Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cades Cove-GSMNP-Bear Bear Everywhere

I don't normally write a blog from a family vacation, but when it packs adventure in the outdoors as this past vacation did, I could not resist in sharing it with everyone. This all happened in Cades Cove of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

I will spare everyone the details of my family and this trip since many of you may not know my family at all. I will try and focus on the wildlife and outdoor adventure part of this trip. This trip, my wife and I have made every year for some 25 years. My daughter, now 22 years old, has made the trip with us just about every year of her life.  Also I might add that my wife's parents and some of her brothers and sisters make the yearly trip as well. They are all married with children, so it is a rather large party of folks making the trips around the cove in pickup trucks. This is an added excitement because with that many eyes peering out on both sides of the road, a bear or deer siting is bound to occur. The key is driving slow and watching very carefully. Most city folks blow through the cove and say "I didn't see a thing". A 350 pound bear could have been just behind that tree when you came through blazing at 30 miles per hour.

Cades Cove in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is one of the most unique areas I have ever been to or heard of in all of my life.  No where else that I am aware of, is a place where from the comfort of your automobile, or from the comfort of your camp chair, experience so much wildlife before your eyes. The most amazing part of it is this.....You never know what you will see, what will happen, or what to expect every time you come here. The more you stay, the more you will see. In my 25 years of coming here, this last trip marks the most bear I have ever encountered viewing. The situation is so bad, that after talking to the Park Service workers, they are on "pins and needles" worried about someone being hurt, or having major problems in the campgrounds from the bear. I will explain more later on this. The way to encounter the most out of this area is to camp and live here for several days as we have done. The majority of most people do not do this. I can respect those that don't, but you must realize that you are missing out on a lot by not staying.

Arrival-We arrived Friday (May 29th) around noontime at the Cades Cove Campground. There was a light mist of rain and occasional shower while we were setting up our tents. The next days yielded nothing but beautiful weather. For the next 4 days, we would live, eat, and breath Cades Cove. What that means is this...Stay in a tent or camper (tent in our case) without hookups and running water, showers, and all the neat comforts we enjoy. Cades Cove means to spend the night in Cades Cove and make the 11 loop anywhere from 1-4 times each day. In order to do this, you will need to flush some of the modern comforts away like taking a bath every day. You need to learn the meaning of "bird bath" that your mother may have mentioned the term to you when you were younger. Basically, Cades Cove campground has no modern showers and bath houses. Our family usually goes about 3 days and cannot stand it by then, so we drive to Townsend, Tennessee,  pay $5.00 per person and take a shower, then return back to camp. This can be the best $5.00 you have ever spent. This is an incredible place to take children. They can ride their bikes around the campground and to the general store. For those of you that have been to this unique store, they told my daughter that before they started staying open past 5 p.m., they were selling in excess of 450 ice cream cones per day! Again, if you have been to this store, the ice cream (even though it is $2.50 cone) packs an amazing taste. When you arrive at this place, you chuckle because it seems out of the hundreds of tourists going in and out of the store and standing outside. More than half of them are holding ice cream cones.

Normally, every trip around Cades Cove yields so many deer that you see, that by day 3 or 4, you are bored of seeing 25-70 deer grazing in the fields each afternoon. As is the normal for viewing wildlife, morning and afternoon are the best times. We usually don't like going in the middle of the day around the cove because it yields so little of results. Instead, we use that time to hike, bike, or just simply sit around the camp. This year, anytime you drove around the cove, you would be treated with bear viewing....just about always! The Park Service says bear usually start coming in to the Cove more around mid to late June. This is the time the female deer give birth and the bears are waiting on this for a meal. This is also about the time the blackberries and other berries become ripe, so the cove is teaming with bear. For whatever reason, the bear where in there earlier than normal. The situation has gotten so bad that the Park Service is relying on it's network of park volunteers to help patrol the roads and keep traffic flowing. Normally, when you go around the cove, the first hint that someone sees a bear is when the traffic has come to a dead stop. "Bear gawkies" don't take the time to park a car. You just simply bail out and abandon it running wide open with your camera in hand if there is a hint of a bear ahead. The Park Service does not take kindly to that, seeing how traffic can back up a mile or more at times because of this. It is quite funny though. If you see the traffic stopped, the first word out of every ones mouth in the car is "BEAR". This year, the bear are so bad, that park volunteers dressed in uniform were stretched out and directing traffic every time there was a major bear show. We saw numerous mothers with their cubs, some as close as 100 yards from the main campgrounds. The Park Service has already begun transporting some of the problem bear out of the area. In fact, we saw on more than one occasion, the park's pickup truck with bear trap cages in the back.

