A sound I’d never heard “You must stay off the field. It’s for your own protection,” said the friendly volunteer Ranger. Although I wanted to tell her that such a rule made little sense to me because I was a twenty year veteran of Cade’s Cove excursions where I photographed bucks and does at close range, I didn’t. Nor did I mention that Bill, one of my buddies, had been doing the same there for thirty.
But we were new to Cattaloochee, her territory, and she, Esther Blakely, was, according to her name tag, a certified volunteer. She continued, “These guys are full of testosterone. They’re explosive.”
None of us challenged her; Jack and Lewis didn’t even have their cameras. Both, like Bill, were prize winning photographers in their fields. They had patience to match their skills. For years, the three of them had been my mentors.
We’d spotted a sturdy male hundreds of yards away in the shadows on the far side of the field. Despite looking like a sitting shadow, his tall rack of antlers were visibly enormous, more than four feet high and spread almost that wide. Eager as I was to get a picture, I couldn’t. Minutes later, he ambled back into the woods of the mountain range that met the field.
Not long after that we heard an elk bugle from that same area. His mating call, a piercing high pitched wail, had the ring of an oversized flute mixed with the scrape of fingernails scratching a blackboard. Then there was another, less complex, more direct, it seemed. Rather than worry about photographs, I leaned against my car to enjoy the competing buglers.
Another muscular male appeared, reared his head, and sounded. Watchful, he seemed to count as his seven females hurriedly assembled like cows to a specific area of his pasture. Two smaller males approached him. In seconds, they were rebuffed, sent scurrying.
One of them, obviously older and slower, sauntered across the field in our direction. Very quickly, we realized he was headed for the stream directly behind and below us. Half a dozen followed him closely as he neared our edge of the field, climbed a few steps down to the road, then gingerly entered the stream. Without asking our Ranger’s permission, I snapped six closeups.
“Looks like he was wearing a collar,” I said to Esther, our vigilant Ranger. She looked to be in her late thirties. Unlike the other volunteers, she wasn’t casually dressed. Her uniform shirt had been neatly pressed; her hat was perfectly positioned. It didn’t move. Her makeup and lipstick might have suited a lawyer ready for a trial. She replied at once.
“It is a collar, a tracking device. Until three years ago, we put them on all of the elk. Since then, we haven’t. His will fall off eventually.”
I mentioned that it appeared as if she recognized each elk, as if they had names.
“In a strange way, I do,” she told me. “The one with the collar is number two. the other one who was chased away, number 17.”
Number two was the second oldest elk at Cattaloochee. He’d arrived when he was two. They’d been there for ten years. “So he’s about twelve,” I stated, as a preface to my next question. “Where’d he come from?”
“Colorado,” she told me, “paid for and supplied by a hunting club there.”
That made sense; another Ranger had said that, when the heard is sufficiently plentiful, they’ll raffle off chances to hunt some of the bucks. “For six or seven thousand dollars,” said the Ranger. “But that’ll be another five to ten years from now.”
Closer to us, more bugling came from the mountains. Chances were that the males knew they could out wait us. Ranger Esther said that it was almost time for us to scoot.
Reluctantly, I saluted number two; he’d done all he could for the herd. He was no longer part of the rut.
Our lady Ranger had made it clear that his weak bugling wasn’t a match for the vocals of younger and stronger males. He didn’t put up a fight about that. Indeed, it seemed that he was there, like us, resigned to enjoy the scenery, to reflect on the way things used to be.
I said goodbye to my friends as they left for the Cove. My path was toward Virginia although I wasn’t sure whether, with two hours of daylight remaining, I might try to make it to another place I’d never been.
B. Koplen 10/7/11