The story of the elk and the tripod


Near where I live, in the heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore, there is an elk preserve. It is thousands of acres and holds somewhere in the vicinity of 400 Tule Elk. Chances are generally quite good that you will see several, sometimes at a distance, but at times quite close. It makes it a nice place to practice wildlife photography, especially if you are newer at the business, as I was several years back.

The elk were obviously aware of my presence

When I was driving into the heart of the preserve I came across a group of the elk, a small distance from the road. I decided to get out of my truck and see if I could capture some decent shots of them. Grabbing my camera bag and my tripod, I set out. At first I mostly saw females, and they were aware of my presence. I tried to think then of the best way to approach them without alarming them, that I might get more detailed images, when a book I had recently read came to mind.

I notice a bull elk in the group. Very exciting! Antlers are more dramatic for photos

A photographer had written about traveling in the tundra of Alaska with a guide, and while they were on a hike had seen a herd of caribou. The guide taught the group how to approach the caribou at least a little closer, by working in two person teams and pretending to be a caribou. The person in front would have their arms lifted above their head in the semblance of antlers. They would straighten and bend at the waste, pretending that their upper body was the head of the animal, bending down to graze, the lifting up to look around. The other person would be the back legs, of the beast, and the body. They essentially would lean forward, with their arms holding the other persons torso. The trick was to try and move like a caribou, and hope that their outline would be close enough to reality.

Now I was alone, but I thought I might try to pretend that I was an elk that I might approach more closely. I wasn’t using my tripod yet to take any photos, so it was still rather compact. I spread the legs apart without extending them (so that they were about 40 cm long) and held it upside down on my head with one hand for antlers. I then raised my camera one handed and held it to my eye, pretending it was my long elk snout (I figured it could do double duty- it was disguise and in a position to shoot photos at the same time). I then moved slowly and gracefully as I imagined an elk might, while dipping my antlered head to graze as I went. The result was immediate. They thought I was an elk. Or at least the bull elk did.

Elk tear vegetation up and drape it from their antlers during mating season to look bigger and show how tough they are. It is an aggressive action and a warning

Immediately upon seeing my “antlers” the bull became very defensive of his harem, and started to tear up grasses with his antlers, while eyeing me with a semi-crazed look in his eyes. I suddenly realized that a single bull with a whole group of females must mean that it was mating season. And the last thing I wanted to be was a competitor of a half ton animal with very sharp, pointy antlers that evolution had trained it to use on said competitor. I promptly removed the tripod from my head and started edging myself behind the suddenly weak looking scrub bushes that were the only cover around… very insubstantial cover that I imagined a hormone enraged elk could easily burst through.

The elk definitely felt and looked bigger in my eyes once he started tearing up the grasses. Likely that was from the fear I was feeling

The females during al of this had not had their eyes clouded by a haze of angry hormones. They’d seen and realized the whole time that I was not an elk, that those were not antlers on my head, and that there would be no mighty battle over them. They decided that they would rather not be around this obviously mentally deficient two-legged thing, and started off in the other direction. They saved me. As they began to stream away, you could see the bull elks eyes shifting. “Destroy” when he glanced at me. Eye shift. A plaintive, imbecile something when he looked towards the females trying to decide why they were leaving him, a big, virile champion. His eyes flicked between me and them more and more quickly, indecision clouding his face… before he ducked his head and docilely followed his reason for being… his harem.

With the grasses still trailing from his antlers, he turned and followed his ladies

Never since that day have I placed a tripod upon my head, except perhaps in a shielded and private place where no elk could spy me, as I told this story to some young innocent with a camera, and wanted them to always be aware of mating season when shooting much larger, more aggressive animals that could leave us as a mangled, trampled pile of clothes and lens.

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in elk, Photo Essay, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The story of the elk and the tripod

  1. This post made me laugh. you did get some awesome shots though.

    • I wasn’t laughing at the time, but I was very soon afterwards. It is my own idiocy that, that I sometimes feel makes my best stories… Or maybe it is the near disasters, like when my kayak was sinking recently… Thank you so much for stopping by; I’m glad my story gave you a chuckle.

  2. Pat Bean says:

    What a great story. I, too, laughed. Thanks for sharing. I did the same on my facebook page.

