Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Elk of Cataloochee

The elk in the Great Smoky National Park were reintroduced nearly ten years ago after over-hunting, disease, etc. wiped out the herd in the 1800's.  A small herd of elk were brought over from Kentucky (Land-between-the-Lakes) nearly ten years ago, and they have flourished in these beautiful mountain ranges of Tennessee and North Carolina.  Cataloochee is a lush, green valley hidden deep within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side between Waynesville and Maggie Valley.  I don't know all the details about the elk herd, and more details about the park can be found here:  GSMNP-Cataloochee.

Cataloochee Valley has gained in popularity with visitors to the park, so you must pack your patience for managing the frequent bumper-to-bumper traffic, the "one in every crowd" who thinks it's okay to break the rules, and the city-folk who haven't learned how to be quiet to fully enjoy the display of wildlife.  The elk are wild.  There are no fences to keep the elk in the park, and certainly no barriers to keep the elk safe from tourists.

I've been visiting Cataloochee for the past four years. In the Springtime it's fun to see the new calves amongst all the wildflowers in the valley. In September/October the bull elk begin their bugling for the cows, mating, and sparring between bulls.  There is a small campground at the valley entrance which provides more convenience for late night and early morning visits to the valley.  The bugling between bulls can be heard echoing off the mountain sides all the way to the campground. In the still of the morning, a solo bugle will send shivers down my spine as I lay half awake trying to talk myself into getting an early morning photo. The bugle usually motivates me to venture out before sunrise to see these beautiful creatures.

My latest visit to the valley would prove to be the best yet. In my previous visits, I've only witnessed bulls chasing other bulls away.  This time however, I finally was able to witness the full bull on bull sparring.  It's an experience I won't soon forget.

Arriving in the valley in the early evening proved to be popular as we quickly encountered stopped traffic and tons of fellow onlookers.  I crept along in my vehicle until I reached a parking space about 1 mile in.  I figured we could get farther by walking than sitting in a vehicle.  My friend Ally and I headed deeper into the valley when about 100 yards away were two elk.  As we looked closer, it appeared that one bull elk (with a large rack) was teaching a smaller elk how to spar.  The encounter was non-violent and included several face nudges, licking, and chin rubs by the big bull.  Such a sweet exchange between what we deemed father and son (or maybe grandfather/grandson.)

Before long, there were several more male elk making their way into the open field.  The sun was in its golden hour casting a golden light onto the bull's rack and also outlined their bodies with the light.  Once the sun finally disappeared behind the tree line the cool evening air gave a new energy.  The elk stopped grazing and started noticing the other males standing near them.  Soon, several sets of elk began the sniffing process followed by the lowering of the heads.       It was time to spar! 
The cow (female) looking onward as the two bulls challenge one another to a duel.

Two wild elk bulls spar while two wild turkeys meander through the edge of the tree line.
Head to Head
"Boys Night Out"
Four elk sparring at Cataloochee Valley

This visit was by far my most favorite!  Despite the passing vehicles, the crowds gathering in around me, chit-chatting with the photographer next to me, I became so drawn into watching these magical creatures in nature that time felt like it was standing still.  I was lost in another world even if only for a little while.  And when it was finished, I looked around me and became amazed at what I saw.  There were people as far as the eye could see, all wrapped around that big open field, together - as one - to watch nature.  Truly spectacular! 
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. ~ WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

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