The Rutt - Up close and Personal

One great aspect of shooting outdoors is witnessing the unexpected. When it involves elk, just plan on the unexpected.

I’ve had the privilege of watching elk spar, and herds merge and split. It’s always fascinating to watch the pageantry, usually from a safe distance, or at least a safe place. Watching from a road usually provides that distance and safety.

This year, the experience was much closer than any of the past. One early morning a friend and I found two bull elk sparing within a few yards of the road. By a few yards, I mean from about ten yards to 50 yards. We set up next to the car to photograph the spectacle, keeping the car between us and the dueling bulls, mostly. The bulls engaged each other in fits and starts for several minutes. Some of the engagement was much more energetic. Describing it as 'fierce' would not be an understatement. One of these instances brought the elk quite close, a little too close for comfort when you can see the raw speed, strength and power of both of these large animals.


There was a winner in the end. Both bulls were spent, but one of them threw in the towel, so to speak, and wandered away.

Act II

But this was just a prelude to much more excitement.

Moving down the road, we found a herd with a dominant bull, and several challengers. The challenges were all met with considerable fanfare. A small crowd of onlookers gathered, with several cars parked along the road. This herd was also near the road, but everyone was wisely staying on the road and near the cars.

Then the unexpected happened. The cows of the herd decided that they wanted to cross the road. Specifically, they wanted to cross the road through the parked cars and spectators. Normally that’s not too big of a deal, except for the fact that you’re standing near some very large animals, in rut. This time, all of the challenging bulls sensed an opportunity when the herd moved. Of course they moved with it, and their contests escalated.

I’ve seen these events before, but usually from several hundred yards away. This time I was seeing it from the inside out, so to speak. Every one of us watching found ourselves in the middle of the elk herd, bulls bugling and challenging each other for the cows. There was no opportunity to get into one’s own car, so everyone backed up to the nearest car to get out of the way of these half-ton beasts. And everyone stayed calm, just moving out of the way of the shifting elk.

I huddled up against the back of a parked motorhome along with two others. The three of us were huddled together trying to keep track of the movements of the bulls — about five in our immediate vicinity — as they continued the challenges. There were numerous cows also wandering by.

One of my companions was the friend that I’d been with when we encountered the two dueling elk earlier in the morning. He was considering options for moving again should the need arise, and considered going around to the side of the motorhome. I reminded him that there was another bull around there. When I last saw that bull, he was a safe distance away, but I didn’t know where he may have moved. That justified a careful peek around the corner.

The other fellow standing next to me seemed to be witnessing this event for the first time. He turned to me and asked, “Does this happen all the time?” I responded, “It does, but rarely with us standing in the middle of it.”

The herd moved on and the elk continued their mating rituals. The people on the road moved away from the shelter of the cars. Everyone had a sparkle in their eye, knowing that they’d had witnessed something very special.

As if just being in the landscape isn’t inspiring enough, I found this unexpected close encounter with such majestic animals truly exhilarating!