Onaway's Vern Bishop is a regular Renaissance man, that's if you count wrestling steer, trimming horse hooves for shoes, leading elk tours though Michigan's Pigeon River State Forest and singing gospel. Bishop lives with his wife, Cindy, a half mile from Pigeon River country, renowned for its wild elk herd. He guides groups of six or fewer into the forest in search of elk.
You always guide on horseback?
Always. Since I've had hip replacement, horses are my legs.
Any up close encounters with the elk?
A wild cow elk was eating acorns with her head under a broken tree. I sneaked up, reached out and patted her on the rump. They're not afraid of the horses, so you can get so close you actually smell them.
So what do they smell like?
Kinda goaty. They smell quite strong — they're the only animal I know that urinates laying down.
What other notable wildlife have you seen in the Northern Michigan forest?
I've seen cougar three times. They kind of hang where elk are resting, in their loafing areas. If one can get on an elk's back, one bite can put the elk down. Three years ago, I was out with two couples, and I actually tracked a cougar. We came onto the ridge, and the cougar was 100 yards away. He was harassing a bull elk — he thought he was having him for dinner. The man with me asked, "What, was that a wolf with the mange?" I told him, "You just seen a cougar." He said, "We don't have cougars in Michigan." I said "Where are we?" I showed them the tracks. Then they knew it was a cat.
Before your elk guiding business you were a farrier for 36 years?
Horses took me a long ways without me getting on them. I worked on Beaver Island, South Fox Island, Mackinac and far south as Houghton Lake.
You had some wild times in your rodeo days?
I used to love to steer-wrestle, in Onaway and in Cheboygan at fair time. During my rodeo years, I steer-wrestled a deer by jumping out from a speeding van.
And you sing country, too?
I sing the old type of country and gospel at the Onaway Senior Center, Cheboygan Tender Care — any place I can make somebody happy.
Are August and September good elk viewing?
Starting late August, early September you'll hear their bugle. An elk bugle, no matter how many times you hear it, gives you that thrill. Mating season is September into the late part of October.
You believe in preserving elk habitat?
Life member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and present chair of the Straits Area chapter. When you're doing for elk, you're doing for everything.
For elk tours contact Vern Bishop at 989-733-6463.
Emily Betz Tyra is associate editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.
Note: This article was first published in August 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.