I invited my brother-in-law and his two boys — city slickers from Down East — to the mountains one time, specifically to the Great Smokys, for a long weekend of camping. It had been a while since I had been in the high mountains, and my relatives from the state capital seemed amenable to the extra travel.
After setting up camp, I showed them around Big Cataloochee Valley in the national park — they had never been to the Smokys. At sundown we came upon a handful of folks parked beside a pasture. They were just standing there.
Thinking they may have a breakdown or something else wrong, I couldn’t help but stop and ask if I could help.
They said they were just waiting for the elk. Huh? Elk?
I refrained from boasting that I was from Elkin and that I knew that there had been no elk in these parts for 200 years.
No, no, they insisted. There were elk. They’ll be coming out soon, they said. This I had to see.
And sure enough, as if on cue, as dusk fell elk starting ambling out of the woods on the far side of the field.
I stood mouth agape. Even though I was from Elkin I had never seen an elk.
The year was 2002.
I had not gotten word that the year before they had reintroduced elk into the park by shipping in a herd from out West. And they were shipping in a second herd that year.
What beautiful, majestic animals. I stood marveling for a long time, taking in the sight, with elk grazing, elk moving with their graceful gait, elk even lying down contentedly to let their dinner settle. Finally, the bored boys wanted to move on.
Word has gotten around since, and the elk of Big Cataloochee have become quite a little tourist attraction. They still draw onlookers almost nightly.
And like their smaller, deer cousins, the elk of the Smokys have been fecund. They estimate there’re 150 of ‘em now, triple the number of the original imports. There have even been collisions with cars, just as with deer around here.
And like deer the elk have not been content to stay in the park and serve as sideshow. They’ve been roaming into Cherokee, Maggie Valley and Harmon Den. And as with deer, landowners there have started to complain.
So earlier this year the state agreed tentatively to a very limited elk-hunting season, though to me 150 seems too small a number for hunting. The season would be the month of October, though probably not this year.
And the state is considering a second elk habitat in Harmon Den in northwestern Haywood County just before you get to Tennessee.
“One of the hopes is that by providing quality elk habitat on public land, it will help to draw elk off private land and alleviate some of those issues (complaints),” state wildlife biologist Justin McVey told the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper. The proposed, new habitat would be in Pisgah National Forest.
I wish them luck on that one, on trying to keep elk on a reservation.
I have high hopes for the elk. There was a time when there weren’t any deer around here in the hometown. But the Chatham family here started bringing in deer in 1938. And today deer have became so prolific that we’re on the lookout for them around every curve, it seems.
Is it possible that someday elk will spread so far afield that they will return to the land of their namesake?
Might we see elk back in the Blue Ridge, back on Chatham gamelands next to Doughton Park and even back along Big Elkin Creek, coming out in the evenings to graze in our corn fields and vineyards?
Might we see elk on our nature trails, and folks gathering at dusk at the Big Elkin creek bottom above the Old Shoe Factory Dam for a show?
Might we see elk some day in Elkin Park?
Elk in Elkin! Wouldn’t that be something? I just hope I’m still around and get to take the first photo.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.
Back In The Hometown