Whenever I’ve gone to Ucluelet on Vancouver Island, I’ve walked down a large staircase to the government dock to take photos of sea lions. To locals, they’re unremarkable, even a nuisance. While I’m happily snapping photos, those working on the nearby fishing boats are likely rolling their eyes at this silly tourist.
For Banff and Canmore locals, elk are like those sea lions. We see them all the time. It can be a herd on a soccer field or a handful walking through an intersection, holding up commuter traffic.
Locals shake their heads and sigh, “come on, hurry up,” while tourists lose their minds trying to grab a photo.
When I first moved to Banff, seeing these big animals all over the place was fantastic. Thirty years later, I’m more than used to them. Last week, I saw several hanging out next to an overpass on the secondary highway. When a herd of elk suddenly decides the grass is greener on the other side of the road, it’s a hazard.
I sent Shonna a text to warn her, as she’d likely take that route home later in the dark.
A little while ago, my next-door neighbour, Chris, told me a herd was hanging out in the ballpark next to our condo complex. He knows I’m always on the lookout for reference photo opportunities. I thanked him, but I was busy, so I asked, “any bulls?”
There weren’t, so I kept working. I have plenty of cow pictures.
That’s how common they are around here.
A local urban legend tells of a tourist who tried to put their child on the back of one for a photo. I’ve never met anyone who actually saw this, it has always been a friend of a friend, but if there’s any truth to it, it wouldn’t shock me.
Everyone around here has seen someone get too close to an elk for a close-up photo, especially in Banff. Worse, they’ll often attempt a selfie, putting their back to the animal. More than once, I’ve warned somebody that it was a terrible idea, and the response is usually, ‘mind your own business’ or a four-letter version of the same sentiment. Many seem to think ‘national park’ translates to ‘petting zoo.’
When you have to warn people not to get out of their cars to take photos of grizzly bears, it’s not surprising they have even less respect for what might seem like a bigger version of a deer.
Elk are incredibly unpredictable, especially during spring calving and fall Rut. It’s not just the males with the big racks but the cows protecting their young. Or one could decide to charge you for no reason, something many around here have experienced, including Shonna and me.
The only thing to do is duck into any available open door or put a car or obstacle between you, and hope the elk moves on. A hoof to the head is guaranteed to ruin your day.
I remember walking home on Banff Avenue from a night out at the bar in the late 90s. A raised lawn in front of an apartment building put the grass about hip level. I couldn’t see the large bull elk lying on the grass until I walked past the fir tree hiding him. By the time I realized he was there, I could have reached out and booped him on the nose.
Thankfully, having had a few drinks, I didn’t jump and startle him but kept walking, the whole time thinking, “don’t get up, don’t get up, don’t get up.”
A sobering experience, if there ever was one.
Their popularity with visitors is why the third whimsical wildlife painting I ever did was an elk in 2009. It did OK but was never a bestseller. And frankly, it’s among a handful of paintings I’ve done that I genuinely don’t like. I made poor composition choices, and the rack was only suggested.
Having painted more than 100 pieces since then, I’ve learned a lot from my early mistakes. People want to see that rack on the bull elk, and I don’t blame them. It’s taken me more than ten years to try it again.
Many don’t realize that bulls grow and lose their racks each year. As a result, it’s not uncommon to find shed antlers around here, though removing them from provincial and national parks is illegal, a crime that wardens will prosecute with substantial fines.
Ironic that rather than take the reference for this piece in my own backyard, I took the pics at Discovery Wildlife Park in the fall. Their bull, Donald, was bugling away, inspiring this composition I hadn’t considered, allowing me to paint the whole rack.
Males bugle to attract females to their harem and to warn other bulls. Even though Donald doesn’t need to worry about competition, he still shows off his pipes in the fall.
While it’s not a common experience near our place in Canmore, I used to love hearing the bulls bugle when we lived in Banff. It’s a beautiful sound to hear in the mountains. I’d put it up there with wolves howling, though I’m sure many locals would disagree with me. But then, I Iove the sound of coyotes yipping away at night, too.
This video doesn’t do the live experience justice, but here’s some bugling for you. Hope you like the painting.