Story and Image by Don McGowan
I will always consider one of the singular highlights of my career to have been the opportunity to be a very small part of the elk reintroduction to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I took pictures.
The great bulk of the credit for the work to reintroduce these magnificent creatures lies in the dream and determination of Kim DeLozier, who, for many years, until 2010 when he retired from NPS, was the Smokies chief biologist. The story of his great effort can be found in excellent book by Rose Houk entitled Smoky Mountain Elk: Return of the Native. Before, on, and after February 2, 2001, it was my privilege to follow DeLozier and other park personnel, Friends of the Smokies staff, Great Smoky Mountains Association employees and others around as the reintroduction plans were created and executed.
In addition to fitting comfortably into the category of “big, sexy megafauna,” elk are endlessly fascinating creatures with an array of interesting behavioral oddities to carry them through their lives. For example, during the days leading up to the annual mating season, or ‘rut’ as it is known, the bulls of the herd prepare for the upcoming games by doing everything they can think of to make themselves appear as big and as bad as they possibly can. Note to other bulls: “That’s right, I’m bad.” They find soft earth on which they can urinate and then wallow in the mud they have created in order to cover themselves with the interesting smell; they find strands of vines and other vegetation with which to adorn their antlers as a visual message.
And sometimes in their efforts, they can get a bit carried away, if only from a human perspective; and thus, the young bull in our image. He had found a puddle of mud just outside of the small corral by the ranger station at the entrance to the valley in Cataloochee and, after enjoying a dip, had noticed a fresh bale of hay along the rails of the pen. With appropriate gusto, he had ripped into the bale and begun tossing sections of hay into the air so that they came down across his immature, but growing, rack, streaming down across his muzzle, and, by the time he was finished and satisfied with himself, draping almost to the ground. Thus adorned, he struck a fine pose, as if to announce, “Okay, ladies, I’m here,” and “Guys, who wants to be first?” For my part, I was loath to suggest to him how comical he really seemed, given that he was hardly the largest male in the herd, and was nowhere near as mature, or experienced, as several other contenders.
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
~Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa), Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota Nation
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.
Editor’s Note: After retiring from NPS, Kim Delozier went on to work for nearly a decade with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and has to this day been unable to successfully retire.