Got Elk? Day Two: Jackpot!
By Karen Swain
Sunday morning we were allowed to sleep in until 6, and after breakfast we hit the road again for the Cataloochee Valley. We bypassed the two bulls grazing near the Ranger station and headed for the first large meadows, where the main herd turned out to be. Across from the herd was a magnificent un-tagged bull lying near a number of grazing cows. What could be going on? Across the road the now dominant bull (#116) was also lying down in the midst of a larger herd and bugling occasionally. When he got up and started walking we noticed that he had a limp. I wondered if the limp had anything to do with the proximity of the other bull, and whether some cows had strayed from the dominant bull’s harem. Although the rut was mainly over, I was surprised to see that he was allowing any cows to get so close to another bull.
We’d been watching and taking photos for a while when bull #116 started coming directly towards us, and when he kept coming we all quickly moved back to give him some space. I got in the van, and snapped photos excitedly while he came within a few yards of the vehicle. It didn’t seem the morning could get any better, but we still had one major surprise ahead.
A third bull entered the far end of the meadow and started working his way down the valley towards the first untagged bull. The defending bull moved nearer the challenger, and started to dig in the ground with his antlers, tossing up bits of grass and dirt. The challenger followed suit, and they walked beside each other for a while before finally turning in opposition and charging towards each other, antlers lowered. The clatter of antlers powered by hundreds of pounds of combined muscle filled the valley. Finally defeated, the challenger walked away, closely followed by the defending bull until he was apparently satisfied the other bull was really leaving.
Video by Mike Dunn
By the time I turned my attention back to bull #116 he was on his feet, courting one of the cows, as they do, by flicking his tongue at her. I was lucky enough to catch this on video, and the bugle that immediately followed. Limp or no limp, he was still hanging on to his harem.
Video by Karen Swain
All grins and elated chatter at what we’d seen, we boarded the vans and headed for the other end of the valley. Mike and Melissa whipped up some hot cider while we were doing our next activity, a round-robin history of Cataloochee Valley. Each of us was given a slip of paper with a paragraph and a photo about some aspect of the local history, and we arranged ourselves by date and went around the circle reading our piece. My slip included the fact that in 1900 a pound of coffee in the Cataloochee Valley could be had in exchange for 16 eggs.
We hiked over a cool log bridge and up a hill to the elk introduction area, a wood-fenced pen spanning about two acres. It takes a high fence to keep elk in! We had time for one final activity on elk behavior. Each of us was given a slip of paper with the name of a behavior and descriptions of what the elk look like while behaving that way, and had to do our best to imitate the behavior and join the other person in the group who’d been given the same behavior. Mercifully, no photos exist of this activity, but we did have a laugh.
We headed back to the lodge, bidding final farewell to the elk, and stopping briefly at a scenic overlook to snap photos. On the way home I mused on the two days and how lucky I felt to have participated in the trip and seen such dramatic behavior from the elk, and how much I had learned along the way.