Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Bull Elk With A Huge Set

A few weeks ago I went camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and of course I was also there to photograph the Smoky mountain fall colors.  I started off camping in one of my favorite places in this beautiful country, Cades Cove.  The best part of shooting in the fall is not just the colors, but the wildlife are at their prime and can be easily found because they're taking in the autumn bounty of nuts and berries before the cold winds of winter take hold.

In Cades Cove I was getting some great animal shots along with the colors of the surrounding hardwood forests.  I wanted to also visit my favorite river location to capture the colors of the forest with smooth flowing rapids, so I drove down the road a bit to the Middle Prong of the Little River.

While skipping...well maybe not skipping....while maneuvering from rock to rock to find the best angle, tragedy struck.  No, I didn't hurt myself. But to a photographer out looking for sweeping scenic shots of a Smoky Mountain autumn it was the next worst thing. I slipped on a moss covered rock and when the dust settled, or rather the water and I settled, I noticed my wide angle lens was no longer where it belonged.  When I tried reconnecting it to my camera, well, that just wasn't happening.  Yes...a scenic photographer in the Smoky Mountains during the peak of autumn and he has no scenic lens. Well, I didn't panic.  Afterall, what can you do?  I went back to camp and made lunch.

Now I still had another lens.  My long lens is an awesome lens, but it's best for shooting wildlife and distant vistas.  Not much good for those colorful scenics that I was hoping for. But, there is plenty of wildlife in Cades Cove so I just adjusted my goals and looked for good opportunities for some unique animal shots.  In the autumn bear, deer and coyotes can be seen from just off the road in most of Cades Cove.  There are also a few herds of horses still maintained in the park.

But I began to want something more than the typical wildlife shots I had been getting for years.  So that night at camp I decided after shooting the morning wildlife activities in Cades Cove, I would pack up and travel to Cataloochee Valley on the other side of the park.  In 2001 The National Park Service reintroduced Elk back into The Great Smoky Mountains National Park when they released twenty-five elk into this valley on the eastern side of the park.  The next year twenty-seven more were released and by 2011 there were approximately 140 elk roaming where the last known elk siting was in the late 1800's. 
The ride to the Cataloochee Valley was phenomenal. Riding in from Gatlinburg took me over a long dirt road, twisting and winding through hardwood forests of yellow, green and red. It took me a few hours to finally reach Cataloochee, but once I arrived I knew I was going to enjoy my stay here.  Cataloochee is a long narrow valley with a two-lane road going from end to end.  Once I set up camp I drove to the other end of the valley to look for elk. This is where the title of my story, A Bull Elk With A Huge Set, comes in.  After traveling down the road going through groves of hardwood trees, passing old buildings and open meadows and following a babbling brook, I reached the end of the road.  After taking a short hike along the brook I decided to look for some elk.  I backtracked down the road and to my left I spotted a big bull hugging the tree line.  I got out and set up for my first shots, but when I looked through the viewfinder I noticed the bull was missing something.

This bull only had one antler.  The one antler he had was huge, but obviously he had already met his match on the field of rutting bulls.  I really had no doubt that he had lost that antler in a battle of testosterone with a bigger, probably older bull. Although the one antler he did have had really good size to it, the elk to me appeared to still be a rather young bull.  So I took a few shots of him and started down the road to look for a bull with a full set of antlers.  After all, how could I use shots of a one-antlered bull elk.  But just as I was about to leave a movement in the woods to my right revealed another bull arriving on the scene and this one had a full set on him.

Right away this new visitor to this meadow noticed the disadvantaged bull.  And my first thought was that this had to be the rival that had beaten this younger one-antlered bull.  After taking a few more bites of grass, our boy quickly headed to the forest to let the newcomer claim this territory, which to me was more proof that this newcomer was the victor of the previous unseen battle. After taking a few more shots, the sun was already setting behind the surrounding mountains so I decided to head on in to my campsite for the night.

At first light the next morning I made my way to the first meadow in the valley where I had noticed a bull watching over a herd of cows and their young.  He was a good sized bull, bugling often and testing the air to see if he could sense any one of the cows that could be ready to mate.

The cool air and the soft light of morning made great conditions for shooting.  Whenever the bull would raise his head to send his claim on this territory throughout the valley, his breath could be seen blowing from his mouth. He went from cow to cow searching for any sign that one was ready to accept him.
After a while I noticed the bull's attention drawn to something behind me.  All of a sudden he paid no attention to the cows in his harem, but something was more interesting to him now.  When I turned I couldn't believe what I saw.
Coming all the way from several miles up the valley, our friend from the day before was crossing the road and making a beeline to this harem of cows.  The bull who claimed this territory and everything in it was now following the same beeline and I thought surely the one-antlered bull would know he stood no chance with this bull in his prime...and a full set.  

I was amazed! When the apparent dominate bull approached the one-antlered bull, our friend lowered his head, scratched the ground with his hooves and lunged forward.  The two met as the clatter of intertwined antlers sounded across the valley.  The cows of the herd, who just seconds before were grazing in common oblivion, raised their heads to watch the battle before them.  The bulls twisted and pushed each other, but it was obvious from the start that the outgunned bull had no chance against the bigger bull who still had his full set.  And after a couple of minutes the lesser bull began to give way and was being pushed back.  And suddenly it was over.  The losing bull quickly trotted towards the forest with the victor following for a short distance.  
The winning bull stood there proud, saliva dripping from his mouth from the adrenaline of the fight.  Although he looked magnificent standing there backlit by the morning sun, I still held most of my respect for the losing one-antlered bull.  He went into this fight knowing he was at a disadvantage.  Watching him during the brief encounter, he always lead with his one antler, keeping the other side of his head back protecting it from the sharp weapons of his foe.  But still he fought. He knew what he wanted and he had to at least try. Although this young bull, who was now at least 2-0 this season in the fighting ring, lost this round, he'll be back next year and the next.  This bull proved on that morning, that although he doesn't have a huge set of antlers like this year's rivals, he does have A Huge Set know what I mean.

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