By Cass Girvin
Western Albemarle High School Photography Instructor
Most of the year, elk are a fairly boring animal. The males stay separated from the females and all of the animals focus strictly on eating. But for a brief month in the midst of fall, the rut is on; the males congregate near the females to compete for their affections and are generally far more active and virile than any other time of the year. Testosterone pumping through their swollen bodies, the males constantly run around, often fighting one another or bugling loudly into the chilly air. Due to the vigorous exercise and the fact that they don’t spend anywhere near as much time eating as usual, the bull elk can lose a few hundred pounds, or up to 20% of their body weight.
The scene described above is exactly what a handful of advanced photography students at Western Albemarle High School experienced in early October. Six “Photo 3/4” students traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with their teacher to photograph the peak of the elk rut. The Smoky Mountains are one of just a small handful of locations where elk can be spotted east of the Mississippi River. Completely extirpated from the eastern states by the late 1860s, the National Park Service reintroduced elk to the Smokies in 2001. Since then their numbers have flourished, leading to excellent viewing opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts and general tourists year-round.
Elk are most active during the cooler hours around the cusp of day, so students were in the field for three hours each dawn and each dusk for two days. They were able to capture many behaviors, including males competing, calves nursing, elk drinking from a river, elk in a field, males corralling females, and many others. See some of the students’ photos below.