Finding Elk

As you may recall from last week’s post, Pat, Tisen, and I went to Asheville for the weekend and went up to Great Smoky Mountain National Park very early last Saturday morning in search of elk.

In photography, there is a phenomena I think of as the “lens law.”  This law dictates that when you have a long lens on your camera, you will see the best sweeping view ever (requiring a wide lens) and when you have a wide lens on your camera, you will see wildlife or distant subjects (which require a long lens).  This is why I often carry two cameras.

However, since we had given up on seeing any elk and were only going to do a short walk along a river behind the Oconaluftee visitor’s center, I slapped my 24-70mm lens on my full frame camera and left the second camera and long lens behind.  This is the surest way to guarantee you will see wildlife–just as leaving an umbrella in the car guarantees it will rain cats and dogs.

We made our way slowly down the 1 ½ mile trail with me stopping frequently to shoot.  The trail paralleled the main road to the visitor’s center with a line of trees between the trail and an open field leading to the road.  As we neared the turn-around point in the trail, I climbed down to the water’s edge to shoot ice on the river.  When I turned and climbed back up the bank to the trail, I was shocked to discover an entire herd of elk making their way into the grass field.

Cars on the park road started accumulating along the shoulder as passers-by gawked at the elk.  The elk, slightly nervous, moved deeper into the field.  We walked slowly along the trail, trying not to spook them with our movement, sending them back to the road.  I crept into the trees between us and the field, trying to only glance at them enough to confirm that they weren’t concerned about me moving closer.  When I got to a tree at the edge of the field, they all stopped and looked at me.  I froze and looked away.  They decided I was harmless and went back to grazing.  I fired off a few shots with my wide-angle lens, silently cursing myself for leaving my telephoto in the car.

Then, I moved slowly back to the trail and we high-tailed it back to the car.  After a quick lens change, we drove down the park road on the far side from the elk.  We sat on the shoulder, joining the rest of the gawkers, and I shot at will out an open car window.  While the light conditions weren’t what I’d planned for and grazing elk are not quite as dramatic as, say, elk playing or running or just about anything else, I was pretty darn pleased I got any shots of elk at all.

Shooting Elk

I really enjoy wildlife.  The more wild, the better (well, until I start to look like dinner).  I get a bigger thrill out of seeing a deer in the park than I do at the zoo.  I get an even bigger thrill seeing a deer in the backwoods than I do at a park.  The more remote an area, the bigger the thrill.

Elk are more exciting than deer proportional to their weight.  I think there’s probably an algorithm out there that someone has developed to calculate the level of excitement any given creature produces based on their size, elusiveness, rarity, and number of people they encounter in an average year.

Seeing an elk is more exciting both because it’s bigger and because it’s more rare.  At least for someone who’s lived East of the Mississippi for most of her life it’s more rare.  Where elk can be found in the East, they have been recently reintroduced.  They wear large tags around their necks that I suspect say things like “My name is Leroy.”

I don’t know why they look less wild than their relatives in the West, but they do.  Even though it’s more likely that you’ll run into an Elk while cruising down a highway in the Canadian Rockies than in Great Smokey National Park, when you see the Elk in Great Smokey National Park, you’ll swear it’s one of the ranger’s pets.  The “more rare = more wild” equation just doesn’t hold true in the East.

What all this adds up to is an inappropriate level of excitement about seeing a bunch of elk who live about an hour from Portland.  I thought we would have the best chance of seeing the Elk at dusk, so we stopped on our way back from Astoria at the Jewell Meadows Wildlife Preserve.  Granted, the website told us that the best time to see the elk was between November and April, but since we weren’t planning to be in Oregon between November and April, we figured we’d better take our chances.  Besides, it was pretty much on the way back to my dad’s.

We did not get to see the full herd of 200 elk, but we did get to see a couple dozen elk from a distance.  I thought they would be roaming around grazing a bit more than they were–I guess they go to bed earlier on the coast.

For about the thousandth time during our trip I wished I had a lens longer than 400mm.   I shot the elk anyway, hoping the resolution of my camera would be enough to allow me to crop the heck out of the photos.  Unfortunately, the photos didn’t withstand the crop.  Between the motion of me hand-holding the camera and the motion of the elk, the images are just not sharp enough.

Regardless, I’m still glad we stopped to shoot the elk.  I’m also glad I was shooting with a camera.  🙂

A Room with No View

Pat and I arrive at the South entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park around 3PM on Saturday.  We pull into the visitors’ center and I ask for available front-country campsites.  The ranger at the visitor’s center checks her list and rattles off all the campgrounds that are full.  It’s the first time we’ve had to ask a Southerner to slow down–we can’t keep up.  She shows us the list and advises us on which camp grounds with vacancies are closest.  We opt for Balsam Mountains even though there were only 12 sites left there as of 11AM.  It’s relatively close and it’s less popular, so we figured the odds that it will have filled are slim.