One interesting note to our seeing bear everyday is the location they were in. Just about the same place every single day! They must have their own territories they stay in.  The closest visitor was a mother and her cub that was about 200 yards off the entrance to the cove. She gave us some VERY tense moments with her. I will tell you about that later. She and her two cubs hung out in the same area pretty much all the time. We would see her in that area at all times of the day except one. The day I hauled a commercial video camera in to get some video of them, they were no where to be found. Murphy's law is always there! I was however blessed to get some great video on the last day of two separate mothers with their cubs.  Another monster sized male bear could be spotted in just about the same area at the same time of day in the afternoon. I never saw this bear, but the family  members saw it it on a number of occasions.


Of all my years of camping in the back country and camping in Alaska, I have never had a problem with bears. I am always more afraid of bear when I camp at Cades Cove than in the back country. Why? Because bear in Cades Cove are not afraid of humans!  This was underlined to me again on this trip. Throughout all of our viewings of bears in Cades Cove, they behaved like normal with bear that are used to seeing humans. I have observed a standard practice with bears in the Cades Cove that are around people from time to time. Give a Black Bear his "space", and he will carry on as if you were not even there. If you invade his predefined space (by his or her standards), then you are about to get a shock. They normally " bluff charge" a person as I have observed over the years watching them in the cove. I was even stupid enough before I knew more about them  to get a very strong bluff charge on myself. I even captured the bluff charge on video as I turned the camera back looking behind me over my shoulder. It was sometime in the early 1990's. I have had 5 or 6 people ask me to find it. I hope to located it and post it here.  A "bluff charge" usually goes down like this. A bear is carrying on their normal activity. They will look up every now and then and check where you are at. If you keep getting closer and closer, at some point, the bear will look up, see where you are, grunt, snort, and tear out after you. They usually stop about 5-10 feet away from you and grunt or snort....telling you to back off!! I have video shot in the late 1990's of one doing just that to about 15  tourists hovering near one with cameras. It was hilarious to watch in that you knew exactly what was about to happen, and when the bear did his bluff charge, you have never seen so many tourists run as hard and as fast a trail to their cars. It was almost to the second predictable. The bear does nothing but eats, the people come in closer. The bear moves over a little bit and does nothing, the people come closer,  and then finally......too close! The bear in Cades Cove seem to know this, so they use this tactic a lot to clear their "space". The worry here is that one day, some bear is doing a bluff charge, spots a very small 5 year old boy running and the instinct kicks in to the bear that this is "prey". The boy gets singled out and well, we all know the rest of that story. That is exactly how a young girl died a few years ago near the Smokies in a National Forest. When the mother tried to stop the bear (she was mauled badly) it was sadly too late for the little girl. Now that I have your attention with this, let me tell you what happened Sunday mid-day on the 31st of May of our trip.  


