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Gladys asks me, “Would you like to drive up to Cataloochee National Park to see the elk sometime this week? We have to go at dusk because that’s when they come out to feed.”

I’m quick to respond: “Sounds good to me.” I’ve never seen elk up close. Besides I thought they lived in Colorado or Wyoming. “I’m game!”

After many decades, I have reconnected in North Carolina with Gladys Graybill Schofield, whom I have known in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania since our early teens. Gladys lives in the Smoky Mountains and has agreed to be our personal guide for the evening. Who can resist!

Gladys and Marian having early supper at Blue Rooster in Waynesville, NC before elk-spotting

Gladys and Marian having early supper at Blue Rooster in Waynesville, NC before elk-spotting

She and I have gone to Laurelville Mennonite Camp together during Girls’ Week. We were even baptized together at Bossler Mennonite Church. She still has that sweet smile I remember. This will be another adventure together over dozens of switch-backs and rough terrain to see the elk.

The peaceful Cataloochee Valley, surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, has preserved historic homes, barns, and churches. We were surprised to find much more than elk here in this Park.

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Built in 1903, the Caldwell house has no front door, grainy hardwood floors, and several hearths for an earlier family to heat the bedrooms and cook in the kitchen. It seems haunted, like an artifact in a museum – no sign of life within. We don’t linger.

Close by, I snoop around what appears to be a two-story tobacco barn:

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No elk close-up yet, so the forest ranger gives us a tutorial illustrated with authentic stage props displayed here by an old buck.

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Antlers fall off male elk in March and regenerate before winter.

Because of over-hunting and loss of habitat, elk disappeared from the southern Appalachians in the 1700s. Our national park service chose to re-introduce elk in 2001 by importing 25 elk from the Kentucky-Tennessee border and 27 more from Alberta, Canada.The park currently preserves 52 elk. One might call it “the return of the native.”

Ah, we see elk in the distance . . .

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And then we spot a female grazing along a bubbling stream . . .

Before we leave at dusk, a male with velvety antlers grazes along the roadside. Elk at 500-700 pounds are formidable creatures if they feel threatened, so we keep our distance.

This buck elk will grow a new set of antlers every year This one is in the velvety stage and will be fully

This bull elk will grow a new set of antlers every year. His rack is in the velvety stage in June and will be fully “mature” by the fall, attracting females in the herd.

We gape, and click our iPhones. Quick!

Leaving the park at twilight, Gladys and I see up in front of her vehicle a black wooly creature bounding across the gravel road and up a ravine.

It’s a BEAR!

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