Echoes in the mountains: A herd in sacred waters


Images by Phoebe Carnes

Before I began observing elk in Smokies, I never thought of them as water-loving creatures. But it wasn’t long before I learned that the elk here have a profound relationship with the Oconaluftee River that is as fascinating as it is multifaceted.

The Oconaluftee River (or Egwanulti) is considered to be sacred waters by the Cherokee people and has been used for centuries for food, water, medicine, travel, ceremony, and storytelling. Today, it is one of the most visited waterways in Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to its serene location and, more recently, heightened elk activity. Just as people frequent the trail that follows the river’s edge, the local elk herd uses it as a pathway. Wildlife, after all, will follow the path of least resistance, and a shore carved by a slow river serves as the perfect highway.

And it isn’t just the simplicity of travel that seems to attract elk to the Oconaluftee. The cold water brings down nutrients and minerals from higher elevations, feeding the lush greenery that grows along its edges. The thick foliage acts as the perfect bedding spot, and it is frequently used by cows to shelter their calves. As an added bonus, the river keeps the surrounding woods cooler, which attracts the herd during the heat of the day.

Elk are also attracted to the water itself. I often find them crossing the river when I go out searching, but they do not only use it as a pathway. Bulls enjoy deeper holes, and I’ve seen them go up to their necks in still waters during hot summer afternoons. Bull B in particular enjoys lounging in slow-moving currents. I’ve seen him close his eyes as the water laps at his chest, almost as if he was a few moments away from being lulled into a peaceful slumber.

Cows are seemingly more reckless, sometimes choosing to cross through faster-moving rapids as opposed to calmer, shallower paths. Their hooves, designed to traverse jagged and uneven terrain, allow them to tread over slick, algae-coated rocks with ease. They rarely slip, and even when they do, they are quick to recover and continue trudging forward.

One of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had with elk took place on a misty September morning. The sun had not fully risen above the mountains, and the Oconaluftee bubbled with fresh rain from the night before. I waited patiently beside the water, balancing rather precariously on a slippery, moss-covered rock. A cow stood along the river’s edge observing the fast-moving rapids before her. Twenty or so elk gathered behind her, pushed towards the Oconaluftee by Bull B.

The cow finally plunged in, the cool water lapping at her head as she swam across. The herd was quick to follow her lead, though some of the older cows and younger bulls chose a shallower path across. Once he ensured that everyone was across, Bull B marched out of the woods to bring up the rear, pausing briefly to take a drink.

I have had the opportunity to witness the herd using the Oconaluftee many times, and it’s an experience that never gets old. There’s something spectacular about seeing the herd in the water—an elegant show of both their power and grace. Seeing a creature of such mass in the Oconaluftee is an experience that can only be described as extraordinary.