A cousin of mine ( also husband to my wife's aunt) and I decided to carry a group of the family ranging from ages 5-7 on a "hiking trip" in the great outdoors. Some of the group were his grandchildren. My wife had already made the comment that "it might not be a great ideal to carry the kids hiking with so many bear around". The danger of that passed as all the adults thought of how neat it would be to take the kids out for an "outdoor experience". 
The first short hiking trip was a simple 1/2 mile trail that takes you up high for an overlook of the cove. That went well, only took 20 minutes and the kids were ready for more "adventure". We decided to take them on one of the major trails around the cove. We could hike them down it a short piece and turn around. We took the first trail right at the main entrance into the park. We had hiked no more than 5 minutes down the trail and we spotted a husband and wife with long lens cameras up ahead. They were snapping pictures one right after the other. I thought, all right, some deer for the kids to see. Great! This trail was just inside the woods boarding a large open field to the left. Solid woods were to our right. We promptly marched them up there telling them to be very quiet. When we got up there, I croaked! About 40 feet away from us and the two photographers was a mother bear and her cub! Not good! Bad situation to have grandchildren and cousins holding your hands and by you. Because of the situation and the two photographers not moving, we did not move. We stood there. The mother did not seem the least bit upset at us being that close, although she would occasionally smell over at us, or glance up at us while grazing. The kids were on cloud nine. I was on cloud zero although fascinated at how close we were. My cousin was greatly concerned because he did not want to explain this to his daughter if anything happened. I felt we were all too close but we just monitored the mother and her reaction. So far, so good. Another man had joined us just shortly after we arrived. A man from Nashville whom we passed with his family while walking in. His wife when we passed was really upset at him nagging him with "Honey we going to be late, we need to turn around". I could tell it was not one of those memorable moments with the husband. He was really frustrated that she had enough of this walking. When he spotted the bear after coming up to us, he was just short of yelling at his wife to come on up. He was motioning wildly for her to come up the trail to him and join us all on our "bear gawking".  She slowly made her way up to him in disgust. I thought, when she sees this, here attitude toward her husband will change. Well, it didn't. She looked at it for about a minute and whispered "WE HAVE TO GO HONEY NOW OR WE WILL BE LATE". He seemed to ignore her and stood there popping pictures off of the mama bear and her cub. Finally, he said "go ahead honey, I will catch up" in a whisper tone. "Take the kids and go ahead back to the car, I will catch up shortly". So she promptly did, walking back down the trail as if this bear stuff was really cramping her time. She was walking back and had gotten about about 50 yards down the trail back towards where we all had come. She was with all of her family except a young boy, maybe 7 years old. He was tagging along about 25 yards behind her by himself, between us and the woman. There was an unusually straight path down the trail so we could see a good 70 yards straight down the trail. The little boy was dressed totally in black. Black shirt, black short pants, and black clogs. The mother bear and her cub seemed quiet happy with us, and all of sudden the mother cub stopped, raised up on her hind legs (picture on this blog) and spotted the lone boy walking down the trail. She homed in instantly and started a slow but steady walk down the field towards the boy. The boy had his back turned and did not see what was transpiring. I think the man with us (who later said that was his nephew) did not realize what was going on either. He just kept snapping pictures. I thought, oh boy, kid, don't turn around, panic, and run, or we all might witness something bad here. The woman looking back down the trail at us became alarmed when the mother bear and the cub promptly came into the woods, got on our trail and proceeded to slowly stalk this boy. The bears pace picked up every few seconds closing in on the boy. I was so upset that I did not shoot anymore pictures from this point on. Not only were WE cut off from our path in but if the boy panics and runs, oh boy, anything could happen. The woman or aunt of this boy,  calmly motioned for the boy to come on. He never turned around thank goodness. When the aunt picked the boy up in her arms, the mother bear stopped quickly, stared a few seconds at them, and then turned back up into the woods. The cub following closely behind her. Wow, that could have gone any way in a matter of seconds. After some time, we slowly were able to squeeze by the mother and her cub and get on back up the trail towards camp.  My cousin replied, "Well I believe that will about wrap up our hiking for today! We are DONE with this!" He was absolutely right. We needed to get those kids out of there. The ONLY saving grace is that I was carrying bear pepper spray. I did feel better having it but putting those kids in that type of situation was not good. We won't do it again. I saw exactly what the Park Service is talking about. Given time, somebody will do something stupid and get hurt. Looking back, I truly belief that the mother bear could not see good and may have mistaken the child for another bear, being that he was decked totally in black. The reason I say this is because the bear had plenty of other children to pick from. It could also be that because the child was alone and with his small size, he might have been mistaken for an easy meal. Either way, it shook us up.


