Friday, September 05, 2008

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Black Bear encounter and lesson learned.

Aggressive black bear encounters have been on the rise in the Great Smoky Mountains national park and backcountry hikers and people camping in the national park need to be even more cautious in order to avoid any problems. As much as I am cautious when hiking and camping, I almost wasn't cautious enough which could have been a disaster.

I know and have lived the black bear safety rules for years camping and hiking deep into the most remote areas of this and other national parks using caution and awareness as my key methods of self defense. Letting my guard down at any time in bear country could end up being a fatal mistake and I do not want to get maimed or killed by a bear.

Besides one instance of a black bear stalking me on a hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains national park and 3 years ago when I turned into an inside switchback on the Trillium Gap Trail on the way back from Grotto Falls where I startled a Momma bear with a cub who started swatting the ground at me, my black bear encounters have all been a pleasant experience. This could have all changed yesterday.

Yesterday I had a rather extreme 28 mile hike planned so I left from the Clingmans Dome Trail just as the sun was rising. On my way up the bypass trail I took advantage of the ripe raspberries along the way up to the Appalachian Trail (AT) which I took until the Welsh Ridge Trailhead where I was going to make a almost 20 mile loop down Welsh Ridge Trail and Cold Spring Gap Trail and back up on Hazel Creek Trail.

The day was beyond description; cool, breezy and touches of autumn were creeping their way into the green summer canopy and forest floor. Did I mention how incredible the blackberry crop was?

Other than a handful of people on the AT and a group of 3 campers on horseback, the hiking trails I was on were completely deserted - common for the deep backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains national park during the week.

By the time I reached Hazel Creek Hiking Trail I was already feeling quite tired after more than 6 hours of non stop hiking with a heavy pack. At this point I had already seen my fill of black bear. My first black bear sighting was a young bear crossing the road in the dark just above at mile marker 8 on newfound gap road (US 441). While there was tons of bear scat on the trail, mostly riddled with remnants of blackberries I spotted my 2nd and 3rd and then 4th black bear along the Cold Spring Trail.

The hike I was on was very much a race against time. While I had 2 headlamps and a flashlight with me, I do not want to have to hike along the AT in the dark. The footing is mostly rocky with areas that you have to step high up to not trip and in the dark it is not a safe place to hike.

At campsite 82 on Hazel Creek I found some garbage left by some hikers while I was treating more water for the hike so I loaded up my trash bag and packed it in the outer pocket of my backpack. Upon leaving the campsite and passing the horse stalls I could hear yet another bear crashing through the rhododendron to get away from me.

By the time I almost hit the switchbacks I was exhausted and my watch confirmed I had about an extra hour of light if I could keep the current pace I was at but I think that I needed to take it down a notch.

Watch the trail for rocks that I can trip on or lounging copperheads or timber rattlers, scan the ground cover for poison ivy, and stinging nettles growing alongside the trail, watch for ground signs of bear fesh scat or small freshly broken branches with acorn caps and no nuts, scan the tree line to the left the right and above me and while all this is going on take in the stunning beauty of the park.

Since it is that time of the year when the acorns are starting to fall and it was real windy, there were plenty of random noise in the woods and the gurgles of Hazel Creek with it numerous small waterfalls and cascades everywhere were not helping me hear what I wanted to.

As I was walking into the start of the switchbacks with Hazel Creek to the left I noticed that an area that was overgrown with dog hobble and trees that I had already scanned had movement. I stopped and listened but the sound of Hazel Creek below me drowned out everything.

10 yards above where I saw the movement across from hazel creek where my switch back was headed I saw a glimpse of an adorable cub which worked its way down to what I could now see was an adult bear behind the brush.

Since I did not want to scare the black bear away from where I was to up the ravine to where I needed to go so I figured lets wait and see what happens.

I checked my watch anxiously and could see movement as momma bear was rummaging in the leaves and the cub would run up and down away from her but stayed in the brush.

Great Smoky Mountains Nat Park Black Bear encounter and lesson learned.

After more than 10 minutes I was getting frustrated as between the poor light and heavy growth I could not get a good clear shot to take a picture of either bear and my cushion is getting shorter and shorter meaning I might not have the luxury of pushing with 90% effort back up the mountains but have to give it my all which I just didn't want to do.

24 minutes after I originally stopped a second cub was now visible running down the hill crossing the trail I was going to walk on and a roll of emotion came over me. Had I hiked on the trail I would have been between momma bear and a cub a great way for me to get attacked by a black bear.

