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The Return of Mystical Beasts

There are certain animals that for me hold the secrets of fantasy and mysticism. Elk are one of those species. While some may view the elk as just "oversized deer", they have played a significant role in Native American culture where Native Americans used elk hides for a source of blankets and coverings. The teeth became adornments in jewelry. One such culture, the Anasazi depicted these creatures in cave drawings.

As a photographer they have enthralled me as many animals do. They are elusive, huge but quiet. They look stoic and sensitive all at the same time in the right light. Watching them through the viewfinder of my camera makes me feel in awe of their beauty and respectful. A male elk can reach 700 pounds, but as I held the camera all I saw was grace and dignity.

Tucked within rugged mountains in North Carolina, lies still one of the most remote parts of the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cataloochee Valley. In the past elk were plentiful in this area, but like many other animals they were over hunted and habitat destruction led to the elk's disappearance. In 2001 the National Park service reintroduced 25 elk to the Cataloochee Valley from Kentucky. The following year 27 we introduced to the herd from Alberta, Canada. An experiment, as many scientists were unsure how the elk would fare especially against black bears. Transplanted elk also often suffer from disease, so it was unsure how this would all work out.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Elk's reintroduction and the elk are thriving. Radio collars are placed on some of the elk to track their movements and for the overall health of the herd. The elk population in the valley today is estimated to be around 150. They graze unknowingly of their celebrity status as tourists come to view them. Park rangers spend a great deal of their day making sure that the elk are not fed and also remain wary of humans.

A key to the elk's success in this region is indeed the remote location of the Cataloochee Valley. The valley itself has one main road access point. This road is a ten mile winding mountain road with no guardrails and a three mile section of the road is unpaved and just a gravel road. It is not an easy feat to reach the valley itself and it is definitely not for the faint of heart. This allows some privacy for the elk and the natural environment that they roam in seems relatively unspoiled.

I was lucky enough to photograph these mystical beasts on a trip to the valley and they didn't disappoint. The elk themselves are photo hams as they unknowingly would pose in front of old buildings, catch the light as they were grazing. It is in these moments that I remember how beautiful nature is and how conservation is making this moment possible for me and hopefully for future generations.

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