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.

The Great Smoky Mountain Wildlife Shoot

Last weekend we went on a river cruise in search of Whooping Cranes (well, in honor of the Sandhills).  While there, two people advised me to go to the Cataloochee Valley to see elk.  On a complete whim, I talked Pat into spending the weekend in Asheville, North Carolina and getting up at 5:15AM on Saturday morning to go shoot some elk.

Let’s recap:  I looked up the Cataloochee Valley, determined how long it would take us to get there, looked up sunrise time to make sure we would get there for the best light (and at a time the elk were likely to be active), looked at the weather forecast to ensure I owned enough layers to possibly stay warm, carefully decided which gear I would carry, found a hotel that didn’t charge more to have a dog than to stay in the room, and determined where Tisen was allowed to go in the park.

Fast forwarding back to Saturday morning, we arrived at the designated intersection only to realize that was the entry to the park, not the entry to the actual valley.  We wound our way up through the mountains slowly, encountering more and more snow as the elevation increased.  Behind use, the sun started coming up.  We paused long enough for me to snap a shot with my iPhone–my “real” camera being out of reach without climbing out of the car on a 1 ½ lane mountain road with 2-way traffic.

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We made it to the Cataloochee valley gate before the light got too bright.  But alas, the gate was closed.  And locked.

Since dogs are not allowed on any trails in the Cataloochee area, we decided to take Tisen for a walk along the closed road.  Given that there was no one else there, we even cheated and let him off leash.  This may have been the first time he ever frolicked in snow.  He’s never run free in snow in the 2 years he’s been with us, at least.

Since there were no elk in sight, I practiced shooting my playful pup.

No elk appeared.  Pat was pretty sure we were still 10 miles from the prime viewing area when we turned around.  We we got back to the car, a Dark-eyed Junco was kind enough to pose for me, even in a wind strong enough to ruffle his feathers.

On the drive back down, we stopped to shoot some cattle.  They were quite curious about us.  Enough so that I found myself wondering if the feed truck happens to be a mini-van very similar to ours.  I started getting nervous when they all started walking toward me briskly–including a bull with a large ring in his nose glinting in the increasing light.  The fence between us was about 3-feet high and consisted of 3 flimsy strings of barb-wire.

With the exception of a Junco, I ended up with images of the domestic version of “wildlife.”

Weekend Road Trip

It’s Saturday morning and I manage to sleep until 6AM–woo hoo!  We are leaving for Great Smoky Mountain National Park today and we have no plan and haven’t started to pack.  First, we decide we will camp, but not backpack.  This tells us what we will need.  Next, we decide we will enter the park from the South side, which tells us how we will get there.  Next, we head for the storage room and start digging out our gear.  Most of our camping gear is neatly packed into our two backpacks, but my sleeping bag and the camp stove are missing.  Back in the storage room, we dig up my sleeping bag, stored full and puffy in it’s large storage bag so that it doesn’t lose loft.  I love my sleeping bag.  It’s a Western Mountaineering down, water resistant bag that weighs next to nothing but manages to keep me warm in sub-freezing temperatures.  I toss the big bag in the air a few times just to appreciate how light it is.  We find the camp stove (well, it’s really a super-light single burner that screws directly onto a small propane tank) in a plastic storage container that also has bug spray, an extra flashlight, wet wipes (a must for camping), and two super-absorbent, fast-drying camp towels.  We collect our booty and return down the hall to our apartment.

All of our gear is spread out on the floor, looking much like an explosion.  We sort through what we need for camping in the front-country from what we only need for back-country.  Having decided not to backpack, we need less stuff but don’t have to worry so much about how much space it occupies.  We thought we were going to take our mini-van so that we’d have the option to sleep in the van if the weather turned nasty, but the front brakes were making some nasty noises when we drove the day before (making Pat extremely angry since he’d just had the brakes done a month ago and the dealership had ensured him the front brakes were fine) and we decide we’d better take the BMW.  It’s a small car and we don’t want to have to leave anything valuable sitting in the seats, so we debate whether we should roll the sleeping bags into their impossibly small stuff sacks or leave them in their storage bags.  Deciding they will fit in their storage bags, we move on to packing clothing.  I grab two pairs of hiking pants, a couple of high-tech T-Shirts that will dry fast when wet.  Then I choose some bra tops that are comfortable for hiking, my five-fingers trekking shoes, a pair of socks for night time, and the world’s most comfortable underwear, Ex Officio boy-cut briefs.  Normally, I would not mention my unmentionables, but these are just so awesome for the active woman that I can’t help but share.  I slip on a pair of cropped hiking pants and tank top along with my Chaco Z sandals.  I grab my 1-quart zip lock bag of toiletries from my trip to New York and remove the items I won’t need while camping.  I stuff it all into a reversible stuff sack that has a nice fuzzy interior that can be turned inside out and stuffed with the perfect aount of clothes to make a nice pillow.  Since we’re not worried about weight this trip, I throw in my neck pillow.

Now that my gear and garments are ready to roll, I focus on water.  Unfortunately, our faucet is one of those sprayer types that you can’t attach a water filter to.  I filter 2 gallons of water through our filter pitcher and fill two large water bladders for our day packs and a gallon jug to take with us.  We drink a lot of water when we hike.  Since we can’t carry the gallon of water with us, I also prep our backpacking water filter that will allow us to safely refill our bladders from any stream should we run out.  I’m a little paranoid about hiking.  Maybe not paranoid given my proclivity for hurting myself, but I like to make sure I always have a first aid kit, emergency blankets, and plenty of water.  I figure that ensures we can survive any accident for at least 3 days.  Even when we are taking short, easy hikes, I like to know that we’re prepared for disaster.  Maybe I’ve read too many stories about hikers who died from hypothermia after a minor injury laid them up on the trail, but I want to know that I will be able to stay warm, dry, and hydrated even if we’re only a couple miles from help.

Having gathered together all the necessities save food, we load up the car.  Pat decides to take two trips.  I wait for him outside, keeping an eye on the car now that I’ve put my backpack containing my camera gear in the front seat.  He returns with the last load and we pile in and head out.  I am practically bouncing in my seat as we head out of town.  While part of me is so tired I want to lay around all weekend, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to spend a long weekend in the Smokies.  We talk about what we will do when we get there, since we still have no real plan beyond getting there.  Our first goal will be to find a campsite.  I’m somewhat worried that with it being a holiday weekend, there won’t be any available.  We also stop for gas and stock up on snack food so we can go straight from getting a campsite to going on a hike.  It’s taken us so long to get out the door that we won’t get there before 3PM.  I don’t want to miss out on a hike just because we don’t have any snacks to take with us (another little paranoid thing I have–unless I’m hiking in a metro park, I want to make sure we have some food on us).

It strikes me as funny that we spent so much time rushing around to get ready, yet we don’t know what we got ready for.  I pull out my iPad and start digging through old emails, trying to find the name of a trail a friend recommended to me.  Unfortunately, I’m not able to locate it.  I figure I’ll have to ask again and we’ll catch it next time.  I download an app that is supposed to help with planning a trip to the park, but it has little information about hiking trails.  I do searches and try to figure out where we should go when we get there, but in the end, I have to sit back and relax and assume that it will all work out.