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!