tours and I try to go to different ones to mix it up a little.”
Our safari continues with a recent addition: sandhill crane outings hosted by Barren River Lake State Resort Park.
[pullquote cite=”Lisa Deavers” type=”right”]”People are trying to reconnect with nature and they’re also looking for unique outdoor experiences. The Kentucky Department of Parks certainly has them with these tours.”[/pullquote]
The elegant sandhill crane is known for its dancing ability during mating season and for its unique call. These beautiful migratory birds congregate at Barren River Lake in winter, where they roost on the mudflats at night and feed on the surrounding crop fields by day. According to State Parks Program Coordinator Lisa Deavers, as many as 10,000 to 15,000 sandhill cranes have been counted at Barren River Lake.
Guided sandhill crane tours take place on two weekends in late January, and each begins with an educational session conducted by a state wildlife biologist.
So, hear the thunderous takeoff and deafening calls of thousands of sandhill cranes; witness the majestic bald eagle with its wingspan of up to 8 feet; and listen for the bugle of the bull elk, which can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds, with a crown of antlers almost 4 feet long.
For detailed information, contact the specified state park directly or go online to parks.ky.gov.
Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park
2015 scheduled dates: January 3-4, 10-11, 24-25, 31; February 1, 7-8, 21-22, 28; March 1, 7-8, 14-15, 21-22, 28-29. Prices: $120 for two people, $90 for one. Price includes overnight lodging, continental breakfast, and guided elk tour.
Jenny Wiley State Resort Park
(606) 889-1790, 2015 scheduled dates: January 17, 24-25, and 31; February 7, 14, 21, 28; March 7. Prices: $30 per person for elk tour only, $15 for children 12 and under. Overnight lodging/dinner/elk tour packages, $160 for two people.
Eagle Weekend at Lake Barkley State Resort Park
(270) 924-1131, 2015 scheduled dates: January 23-25. Prices: Tours aboard the luxury yacht CQ Princess, $50 per person; van tours, $25 per person, $12 for children 12 and under.
Gathering of the Eagles at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park
(270) 362-4271, 2015 scheduled dates: January 9-11. Prices: Tours aboard the luxury yacht CQ Princess, $50 per person. Bus tour to Ballard Wildlife Management Area, $40 per person, $17.50 for children 12 and under.
A Visit with the Eagles 2015 at Kenlake State Resort Park
(270) 474-2211, 2015 scheduled dates: February 6-8. Prices: Tours aboard the luxury yacht CQ Princess, $50 per person, $10 for children 4 and under.
Nature Watch Weekend: sandhill crane outings
Barren River Lake State Resort Park
(270) 646-2151, 2015 scheduled dates: January 23-24, 30-31. Prices: $40 per person, $20 for children 8 to 12. Price includes educational sessions, box lunch, and T-shirt.
PREPARING FOR SAFARI
Eagle Watch weekends are in January and February. Interpreters and spotters from the Kentucky Department of Parks and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources are on board the tour boats and vans. Check with the three state resort parks individually for detailed information about tickets, tour schedules, and lodging/tour packages. For all the Kentucky safaris, bring your camera (preferably with a long lens) and binoculars; and wear hiking boots or comfortable walking shoes, rain gear, warm headgear, warm layered clothing, and gloves.
With 170,000 acres of forests and open lands, 500 miles of trails, and 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline along Kentucky and Barkley lakes, Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area is a true Kentucky gem.
Land Between The Lakes offers all the hiking, biking, camping, and wildlife viewing you could possibly want, but it also hosts a safari-like activity: a drive through Elk and Bison Prairie. For $5, you can drive along a 3.5-mile loop road where bison and elk roam freely through a 700-acre fenced enclosure.
About 100 of these big animals graze on restored native prairie grasses, and you may have to stop your car and wait for a herd of buffalo to cross in front of you, just as if you were on a real safari.
For more information, contact Land Between The Lakes at (800) 525-7077 or go to www.landbetweenthelakes.us.