This post is a continuation of my experience in Elk County PA this past September to see the elk rut. If you missed part one, be sure to check it out here. In the first part of this series I covered some aspects of planning the trip and the excitement of the first day at a location. This post will focus more on the trip itself as well as some things to keep in mind when you are somewhere doing a shoot.
After an exhilarating first night on Winslow Hill and our first view of a 6x6 bull elk we retired to our hotel. I booked a hotel in nearby (relatively) St. Mary’s, which in hindsight was a little on the far side. It is always good to be as close to the action as possible, as the less traveling you have to do the more shooting you have time for. The hotel itself was nice and after a long day of travel and some excitement we quickly went to bed so we would be well rested for the next day. When going out for photography trips you tend to keep odd hours. From about an hour or two after sunrise until an hour or two before sunset the light is generally too harsh to get many outstanding pictures. From an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunrise/sunset is generally referred to as the golden time when the light is soft, warm, and pleasing to the eye. This is the time when most of the pictures I display are taken. Unfortunately for me (and my wife) this means getting up well before the sun comes up to get on location and in position early. This hold true almost universally no matter what you are taking pictures of. Wildlife in particular is significantly more active at dawn and dusk so being in position early is vital to getting the shot.
Since we were staying about a half hour away this meant getting up before 5am to make sure we had time to scope out some good spots. Fortunately for us this turned out to be unnecessary since as we drove up we spotted a stopped car and another photographer snapping away. I quickly parked, grabbed my gear and went to see what the other photographer was seeing. It was still early so the sun was not awake yet but it was bright enough to see a massive 5x7 bull elk on a small hill grazing on some grass and bugling. We stayed there for about 20 minutes photographing him, but it was not the dream shot I was looking for and I was pretty sure we would see some more elk if we kept looking.
The risk of moving on paid off as we headed further up the road and spotted a group of cow elk in a distant field grazing on the wet morning grass. I set up on the hillside and snapped a few shots while waiting to see if the bull I heard bugling nearby would show himself. After a few more minutes the bull trotted out of the woods to corral his rather large harem. This bull was by far the largest we had seen yet and had a commanding presence. A smaller bull was on the outskirts of the field trying to get to the cows but the large bull kept them far away from the smaller challenger. This set up the stage for the picture below, with the elk keeping his harem in line. This shot was one of the top shots I had on my list of desired pictures to get during this trip and I was very happy with how it turned out.
The rest of the morning was quite exciting, with yet another bull coming in from the other side and feeding on a nearby tree by scraping his antlers on the tree to knock off fruit and leaves. We stayed with this bull for the rest of the morning and then headed back to the hotel for some more sleep and food. The early trip luck we were having ran out at this point. Friday night turned out to be pretty much a total bust with only seeing a few distant bulls on rather bland hills not doing much. We stopped by the visitor center which had a beautiful bronze elk statue, but was overrun with people coming in for the weekend. We tried the viewing sites but the elk were too distant to get any good shots. We did see a wagon with about a dozen people on it which was getting much closer to the elk than I thought possible and was quite intrigued. We inquired around and found out that about two dozen people a night can book a wagon ride which gets you up close and personal to the closed off areas that the elk roam. We tried to book for Saturday night but it was full and we were told our best bet was to get to the visitor center an hour before it opened to wait in line and try to book a spot for Sunday as reservations were only for a day in advance.
Saturday morning was even worse than Friday night unfortunately. There were people everywhere who came up for the day. It was more like an amusement park than the wilderness that morning and the elk knew it too. They stayed far away from the loud crowds and no amount of hiking seemed to get us away from it. After a disappointing morning we were lucky enough to stumble upon a flock of turkeys that I spent a while photographing, and then we spent the rest of the morning/afternoon hiking around the area looking for good spots to come back to. That evening wasn’t much better. We ran into even more people than I thought was possible to fit into the area and only a few cow elk. This highlights one of the important parts of trip planning, which is you never know what is going to go wrong or if you will have bad luck so try and stay somewhere as long as you can. Professional photographers will often spend a month or more at a location trying to get the perfect shot. Sometimes even a month is not enough time. When you only have a weekend or a week it becomes even harder. Tourists who spend a single day at a location may get lucky once in a while, but you will rarely get the best shots after only a day. This trip we started strong and had a string of bad sessions in the middle.
