I like landscape photography, mountains and animals. I kept seeing magazine photos of giant bull elk with huge racks, against a backdrop of mystical mountains. But I thought they were all in the Rocky Mountains and Canadian Rockies and therefore out of reach for an “enthusiastic amateur” like myself. Someday. Maybe. But then…I found out they were just a four hour drive from my home in Burlington, North Carolina to the Cataloochee Valley in our own Great Smoky Mountains! The biannual rut is in May and June and later, September and October in NC. So on September 26th, 2013 I was there.
Now, you don’t just accidentally stumble across Cataloochee Valley. Coming from the east, you drive up Interstate 40 almost to Tennessee. Take exit 20 and get on US 276. In 1.4 miles turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs for 5.7 miles of winding, backcountry, sometimes graveled roads. Turn left onto Ranger Station Road and drive another 3.2 miles until you see the Cataloochee Campground. You’re just a short/short from the actual valley entrance. You’ll know it when the narrow, twisting road suddenly opens up into a wide valley. Your other clue will be the signs warning you to stay out of the fields and at least 50 yards away from the elk. They’re serious.
They have knowledgeable docents, known as the Elk Bugle Corps, watching you watch the elk. They’re helpful and enthusiastic, but insist on getting too close to the elk and you can be escorted out of the park. I tent or tarp camp for easy mobility and the sometimes difficult back-country road conditions. If you can get a reservation, the Cataloochee Campground is close to the elk. They were full both times I tried. Instead, I threw up a tarp on the banks of Jonathan Creek in the Pride RV Resort in Waynesville, NC, which is just a half-hour’s drive from Cataloochee Valley. Most importantly, having broken camp before daylight the next morning, the convenience store 5 minutes away had lots of freshly-made coffee. If you do get in at Cataloochee Campground, you’d better have everything you need or want with you because the nearest gas or mini mart is ten slow miles away.
About 1934 the Federal government completed acquisition of the lands that now comprise the Great Smoky National Park by either buying the properties from willing landowners or by taking the land by force through the Right of Imminent Domain, which is the right of a government to take property for public use after paying the land owner “just compensation” for it. Will Messer, a prominent landowner in the Cataloochee Valley, finally and reluctantly sold his holdings to the government in a condemnation settlement for $35,405. He bitterly maintained that the property was worth twice that amount based on established property values but didn’t legally contest the offer because he said he didn’t want to “take a chance with a picked jury since you never can tell who anybody is going to marry or what a jury will do.” (http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com) He moved his family to Caldwell County in 1930, his barn beside the Ranger Station being all that’s left in the Valley of his original holdings.
In 2001 two dozen elk were brought to the Great Smoky National Park from Land Between The Lakes, Kentucky, acclimated for two weeks, given yellow ear tags and a radio collar, and eventually turned loose in the area of Cataloochee Valley. Most of them liked it enough to stay there. The following year another group of elk were brought to the Park from Manitoba, Canada, given white ear tags, and released into the wild without an acclimatization period in what is known as a “hard release”. This group is more reclusive than the others, who are more accustomed to people. Since their release in Cataloochee tourist visitation has doubled. From the original 52 elk, the herd has adapted, scattered, and grown to approximately 130. Their movement is not restricted so they go where they choose. I’ve also photographed a herd of a dozen elk on the Balsam Mountain Road between the Blue Ridge Parkway exit at mile post 458.2 and the Balsam Mountain Campground. The old saying “you can’t get there from here” applies in this convoluted terrain. If you drive from Cataloochee to Balsam Mountain Campground you’ll cover 60 plus miles. But if you’re an elk in Cataloochee, you can walk five miles over the mountains and be there! Land owners who were polled were mostly in favor of elk roaming the mountains. If an elk cannot be deterred from eating commercial crops or damaging fences a land owner may request a permit to kill the animal. That rarely happens.
