I made an impromptu excursion to the Great Smoky Mountains last Friday to check something off my list. If you read my post "Blue Ridge Photo Hotspots," you'll remember that I included a section about the wild elk herd in the Cataloochee Valley, located just west of Asheville. In that post I mentioned that I intended to return to this awesome location because my images (shot on one September evening back in 2012) didn't do the place justice. The only active elk during that trip were wearing radio collars, and the swarm of gawking tourists made the animals wary. This time, though there were still quite a few people and other photographers, there were fewer distractions, more collarless elk, and I managed to get better shots.
I left my Ashe County home at 3AM to make it to Cataloochee at dawn, just before first light. It was a misty morning. Three and a half hours on the road (plus one wrong turn) and I arrived at the entrance to Cataloochee to find two other photographers already set up and waiting. There was a dense, low-hanging morning fog, but through it I could see the antlers of one bull elk lying in the tall grass of a field near the road. Behind him, at the edge of the woods were several cows- his harem. I could not make out how many because the fog was so thick. I carefully set up my tripod about 50 yards from the bull and, using my 70-200 f2.8 lens on a DX camera (for an equivalent focal length of 300mm), managed a few exposures before more cars arrived and the bull rose and meandered off into the woods with his cows close behind him. It was still so dark that I had to shoot at 1/5th sec at ISO 1000wide open for a few shots. Then, the light increased and, I was able to shoot at 1/25 at ISO 640 at f5.6. Use of the remote trigger was necessary to get sharp images (thank goodness he was sitting still).
As the bull rose, he let out an impressive bugle to signal his females to take to the woods. I was rolling video in hopes of capturing the elk's trademark call, but like my previous trip, the chatter of bystanders interfered with the recording. Another photographer was asking me questions about lenses and what not, and instead of being rude and shushing him, I attempted to answer him quietly as the camera rolled. Our short conversation is almost as loud as the elk bugle on the recording. I gave up on trying record a video of an elk bugling and concentrated on stills for the rest of the day. Every time an elk bugled throughout the day, tourists would obnoxiously attempt to bugle back at it. I tucked away my frustrations and focused on photographing the amazing light now coming over the mountains.
As the sun rose I drove farther into the park and spotted another bull wandering into the woods. I hopped out of the car so fast and without thinking that I almost forgot to put it in park! The light on the mountains created a bright "V" shape with dark hills on both sides. I framed several shots of the bull before he disappeared, just like the previous bull, into the dark forest. I would not see another elk for 8 hours.
Wildlife photography is difficult. It requires patience and is time consuming. Typically, a photographer can go days or weeks without seeing the animal they want to photograph. In this case, I was lucky to find an elk sitting next to the entrance road when I arrived. Elk can be seen almost daily in this area especially during the rut (from September through October). You can also get reasonably close. I actually haven't even used a lens more powerful than 200-300mm at Cataloochee. But, as the rangers will quickly remind you, bull elk are unpredictable during the rut and can charge you without warning. Cataloochee is one of the few wildlife viewing areas in the Appalachians where you can often view wild animals from your car. I prefer the versatility of being on my feet.
After my second elk sighting, I took to the trails in search of more elk, whitetails, and black bear in the forest. I saw only the occasional squirrel and a few turkey. There is beautiful creek that runs through the valley; I was able get a few shots before the sun rose too high to capture it in soft shadow. I spent time between hikes lying in the back of my SUV waiting out the harsh light of midday. As earlier stated, it was 8 hours before I spotted, or rather heard, another elk.