At this point we were pretty frustrated with all the people and the lack of elk, but there wasn’t much to do except keep trying. We scouted out a few spots during our hikes that were off the beaten track and had a lot of evidence of elk activity that we thought we’d try the next morning. Our adventures on Sunday I will leave for the next post in this series, and I will leave you here with a picture from Friday morning of a large bull elk with steamy breath in the cool morning.
A bull elk we encountered on our trip early one morning.
Every year my wife and I try and do at least one trip dedicated to photography. These can be short weekend trips, backpacking treks, or week long vacations. This year we decided to focus on some wildlife photography and I’ve always wanted to see the elk rut. Once a year the elk go from subdued flighty and hard to find, to gathering in large numbers, aggressive and out and about. Typically when people think of elk they think of Yellowstone, Montana or the Rocky Mountains. This is where I started looking as well, but the timing and expense made it less than ideal. Enter the little known but growing PA elk herd.
Before colonization of the US by Europeans, the Eastern Elk ranged from New York to Georgia in large numbers. Referred to by the Native Americans as wapitis, or literally translated “white rumps”, these elk were ubiquitous to the woods of PA. However unregulated hunting, cutting of forests and the influx of settlers decimated the eastern elk until it was driven to extinction in 1877. In 1913 the PA game commission decided to reintroduce a different species of elk into PA by importing them from Yellowstone. With very little scientific research, and no real plan, the initial 50 elk did not exactly thrive. They imported more elk over the next few decades with varying success, but farmers illegally killing elk kept them from becoming successful. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the herd began to thrive. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated a substantial amount of money to reclaim strip mined lands and help fence in private lands to prevent crop damage and illegal kills. With the herd growing the game commission was able to hold a lottery style hunt, raising substantial funds to further the elk conservation effort. Today the elk herd is spread out over 800 square miles and numbers over 1000 elk. Between the lottery for hunting licenses and tourism income the elk conservation effort is currently thriving and the elk can be found all over northern PA, particularly in Elk County. A much more detailed history can be found over at the PA State Website.
The thriving PA elk herd is a site to behold. These majestic animals used to roam this area in large numbers, and thanks to conversation efforts they are starting to once again.
After learning of this elk herd and how close by it was, the trip planning began in earnest. If there is one thing I have learned in my journey in photography it is that planning is key to getting the shots you want. Knowing when and where to be at what times ensures you the best opportunity to get the shot you want. You may get lucky once in a blue moon and stumble into the perfect photographic opportunity, but you will find much more success with foreknowledge of when and where you should be. I typically spend a minimum of 10 hours of research on a location for each day I plan on being there. This includes reading other blog posts on the area, determining what equipment I will need to take, knowing the best locations to be, and when to be there. It also includes knowing more subtle details like that current phase of the moon (for photographing the stars in the area or knowing when the animals will be more active at night), which side of a hill to be on for the correct positioning of the sun, and exactly what time the sun will rise/set over a given hill of a certain elevation. In the future I will do a much more detailed post on trip planning in general, but for now I will say that properly planning the trip ahead of time ensures I can get the best shots I can on a given trip.
No amount of planning can beat actually being there and getting to know the area intimately. Professional photographers sometimes spend up to a year at a location to get the shots you see in National Geographic and similar publications. Unfortunately I can rarely spend more than a week at a location and with so much to see only nearby locations can be visited multiple times. For this reason, planning is even more important to make the most of the time I do have in an area.
Knowing where to be and at what time helps to ensure the best possible shot. The evening light is only ideal for about 30 minutes each night.
With the trip all planned out to hit in the middle of the fall rut, multiple hotspots and advice from other photographers given, and my equipment at the ready we embarked out to Benezette, PA where the Elk County Visitor Center and Winslow Hill viewing area are located. We arrived early evening Thursday night, hoping to beat the weekend day trip rush and get a lay of the land. We were getting there less than an hour before sunset so I didn’t have very high expectations on our elk viewing prospects for that night, but turns out we got there at just the right time. After scouting the Winslow Hill viewing area and joining the small group of people waiting to see elk we were pleasantly surprised to hear the bull elk bugling from nearly all directions. About 5 minutes after sunset a large bull elk emerged from the woods about 50 yards away from us. The light was too low at this point to get any portrait shots, but with the beautiful pink sky I switched to trying to position myself between the elk and the sky. With multiple hills and nearby cars and a few power lines this proved to be quite the task, but I was eventually rewarded with the shot below.
Sunset can be a rewarding time. This massive bull came out too late for any detailed shots, but the pink sky and the soft light made for a perfect backdrop in this silhouette.
The rest of this trip will be continued in part 2, stay tuned!