As anyone in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho can tell you, elk are beasts. They’re big — bigger than you think — and they can be aggressive and moody and unpredictable. And they are kinda of everywhere. Backyards, front yards, woods, plains, and even in the sand dunes of Central Wyoming. And anyone who has lived for any time in Yellowstone National Park can’t even begin to describe the hidden pleasure of watching a bull go after a car that really deserves it.
But elk in the east? Elk in Tennessee? North Carolina? Virginia? Pennsylvania? Not exactly iconic species.
The Eastern Elk became officially extinct when the last one was shot in 1877. And since, much of the eastern mountains has been suffering from this megafauna gap in the ecosystem.
But starting in the early 1990s, states east of the Mississippi have been pushing and shoving to get their orders in for Rocky Mountain elk, largely the bastard children of poor wildlife management in Yellowstone National Park. And in 2001, Great Smoky Mountains National Park got its wish: 50 hardy beasties from Canada ready for implantation into what was a native land 100 years ago.
That number has since grown to more than 140, all centered in Cataloochee Valley on the eastern border of the park. You can only get to it via a gorgeous but sometimes arduous drive through North Carolina and up and around narrow, winding roads with nothing between you and the 100-foot drop down.
While this isolated valley — with several interesting historic sites — is normally docile and quiet, it becomes a veritable tailgate party in late September when the rut starts. Bring your camp chairs and enough food to last the whole day, and you, too, can plop down and wait for the elk to move from the woods (where they spend the morning) to the fields just across the road, where they head each day at about the same time in late-afternoon. Cars line the road and rangers and park volunteers stand at the ready to protect stupid people from approaching and feeding the elk, as well as to make a safe corridor across the park road for the ungulates to use.
The sound of the bugle is nothing strange to me (anymore) as a resident of the West. But to hear the eerie, almost mournful call of a bull echo through the hickory and maple forests and the skeletons of ill-fated hemlocks in the hollers of North Carolina is an inspiring experience, unexpected in light of the animals’ recent history.
Cataloochee Valley is definitely worth the visit, even if it isn’t during the rut. It is where visitors are most likely to see these recent returnees, and directions to this relatively remote part of the park can be found here.
Why Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list:
Here among the mountains the pinions of thought should be strong, and one should see the errors of men from a calmer height of love and wisdom. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
OK, if you’re wondering what I’ve been focusing on instead of bringing you tales of travel, my company, Izilwane, has been developing stories for National Geographic’s News Watch blog. What should we focus on and talk about? What are YOU, as readers, interested in? So here goes.
Introducing our very first blog (edited and partially written by Kat!): Introducing Izilwane, an environmental magazine! We’d love it if you guys could head over there and check it out!
Kat is now going to take this opportunity to plug a short article of hers, along with a wonderful photo gallery from photographer Geraint Smith. Visit Izilwane.org for some great articles about the human role in nature and why humans actually care about conservation (because let’s be honest, most of us genuinely don’t care about science).
To check out one of Kat’s awesome little pieces (more to come!), go to http://www.izilwane.org/geraint-smith1.html.
Interested in seeing more of Geraint’s photos? Visit his website at http://geraintsmith.com/.
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