In the afternoon I drove to the meadow where I spotted the first bull and his harem near the park entrance. At 3:30pm sharp, I heard a bugle from the woods; it was the bull! I waited another half hour to see if he would meander out of the thick forest before I heard another bugle. Then I saw a large brown shape walking toward me in the center of the road about 150 yards out. It was a cow. I readied my camera, expecting a bull to come out any minute. Unfortunately, a car drove up behind the cow, forcing her off the road. Then the driver pulled up next to her and tried to get a picture on his cellphone, which made the cow nervous and she bolted back into the woods. I waited, then waited some more. The gnats were terrible that day. I kept my windows down in case I had the opportunity to shoot from the car, so they swarmed around my face as they tried to attack my tear-ducts. I thought about driving back to the area I spotted the second bull, but before I made a choice, I heard a crashing sound from the woods. Then, a large bull came galloping out of the woods and ran along the forest edge. He was chasing a female. She darted into the brush, and I could see that there were at least 4 others and a yearling in there too. The bull kept running (as I shot a burst of photos) past the cows and into the creek where it then disappeared into the black forest. This all happened out of range of my lens. The elk just look like small specks. I decided to drive into the park again to see if I could find the bull. I saw his antlers clanging against tree branches deep in the woods and decided to go in on foot until I realized that was a stupid idea. I waited at the periphery and eventually lost the bull as he faded away into the brush. I thought the day was over.
I hopped in the car and drove to the other side of the woods in hopes of getting ahead of the bull elk. There were a lot of people and cars parked in a dusty pull-off at an old barn. Some were having picnics and some were even grilling tailgate style. They were waiting for evening when the bulls tend to be extra frisky and willing to fight over females. I thought making a spectacle over something that is very serious to the survival of this once decimated species appalling. There were a few cows bedded down in the meadow about 100 yards from the road, so I waited with the onlookers. I noticed a park ranger and a small group of people behind me looking into the woods across the creek. I walked over and saw what the fuss was about. The large feisty bull was standing just on the other side of the creek behind some large pines. I overheard the ranger say that this bull was particularly dangerous and frequently charged people and even cars. They said that everyone need to stay back and close to their vehicles in case he got mad. The bull elk didn't seem agitated. I stepped to the waters edge and snapped a few shots with only the creek separating the bull and me. He started grazing but never broke eye contact. Bull elk are huge and intimidating at close range. Bulls can reach 700 lbs and their antlers can grow to six feet long. When this elk lifted its head after a few bites of grass, he seemed alarmed all of a sudden. I backed up and crouched behind a tree as the others hopped into their cars. The elk then let out a huge bellow of a bugle and trotted quickly across the creek, crossed the road, and entered the meadow. He continued at a fast trot, bugling along the way, until he reached the cows. The cows weren't interested in his shenanigans. They resisted his attempts to mate. I made several exposures as the bull went from cow to cow trying to mate them. After a few minutes he seemed exhausted and flopped down in the field.
By that point it was evening and the light was fading. The sun was about to set behind the mountain that the elk were lying under and would soon cast the meadow in shadow. It seemed all the action was over. I gathered my equipment, placed the camera on the passenger's seat just in case, and before I got into the car, the crowd started chattering loudly and pointing to the east. Another bull elk was entering the same field that the other bull and cows were resting in. The onlookers seemed to think there would be a sparring match between the two bulls. I picked up my camera and walked back to the edge of the meadow. The new arrival flopped down in the meadow a full 200 yards from the other bull and his harem. Earlier, I had overheard the ranger saying that two bulls had fought hard the evening before. Knowing this and how relaxed the bulls seemed, I figured it was unlikely they would spar again. The light was fading and the blisters on my feet were throbbing. I had barely any sleep the night before and had been up since 2AM. With a three hour drive ahead of me in the dark through windy mountain roads, I decided to call it quits. This time anyway.
I will definitely be returning to the elk herd at Cataloochee next Autumn. If I can arrive later in October and stay for a few days, then I will be able to get more photos and the fall colors will be most vibrant. That wasn't possible this year. My wife and I are making our second trip to Iceland in October, so I was only able to be with the elk for one day. These magnificent and powerful creatures were once extinct in North Carolina. Thanks to the efforts of the Park Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, they are here once again and doing quite well. In fact, the elk have become so numerous and so many travel outside park boundaries that there is now a limited hunting permit available to help maintain a sustainable population. Elk in the the North Carolina high country don't have many natural predators. Black bears may very occasionally take a calf, but most elk deaths are caused by motor vehicles on highways outside the park. I'm glad to see animals this size living healthy lives here in my home state.