In the Valley, one at a time, you’ll come to 3 fields where you’ll most likely see elk, especially if it’s early morning or late afternoon. The first field is about 2/10 of a mile long and about 200 feet wide. The second field is about ¼ of a mile long and 100 yards wide. And the third field is about 8/10 of a mile long and 1/10 of a mile wide. The fields are spaced along a 1 ½ mile long gravel road with short stretches of woods in between. The three fields give you 3 different but productive photo opportunities. Also along that mile-and-a-half road are historical homes, barns and a church that are more than a hundred years old. The Caldwell house, built in the early 1900s, was very modern in its day. Apples were the cash crop, shipping as far away as New York City. The weathered textures of the Messer barn next to the ranger station and the dew-laden spider webs decorating its split rail fence create early-morning photo opportunities. But I didn’t come to Cataloochee for historical buildings. I came for elk!
We arrived in the valley about 1:30 in the afternoon. From then until sundown I got my wish. As soon as the valley widened we started seeing elk, mostly females and young males. Almost immediately after that we spotted a large bull grazing next to Palmer Chapel. He was wearing a radio collar but no ear tag which, according to Justin McVey, biologist for District 9 of the NC Wildlife Commission, means he’s a free ranging elk visiting Cataloochee Valley. Those with ear tags are managed by the National Park Service. Justin also said that he was recently called to a roadkill incident involving an elk. Impressed by its size, he weighed it and was startled to find it weighed 998 pounds.
Following the elk around the church yielded an unexpected bonus. A very young calf the size of a large dog was lying where momma hid it in the secluded brush next to the Chapel while she browsed and I was able to quietly get a long shot through the bushes without disturbing it. About 3:30 p.m. we parked along the gravel road on the edge of the second field, in a row of about twenty more vehicles belonging to tourists and photographers armed with binoculars, spotting scopes, point and shoot cameras and a few monster lenses. Just before 4:00 p.m., as the sun was slanting down through the tree-lined roadside, a huge male elk came across the field and paraded a hundred feet away in front of the long line of photographers. He bugled, dug his monster rack into the grass, marked his territory and finally laid down right in front of us, positioned so he could keep an eye on his harem of females out in the pasturage. He must not have heard about the fifty-yard rule.
About 5:45 another large bull crossed the field, heading straight toward the line of photographers. I was standing at my tripod in front of my truck, gradually backing off my long lens as he got closer. And closer. I suddenly realized several things: that I had racked my lens all the way back and he was still filling the view finder; that he was looking straight at ME; that his ear tag identified him as number 67; that he was now almost trotting; and, taking my eye from the viewfinder, that I was the only person still standing in front of a vehicle. Everybody else had retreated behind the line. When I snatched up my gear and pulled back, he veered off and redirected his attention to a nearby female. I suspect that there are at least twenty photos of my rather comical retreat. I’m pretty sure he really didn’t care about the fifty-yard rule, either.
I was saddened to learn from the Asheville Citizen-Times that Number 67 was humanely euthanized on Monday October 12, 2015 by biologists after it was found to have an infection. Concerned private land owners had called in about its condition. Investigators who found the elk said that “it was weakened to the point that it could not walk or stand”. Joe Yarkovich, Wildlife Biologist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park told me that “this bull was born in Cataloochee Valley in June 2003, which made him 12 years old when euthanized. Just prior to the rut his estimated weight was 1,050 pounds, and, when euthanized he weighed around 750-800 pounds”, having lost almost a quarter of his weight in a short time. Tissue samples were sent to the National Park Service laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado for “additional testing and diagnosis”.
On that day in 2013, we photographed the rest of the afternoon and returned about 6:30 the next morning to find a fog-shrouded valley populated by gliding, elk-shaped ghosts. The shrill, frequent bugling of adult bull elk on the hunt penetrated the fog. When the fog didn’t clear right away, we reluctantly left Cataloochee and headed for Cades Cove, where I had arranged with the riding stable to photograph their saddle horses at the end of their work day, as they stampeded down the pastures like children just released from school. But that’s another day, another story.
Bob Finley, Burlington, NC
Equipment: Nikon D7000; Tamron 18-270 f3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD AF lens; Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens; tripod and monopod; I have recently replaced the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens with a 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport and highly recommend it. It allows me to see even more closely the malice in the eye of a charging bull elk and gives me three extra seconds to escape.