  3. These pictures wouldn’t have been the same without the background story :D Well done Galen, on both accounts. LOL.

  4. Pat Ulrich says:

    lol — that’s a great story, Galen! I had considered doing that exact thing out on Tomales Point, but I decided against it for just that reason. Funny to hear that it worked to fool the bull, and glad to hear that he left the area without incident!

    • I’m glad you hadn’t tried it yet Pat… although it may be a trick that could work when it is not mating season… I haven’t quite got up the courage to give it another go however… And there are times when you almost don’t have to out at Tomales Point, although it is best to stay at a safe distance… a very safe distance

  5. animalartist says:

    A great laugh to start the day!

  6. theresagreen says:

    The pictures the story conjures are hilarious, I was laughing into my computer from the beginning, while simultaneously admiring the photographs.

  7. The things you’ll do for a photograph — and it worked! Great story and great photos, too.

  8. Stunning, what an amazing close-up

  9. abu zar says:

    haha.. glad to hear you were back in one piece to tell us the story!
    photo#2 shows the intentions (as do the other ones) and is menancing

  10. mike585 says:

    Good post, Galen. I like the images.

  11. Cee Neuner says:

    Awesome story and photos Galen!!! I went to a local elk farm and they are cool!

  12. Maggie L R says:

    A funny story with a happy ending. I am glad you were not gored in a fight over those female elk you had your eye on. Approaching wildlife can be a dangerous business, but we do not have to do whatever it takes to get the shot. Safety first.
    Great Photos. I love the grass all over his antlers.

    • Thanks Maggie. I am happy not to have been gored over some female elk, especially as I didn’t even want to steal them away. Approaching wildlife can definitely be dangerous, and sometimes when we think we are fooling nature, we are only putting ourselves in harms way… Of course I never would have gotten the photos of the grass on the antlers if I hadn’t tried to fool him… and succeeded to well…

  13. Victor Ho says:

    I’d love to have seen the picture of you with the tripod on your head. And even better, I’d love to have a photo of the other guys pretending to be a caribou. It’s pretty amazing that you were mistaken for a competing male elk. Great story.

    • I must say, I don’t mind that there was no picture of me with the tripod on my head… although maybe sometime I will try to reenact the event (minus live elk) just to share it more fully with folks. I am trying to remember if there were any images of people pretending to be caribou with the essay- it was “Dancing with caribou” by Galen Rowell. It was in a friend’s book that I had borrowed years ago.

  14. I knew you were in trouble the second I saw the buck. The farm that I mention on my blog all the time has two male elk and when the antlers appear as in your photo, I stay far away. Partly because the one elk is always gesturing toward me. I do not want to be his Mrs. The farm also has deer and a zebra. All the animals are semi tame in pens that are acres large, but during breeding season, look out. Nice this group is free.

    • Yes, I’m much more cautious of elk now when I see those antlers present. Luckily I learned my lesson without any serious maiming quite taking place. Females with calves and bulls with antlers are now on my “Avoid a close and personal encounter” list.

      This group is free to range and take advantage of their native habitat. It is definitely a good thing to see and to be able to access. I’ve had other interesting encounters with elk farther up the coast in an area of California known as the “Lost Coast.” There is also a large, free ranging herd up there, that is even less restrained than this one.

  15. A great story! Elk are majestic animals- glad there was no further ‘misunderstanding’ between the bull and you.

  16. WOW Beautiful photos and great story! I am so jealous that you live there! Wonderful blog, I am so glad I discovered it :)

  17. I’m very impressed by your pictures and, OF COURSE, your story!! I laughed as never before!! I wish I could see you with the tripod on top of your head! Congrats!

  18. danitacahill says:

    Haha! Very funny story. I once had a similar experience with a large bull elk when I whistled with a blade of grass. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera in hand. But as he started moving closer and closer to my noise, I dropped the grass and ducked for cover behind a log.

    • It’s all about timing isn’t it? You were lucky you had a log to duck behind (I would have loved to have a log handy), while I was lucky to have my camera present. We both win though in that we each have fun memories and we survived

  19. bwinwnbwi says:

    Gorgeous, and brings back a couple great memories. Thanks.

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