Here’s the picture you’ve been waiting to see. Now I’m not sure if anyone will read past this.
I arrived today in Cataloochee Valley to find a row of empty cars opposite the Palmer Chapel and no one in sight. I jumped out of my car and saw over twenty visitors in the woods within kissing distance of elk #67 and his cows. I walked through the poison ivy and told everyone to get back to the road. “The elk could charge at any time.” And they did! Oh the power of a uniform.
We all watched as elk #67, still the dominant bull in the valley, strut across the road and settle on the Palmer Chapel lawn. A couple of people wanted to see the Chapel and had to wait. The male on one side of the road and his females on the other is not a stable situation. It was only a matter of time until all the elk were all going to be on the same side.
I drove down to the end of the valley and did my usual walk to the Woody House and beyond. A park employee on a mower passed me by. Did you ever wonder how the lawn in front of the Woody House stays so nice? Park employees mow it and even weed eat it. Otherwise, the vegetation would just envelop the house. Lots of visitors walked today, including a couple from Windsor, outside of London. And a couple walking their dog – I told them that dogs were not allowed on the trail and they were genuinely surprised. The Park has to make these signs bigger.
Coming back, I stopped at the Caldwell House and met two couples with three dogs between them. Somehow, they felt that they could take their dogs everywhere. I wasn’t sure if I could tell them to put their dogs back in the car but I certainly did not let them bring their dogs in the house and possibly soil the floors.
When I came back to the field after the Palmer House, I found the action. Elk #67 was on the right side with his harem. Elk #21, shown above, was bugling pitifully. There were three other young males, eating quietly. Cars were lined on both sides of the road with people watching intently. I walked up to each car in turn and said Hi and explained a little of what was going on.
Elk #21 had a bum front right leg and limping. I think he was in a fight with #67 and obviously lost. As I headed back to my car, elk #67 mounted a cow – in case you’re thinking about the expression “getting it on”. I wonder how all those parents explained this behavior to their children.
I was wondering about the evolutionary advantage of elk harems. Isn’t nature supposed to spread its DNA around? Joe Y., the Smokies wildlife biologist, explained it this way. “The dominant male is supposed to be the perfect male. Besides any one elk only stays dominant for two to three years. Then another one pops up.”
Joe said that Elk #67 was six years old. The one he beat out, elk #16, was ten – past his prime.