I mentioned last time that I entered Cataloochee looking for the elk herd that had been reintroduced there in 2001. Well, I wasn’t alone in that pursuit that day. As I ventured deeper and deeper into the valley, I found myself in a carnival atmosphere. I believe it was a Friday evening and people from all around were gathering to spend an evening in the cove. Apparently elk watching is a popular pastime in western North Carolina! There are several large meadows in the cove that are prime grazing ground for the elk herd. People had parked all along the edges of the pastures waiting for the herd to appear from the tree line to feed in the lush fields.
I waited along with them for a while hoping to have an up close and personal encounter with an elk – preferably a bull. I paused at several spots but frankly didn’t have the patience to wait several hours for the herd to potentially appear. In fact, it was getting to be late in the afternoon and I wanted a chance to see a sunset somewhere. Cataloochee was great for some images but it definitely was not a sunset location. So, I headed out of the valley hoping to make it up to Newfound Gap or Clingmans Dome for sunset on my way back to Townsend.
Of course, once I had made up my mind to leave the valley, I found several young bulls. I noticed them the same way most people notice game in national parks. I saw a lot of cars haphazardly pulled off onto the shoulder and their drivers gesticulating wildly and taking pictures. This could only mean there was a bear or an elk sighting. I stopped along with the masses and pulled out my gear. There were three bulls grazing near the Cataloochee ranger station. Unfortunately, their racks weren’t well-developed and the background was not great. I took thirty minutes or so anyway thinking I wouldn’t get another opportunity until spring to photograph them.
Then, I set out for the somewhat lengthy drive down the eastern side of the park and towards Clingmans Dome. I figured that if I could maintain the speed limit and not hit any more traffic tie ups, I could just make it. For the most part, that’s what I encountered. There are always slow pokes on mountain roads. Fortunately, there were passing lanes and shortcuts that helped speed me along. Nevertheless, it became obvious that I would be arriving very close to sunset. I pushed on.
I took the Blue Ridge Parkway as a shortcut towards Cherokee knowing that it would dump me out at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. From there it would be about a thirty minute drive up the mountain to Clingmans Dome. As I came to the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and turned onto US 441, I could tell I had a problem – and an opportunity. Another one of those crowds that assemble when spotting wildlife had grown all along US 441 near the visitors center. There is a large pasture there – probably 200-300 acres – where another elk herd had come out to graze. And this herd was much closer to the road. In fact, a large bull was closest to the road and the background was lovely. I had to quickly make a decision. Would I push on to get my spot for sunset images or would I stop to take shots of the elk? Knowing that I have lots of sunrise and sunset images but few elk shots, I decided to stop.
I quickly mounted my D800, 70-200, and 1.7x teleconverter on my tripod. I found a great spot and started firing away. As I held my position the herd started moving toward me. I was able to take more and more closeup images of the elk – specifically this young bull. At one point the bull moved so close that the ranger insisted we move further away for our own safety. I grudgingly complied. Fortunately, I was able to find another spot in the median that allowed me to shoot without interference.
I really couldn’t ask for much more with these images. The gear I was using created tack sharp images. The background of green grass contrasted nicely with the brown tones of the elk. The bokeh of the 70-200 created a nice muted background. The ambient light was still plenty sufficient to shoot at ISO 400 which is very clean on the D800. Even the late fall colors created a muted color palette above the fence line in the background. I suppose I could be greedy and with that I could have caught the elk bugling for his mate, but that would be a bit much. All in all, I’m very pleased with this image. And, I even made it to the top of the mountain for the end of sunset. But, that’s a story for another day. Enjoy.