Images by Phoebe Carnes
The early morning mist had just dissipated as the sun began to rise over the mountains. The Oconaluftee River was clear and cold, rejuvenated from a light shower the previous night. A cow watched me warily from the forest, ears up and nostrils twitching as she deciphered my scent. A fuzzy copper head peaked out from beneath her rounded mahogany belly: a calf, no more than a few weeks old, who seemed just as apprehensive about my presence.
The mother bleated to him, and he responded with a higher-pitched squeak. Two younger cows stood behind her, their own babes staying close to their sides. There was clearly a matriarchy at play as they waited for the older cow’s decision. Upon deciding that I wasn’t a threat, the first cow marched forward, stepping into the chilly river with a sort of poised grace. Her calf galloped closely behind her, only hesitating for a moment before splashing in.
The water lapped at his neck, and he seemed to take this as a challenge. He leapt forward, bleating excitedly as droplets flew around him. The cow paused, watching his antics as the river got deeper and deeper, so much so that he was practically swimming. They continued on without issue, the calf shaking off crystal-clear droplets from his coat once he reached the shore.
Following her example, the younger cows began taking their young across the river. The little ones were not as old as the first calf, and were certainly not as experienced either. The second the river hit their chest, they both squealed in alarm, rushing back to shore in a flurry of fur and spray. Perhaps it was the sudden pull of the current or maybe the icy temperature of the Oconaluftee. Either way, neither calf was eager to get back in, and they stood shivering by the shoreline.
The mothers stopped, coaxing them back into the river with soft bleats. The calves were hesitant, instead answering them with their own frantic cries. After some back and forth, the mothers returned to the shore, seeming to comfort and rally their young with nuzzles and a few licks on the head. They ushered them back into the water, though they stayed in the shallows for a while, allowing the calves to get used to the chill and feel of the current tugging at their legs.
Though still shaken at first, they soon took to the feel of the Oconaluftee, prancing around as if they owned the river. Their mothers then took them across, choosing to go a slightly shallower path than they had before.
After watching this interaction, I remember feeling a sense of honor. I have been lucky enough to witness many intimate moments with these animals, though none quite as impactful as this one. The fact that these mothers gave me the chance to see and capture these few minutes is incredible to me.
I also found myself with a sense of pride. Perhaps I’m being too sentimental, or perhaps I’m growing too attached to wild animals, but watching these young calves eagerly discovering their world and learning about themselves made me realize their importance.
Every individual in our herd is vital, and these little ones are no different. Perhaps one will grow to become the next King of Oconaluftee, or another might nurse her own calves to adulthood. One might be the first of their herd to make it to Cades Cove, reclaiming the land that once belonged to elk centuries ago.
I have spent the past year observing the elk of Oconaluftee—learning about the story of their disappearance from the landscape and reintroduction, their fascinating biology, the rule of the dominant bulls, and their profound relationship with the Oconaluftee River. I have learned much about them but even more from them, as silly as that likely sounds. Elk are unlike any other creature we have here in our mountains, not only in size and strength, but in biology and behavior as well. The future of elk in the Smokies is bright, though there are still issues working to be addressed.
Human-animal conflicts are becoming more prevalent, and since elk do not understand borders, they are beginning to wander and expand their range outside of the park. Unfortunately, once they leave the protection and security that the park provides, they are more susceptible to other dangers, such as highways, new diseases, and wild dogs.
Nevertheless, these elk have overcome nearly every hurdle, and they continue to amaze. With this year being the 20-year anniversary of their reintroduction to the Great Smoky Mountains, it only makes sense that we continue to educate ourselves about these remarkable creatures, so that we may protect them and their habitat for generations to come.