Note: The following is an except from my upcoming eBook, The Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens, which will be available for purchase on November 1.
To see and photograph elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is really only one place where this is in any way feasible: the Cataloochee Valley in North Carolina.
Elk were once a common sight in this area and throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains, but by the mid nineteenth century, they were all but gone due to severe habitat loss and over-hunting. But in the winter of 2001, the Park began importing elk back to Cataloochee as part of the mission of restoring native species that have been lost over time. The elk reintroduction program just happened to be one of the more high profile attempts to accomplish this goal.
The Cataloochee Valley was chosen for the reintroduction, in large part, because of it’s relative remoteness. Elk are big animals and can seriously injure or kill any dumb tourist who happens to approach one too closely. So the idea was to keep these animals as far away from the human crowds as possible and Cataloochee was the ideal remote location within the Park. If you think the Smokies are all about Gatlinburg and Cades Cove, the Cataloochee Valley will feel like another universe away. It used to be referred to as the Smokies’ “forgotten far east” because so few people visited the area. The introduction of these large, charismatic mammals changed that reality as visitation to the valley soon doubled.
On this cold morning in early November, I was surprised to be alone with three precocious bull elk on the edge of one of the many open meadows. They were only youngsters and although the rut was pretty much over, they took turns playfully sparring with each other – sometimes all three at the same time.
It was still early and dark and my attempts to adequately capture their playfulness on camera were mostly failures. I didn’t care too much at first. I was having too much fun just watching. Slowly building in the back of my mind, however, was the hope that the action would continue as the light improved. I tried high ISO settings to get a fast enough shutter speed: 1250, 1600, 2000. It was of no use. To make matters worse, low clouds were passing across the horizon in the eastern sky, prohibiting any brighter light to make it down my way. By the time the light would improve enough for me to get any shots off, the triumvirate would likely be deep in the thickets and the opportunity would most likely have passed. As a nature photographer, I was used to things working out that way more often than not.
And as if right on cue, one of the three peeled off and trotted into the poplar stand at the field’s edge as the remaining two bulls lazily grazed on the brown autumn grasses. At the same time, the popping sound of automobile tires on the gravel road could be heard behind me and it was becoming obvious that any chance at success would be doomed. Soon, curious tourists would be furiously chasing the poor animals at full tilt with digicams extended purposefully at arm’s length and eye level.
I watched this spectacle with equal amounts of mild amusement and annoyance. I really should say something about their safety, I thought to myself. But before I got that chance, their curiosity was satisfied (or perhaps it was already boredom) and they were back in their car with souvenirs etched in digital media. In a few moments, I was alone once again.
I didn’t notice that during all the commotion, the sky had brightened up considerably and the sun was trying to penetrate some of the thinning clouds. And miraculously, the two young bulls endured the brutish onslaught of the rude toursits and had held their ground at the edge of the field.
In a few short moments the two were sparring once again, head-to-head and antler-to-antler. I was now ready. With my Canon 100-400mm lens mounted, I dialed in an ISO setting of 640. In an instant, the camera flashed back the good news: 1/125 of a second. That ought to get the job done.