The big English Shires strained against the harness, releasing an icy grip on the sled. As they broke into their stride, the elk nearest retreated in unison, almost as if the movement were choreographed.

"They're still a little wild," said driver Jim Sikowski, "but they'll settle down as the winter wears on. On the other hand, if you step off the sled, they'll run."Ruddy-faced and full-bearded, Sikowski is a driver for Carriage Horse Livery, which has contracted this winter to operate the horse-drawn sleigh rides at Hardware Ranch in northern Utah's Cache County.

On a crowded weekend, three sleds run continuously from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Weekdays are less frenetic. Then perhaps a single sleigh handles the elk watchers who filter in to pay $4 a head (kids five and under free) for a close look at these impressive animals. The rides will continue on a daily basis until the first of March, when the elk normally leave.

Anywhere from 300-700 wintering elk are fed here by the Department of Wildlife Resources in an open mountain valley at the head of Blacksmith Fork Canyon. This season, they number about 600.

Hardware Ranch is pretty much a mixed lot of calves, yearlings, cows and bulls. It is the cows and calves that appear to congregate in the largest groups. The only sound heard is from the calves, a kind of a high-pitched bleating.

As the sleigh moved toward a concentration of animals, the bulls scrambled to their feet, eyeing us suspiciously. "One of them is pretty ornery," Jim said. "I guess he thinks he's the boss." He pointed out an animal with velvet still hanging from its antlers. "Too lazy I suppose to rub it off."

He called the horses by name. They leaned forward, their movements perfectly synchronized, digging their great hooves into the snow. The sled lurched ahead, toward another cluster of elk.

"The English Shires are right for this work," he explained. "They have a good temperament and they like people."

They have to. When loading they attract kids and adults alike, like flies.

He maneuvered the sled across what was obviously an irrigation ditch, only thinly covered by snow. I noted how stable it seemed. "These sleds are mostly built by the Amish," he commented. "This one is called an auto steer. Not only does it not have a fifth wheel, but the whole front system turns. Very expensive."

And very comfortable too. It can accommodate a dozen or more adults, seated on wooden benches. I recalled riding a sled a number of years ago to the elk feeding operation at Jackson Hole, Wyo. There you stood up, clinging to a railing.

The Rocky Mountain elk is a member of the deer family, with mule deer and moose. The Indian called it wapiti, or white deer, possibly because of its straw colored tail and rump.

Bulls may attain a weight of 700 pounds or more, and stand 60 inches at the shoulder. Typically the antlers have six points, are shed in the spring, and grow back in the summer when the animal is in velvet.

It is the autumn _ when rutting bulls collect their harems _ that their bugling can be heard. The sound, unlike any other, sends chills up the spine.

In 1946, the then Utah Fish and Game Department purchased just over 7,400 acres of the then Hardware Ranch for the express purpose of feeding elk. The animals were depleting their winter range and had become a nuisance to Cache Valley farmers.

Since then the management area has grown to 21,000 acres, producing some 300 tons of "grass" hay annually as winter feed. And it didn't take the elk long to learn a free handout awaited, returning year in and year out like clockwork.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, the mountain valley embracing the ranch was a rendezvous for Indians and fur trappers. The first settlements appeared in 1873 when a road, sawmill, dairy, and first permanent buildings were built by the United Order of Hyrum. The ranch was subsequently purchased by the Box Elder Hardware Company. Thus the name.

Hardware Ranch is approximately 80 miles north of Salt Lake City, and 18 miles easy of Hyrum via state route 101. The approach is by way of a narrow winding canyon carved out by the Blacksmith Fork river. In the summer it is a first-rate trout stream.

Although most come here to see the elk, you should not overlook a modern visitor center on a ridge overlooking the valley. Well prepared displays, which stress both man's role in the natural world and Utah's non-game programs, will enhance any visit to the ranch. The exhibits, incidentally, were awarded first place in 1973 by the American Association of Information Conservationists.

*Frank Jensen lives in Salt Lake City and is a frequent contributor to the Deseret News Travel Section.