You would think with all that happened that day, we would not put the children in harms way again. Well, my wife and I wanted to take the children on a moonlight hike a short piece down the cove. Since traffic is cut off after dark, it is a wonderful and fun thing to do if the weather is clear and the moon is out. With my bear pepper spray in hand, hiking staff in hand, we set out at 10:30 p.m. through the campground and down the cove road. I told the kids to talk and make a lot of noise, be sure and stick together CLOSE, and we would not have any problems out of bears. They did just that, and had no problem making noise. With 9 flashlights shining everywhere and the kids making a roar of laughter and talking, I figured it would run off most anything. We hiked about a half of mile down the road until we got out in the clearing on both sides of the road. The horses that the Park Service uses to ride folks each day in the cove came over and greeted us at the fence line by the road. The kids had a ball petting the horses. We convinced them all to turn off their flashlights and we then gazed at stars. The half moon lit the whole cove up and you could see better without a flashlight then with one. I pointed out the big dipper star and how to find the north star using the big dipper. You know kids. It soaked in to maybe one or two of them. They all had a great time. Hiking the cove at night with a moon is definitely a wonderful experience. My wife loves it so much she insists we do it every year, even if the moon is not out. I will have to say though, I kept one hand holding my nephew's hand and my flashlight, the other hand making noise on the pavement with my hiking stick, and prepared to pull "the ole" bear pepper spray out at any second. I could easily convert to "quick draw Rex". It is only when we got down to the open field that my nerves settled a little bit.


On the very last day, my wife and daughter did what we have started doing every year. Get up very early just as soon as the gate is opened to the cove. We pushed ourselves out of the sleeping bags, loaded up the truck and headed out while 90% of the campground slept. This time, I had my commercial quality DVCAM video camera and still camera. My daughter carried her video and still camera as well. We were sorely disappointed with not seeing much at all around the cove. We were in fact, surprised at how little we had seen. As we got to the half way mark, my wife commented that she had a good feeling the best was yet to come. We might see a bear before we get out. We had made it past the 3/4 of the way journey when bam!....There they were....A mother and two cubs. We jumped out of the truck along with about 4 other folks and quietly, without talking to each other, starting taking pictures. I managed to get my beast of a commercial camera in size out of the truck and turn it on. I thought, I need to put this on a tripod to get steady shots. I then realized by the time I got the tripod set up, it might be too late. We videotaped and shot still pictures of the mother and her two cubs about 100 feet off the road. They were just about out of site and I heard someone startled say look over here!.....I whirled around with the group and BAM!.......30 feet away was a mother bear and a cub standing up BEHIND US watching us watching the other bear!......GEEZE....It must have been Yogi bear waiting to pick our pockets! If they were terrorists, then the ambush would have worked!...We would be dead!......We just proceeded then to watch that mother and her one cub. Again, the scary part is the mother is teaching the cubs to not be afraid of humans. THAT worries me. The two wandered out on the road less than 40 feet away from us! Not a care in the world, other than the fact you would see the mothers eyes look over our way every now and then to make sure we were out of their "space" (Check Out A Short Video Clip Below). In the video clip, you cannot make it out good because of the quality and upload size I was restricted to, but she looks over at us with those eyes glancing every now and then to see if we have remained outside of "her space". Classic Smokey Mountain Cades Cove bear behavior. After about 10 minutes, she wandered off into the dense forest with the cub close behind. What an amazing event to cap off an amazing vacation/adventure/trip. The amazing Smokey Mountains did it again. What a place. Time to plan the next trip.