Driving through middle Kentucky at 55 miles per hour, my wife pointed out deer just off the road. I quickly turned around and pulled into a gravel road leading up the mountain. I parked the car and this big guy was down a small hill and could only see his head and antlers. There were several other lurking about including a few calves.
When this guy came up to the road about 50 feet from me (I was leaning on the hood of the car) I thought he was awfully large for a deer and my wife thought they were elk. Being the city boy I am, I had no clue. I showed the photo to my uncle who said it in fact was an elk and we what we came across was a very rare find.
Cataloochee Valley is one of those places I could picture myself sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a log cabin. It is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is located in the north east corner of the park in North Carolina. The area and valley is reminiscent of Cades Cove at the other end of the park with it’s many historic buildings and fantastic scenery.
It is however not as easy to access. The closest town is Maggie Valley and it takes about an hour to get there. It is not far distance wise but the majority of the road is very steep, winding and narrow. There is about 5 miles of a one lane gravel winding road with steep drop offs and no guard rails. This part of the drive is a little nerve racking and exhausting.
Because it is a challenge getting there the number of tourists is minimized. It is well worth the trip just to see the Elk!!
I actually saw this viral video before we went to see the Elk. This was shot a little over a year ago in Catloochee Valley where I had my encounter. The behavior of the bull in this video is a direct result of people visiting the park and not obeying the rules. By feeding and approaching these or any other animals not only do you put yourself at risk but others to follow.
The photographer in this video was doing the same thing I was, taking photos from a safe distance when this bull caught him off guard by coming up behind him. Luckily for this man, the young bull was just being playful and not too serious. Unfortunately the Park Service had to put this animal down because he was becoming a danger to visitors. A full-grown male truly rutting could have easily made this a deadly situation. Continue reading Lessons Learned from Interacting with the Elk→
I discovered last year that Elk had been re-introduced into the Smokey Mountains in 2000. The small herd has grown to over 150. I’ve tried a few times to visit over the last year but, as Cataloochee Valley is out-of-the-way and hard to reach, I have not been able to make this happen. I was bound and determined to see the Elk on this trip to North Carolina.
We left our hotel in Maggie Valley early in the morning not being sure if the road was open into the valley due to recent snow. The cards were in our favor as we drove over the mountain on a winding, one lane gravel road with no guard rails and sheer drop offs and found the gates open. We drove slowly through the valley looking for the elk. At the southern end of the valley, we came across a herd of about 40 having breakfast and basking in the sun.
We had read the flyer on interacting with elk and the park service is pretty serious about protecting them. Basically, these are really big mammals that can be aggressive and to stay away from them. We parked the car along the road and I got out and walked about 30 feet from the car. It was 22 degrees, so Jennifer stayed in the car. I was about 300 yards from the herd and started taking a bunch of pictures.
Now the car is parallel to the road with woods and a stream on the other side of the car at my back. I finished taking about 15 pictures and turned around and froze. Standing in front of the car was a large female elk looking right at me. She was no more than 40 feet away. I noticed immediately that her piercing eyes were at a higher level than mine. As my new acquaintance and I stared each other down many things went through my brain:
I just had spinal cord surgery 2 months ago and CAN NOT run.
My cane is in the backseat of the car (weapon?)
Where in the hell did she come from?
How does something that big sneak up on you?
She is closer to the car than I am.
How did Jennifer not see this and warn me?
Is she in a good mood?
I could be on the evening news being interviewed in my hospital bed.
This could end up ugly……
The elk and I maintained eye contact. I yelled at Jennifer because she was oblivious to why my face looked so awkward. Jennifer finally saw our new friend and realized there was nothing she could do either.
Still maintaining eye contact I could sense it was going to be okay. Something about the elk’s demeanor and eyes indicated to me that she was probably just as curious as I was and she knew I posed no threat. I have no idea how long it was from when I first saw this beauty until she started to slowly walk towards the herd.
Her trek toward the herd brought her within 15 feet of me. I shook off my shock and was able to get off 3 shots of her as she walked by. The first click of the camera put her in a trot and she was soon with the rest of the herd.
As I think back, I am still stunned. Having that short few moments of eye contact with this incredible animal will always be a surreal and incredible memory that I will not soon forget…..