I just didn't know what to think. Then I started thinking about the stink coming from me I had already done about 20 hard sweaty miles at this point and the garbage I picked up packed in my backpack must have reeked too.

No rocks or sticks around me but I do have my hiking poles and a super loud ear damaging storm whistle in my mouth for almost a 1/2 hour by now.

I decided 6 more minutes was all I would wait. For sure both cubs are still by her and hopefully she would run to the left when I make noise, not at me, or directly away from me onto the section of trail I had eventually hike on or to right of me taking her into the inside of the switchback.

6 minutes came and passed, then another 15. How could I get this bear to do what I wanted it to do and not what I didn't? I could never go back and even now I might have to hike in the dark.

Then it happened. A 3rd cub ran down right where the second came out above the trail and joined its mother. This cub was alone for at least 47 minutes. 1 cub or 2 cubs very common, 3 cubs are less common and a bear with 4 cubs far more uncommon.

It was time to take a stand. I banged my sticks together and started to walk right into the switchback. A load exhaling sound by momma and all 4 were up the ravine right to where I was going to have to be so I started whacking the brush on the side of the trail while I still plowed forward and it worked! She ran out of the switchback and I had a clear shot down the trail.


Even more exhausted than I wanted to be I knew I had to make time. As the switchback doubled back and over the area where the black bear cubs were I found what those little monsters were after - blackberries and tons of them. I ate a few handfuls and pressed on as hard as I could and even then the last 4/10 of a mile I needed my flashlight to make it to the parking lot.

Lesson learned? For sure! The patience and then the indecision I had could have saved me from a very deadly bear encounter. The stinky garbage I was carrying in my backpack may have also put me at a greater risk.

If I was in fact attacked by this black bear protecting her young it surely would have been my fault and not hers but surly she would have lost her life and the cubs would have as well.

In the past few months my attitude about the black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has definitely shifted. Since I see black bear virtually every time I hike other then deep winter in the Great Smoky Mountains national park it would be unreasonable to wait close to an hour every time I see one.

While this experience taught me even more about patience, it has also made it clear to me that I need to carry a large can of bear deterrent spray on some of my deep country quests where turning around is just not an option.

I have fought this for years but in the past month I have been approached by a Georgia forestry official, a bear photographer and 2 park employees who have all told me that they no longer feel safe without having bear deterrent spray when out in deep backcountry or in close proximity to the back bear in the Great Smoky Mountains national park.

Related Bear Spray and Black Bear News


Anonymous said...

Wow...your story hits a little too close to home! My 9 year old son and I just got back to Morristown, Tennessee from a trip up Bote Mountain Trail today (Sun 9/7) We hiked up Lead Cove Trail near Cades Cove with the plan of going to Spence Field at the Appal. Trail. Just about 50 yards from the intersection of Lead Cove Trail and Bote Mountain Trail towards our destination...I heard something walking through the woods in the thick brush up to the right of us.
I thought to myself...this has a got to be several turkeys walking through the woods...a big deer... or a very big bear! Now keep in mind...we were being very vocal to avoid any encouters...but this did not work! The bear kept walking through the brush right towards us! I thought we better get passed it before it got down on the trail. Sure enough... we were about 40 yards up the trail and when we started making a lot more noise...I saw this huge black bear start climbing a tree! The trunk on the tree was very big, but still the bear had no problem wrapping it's paws around it!!

At this moment, we were terrified. I had no protection with us. I was hoping the bear would stay up in the tree for a while until we could leave. But all of the sudden it started coming back down the tree really fast. I knew if we started up the Bote Mountain Trail, the bear could easily catch us uphill. SO instead, we very quickly turned left and headed back down Bote Mountain Trail. For a while, I could hear disturbances behind us...but the bear must have finally given up. Regardless, since I didn't know where the bear was...I knew we couldn't take a chance going back up the trail and had to give up our original trek to Spence Field.
We kept heading back down Bote Mountain trail until we could a take another trail back to our car.

This is an very isolated you can imagine the fear going through my mind since we had nothing to protect ourselves with.
All in was a beautiful hike...but rest assured...our next hiking trip in the Smokies will be complete with a very loud air horn and bear pepper spray!!!

Ed Arnold

Smokies Hiker said...

Turns out even though I was given information by park employees and all of the local outfitters in the area, that bear spray is illegal in the Great Smoky Mountains national park.