We drive through the Cherokee reservation to get to that part of the park, taking the Blue Ridge Skyway for a stretch.  It’s such a beautiful part of the country.  While Colorado and the Rockies have long been personal favorites, the Smokies have their own charm, covered in trees and draped in “smoky” clouds.  We enjoy the drive up to Balsam Mountain campgrounds although it takes longer than we expected.  It’s something I forget each time we go to a remote place–8 miles doesn’t take 8 minutes like on a highway.  As we crawl our way up the winding mountain road, we see wild turkeys along the road.  Each time, I get a step further in getting my camera together, but they disappear into the underbrush before I can get a shot off.

Then, Pat comes around a corner to see a motorcyclist pulled off in the grass on the left.  Across the grass field, a large bull elk stands with his head down, eating grass.  Pat stops the car and I get my camera out.  Having been well versed on personal safety and elks in the Canadian Rockies (where we were told that the vast majority of animal/people encounters resulting in injury are between elk and humans), I stay in the car.  However, I’m shooting with my big lens and sitting in a running vehicle.  I curse my aging eyes that I can’t tell if the pictures are clear or not from the LCD on the camera.  As soon as I put my camera down and we start to roll forward, the elk lifts his head and looks at us straight on with a mouth full of grass.  What a great shot that would have been.  We wind our way slowly by the elk, who watches us go as if he appreciates the entertainment of us stopping to gawk.

We make it to the camp grounds and go on a quest to find an empty site.  The first site in is empty, but it has a handicapped sign.  We debate the rules of occupying a handicapped site.  Is it like a parking place, which you can never park in without a sticker?  Or is it like a handicapped stall in the restroom, which you would only use if all other stalls are full?  We decide to drive on and see if anything else is open just so we don’t have to deal with the dilemma.  Fortunately, there is another site that looks to have good shade.  The sites are smaller than in most state parks and a little more on top of each other than I would like, although still more private than some of the commercial campgrounds I’ve seen.  There is a gravel pit framed with wood for pitching the tent.  The gravel is fine enough not to be bumpy but large enough to hold stakes.  We pitch our 2-man tent (which Pat says is perfect for 1 person) quickly, spread the rain-fly over it, stake it all down, blow up our Big Agnes air mattresses, and I crawl inside to get things positioned properly.  It’s good that there is no view from the campsite because the rain-fly prevents us from seeing anything other than an orange glow from inside the tent anyway.  Deciding not to put our sleeping bags in the tent yet, we head back to the entrance to fill out our site information and pay our $14 for the night.  We also make a pit stop at the restroom, which has running water, although only cold.

When we return to the site with our permit, two rangers are making rounds.  They stop to warn us about bears and about not keeping food in our tent.  One is familiar with Chattanooga and he and Pat end up chatting while I talk to the other about potential places to go for an evening hike.  He recommends Flat Creek Trail, which has one end near the campground and the other end a few miles down the road.  He says there have been many bear reports in that area and I look forward to the opportunity to see a bear (although preferably not too close).  We’ve encountered black bears several times on various hikes and have never had a problem.  However, I wouldn’t want to run into one in close proximity or come between a mother and her cubs.

We gather up the gear we’ll need for the hike.  We plan to go no more than 5 miles round trip with the amount of light left, so only one day pack will be needed.  I will, of course, haul my camera gear along with us just in case I get the chance to shoot a black bear.  Packing everything we don’t need back into the trunk of the car for security, we load back into the car and head back the way we came, deciding to start at the far end of the trail where we will be further from the humans at the campground.

As we pull out of the camp grounds, Pat spots 3 wild turkeys on the side of the road.  I’m excited by the number of wild turkeys in the park–they were once such a rare occurrence.  They, of course, dart behind tall grasses and disappear down the slope before I can get a shot.  If only they would pose for me instead of running away!  But, I suppose their quick retreat into hiding partly explains the resurgence of the population, so I’m glad that they know not to trust humans.  After we go around a few more curves, we encounter our elk friend again.  This time, a white SUV is stopped in the middle of the road and a woman is standing outside the vehicle with the door closed shooting our friend who has bedded down in the grass.  We stop and wait.  The SUV pulls off to the side to allow us to pass and the elk decides to stand.  Now, if I were that woman standing there completely exposed with no quick escape, I would start walking backwards and get into the car.  However, she takes two more steps forward, trying to get a close-up shot with a small point-and-shoot camera.  Pat passes the SUV slowly, although I really want to stay and watch just to see what happens.  As we go by, the elk looks at us with an expression that makes me think he’s asking us, “What the heck is up with this woman?”

We head on down the road and just a few curves later, find our trailhead.  We gear up and prepare to head down the trail.  Pat wears the day pack with our water and I sling my big lens on its monopod over my shoulder and we start off.