A Bear Story

The last time I visited the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, my husband and I observed some curious human behavior. We were traveling the loop in Cades Cove when we saw a crowd of people getting out of their cars. Some among them were closely approaching a black bear to take photographs. Alan looked at me uncomfortably and asked, “Does this remind you of anything?” I laughed and stuck my head out the sunroof and said to whomever would listen. “My husband followed a bear to take it’s picture and almost got mauled!” When the pronouncement received only minor attention, we drove on.

I’ve often wondered what possesses otherwise cautious city dwellers to stalk claw footed, spiked tooth, bears for nothing more than a 4×5 photo. My curiosity began the first time I ever came came to the Smoky Mountains National Park twenty years ago.

Black Bear in the GSMNPAlan and I were newlyweds, and he had come home early from work with the idea: It’s a beautiful day, lets go to the Smokies! It was our first time. By evening, we were glowing from the long wonderful drive up Hwy. 19, and we sat by a stream eating fried chicken, honey, and biscuits  We were deep in that “OOH, look at this”, and “AHH look at that” phase of our love affair with the Great Smokies.

All at once I remembered seeing something on TV about the dangers of feeding bears in national parks. Being a real scaredy-cat by nature, I asked Alan about it. “Oh, you’ll be lucky if you ever see a bear.” he said confidently. “They’re afraid of people.” Great! I thought. Aren’t animals more dangerous when they’re afraid?

A couple of minutes went by when I noticed a very black stump about 20 feet back in the forest and across the creek. As I looked closer, little eyes, and then a nose began to appear. My eyes widened. I took one look at Alan, and said sternly, “There’s a bear!” To his bewilderment, I got up and quickly walked some distance to the car.

Oh, no! The doors were locked! I turned around. Alan stood up for the first time, and looked at me in utter amazement. “What’s the matter?” he called.

“There’s a bear right accross the stream!” I yelled back. Alan stared at me for a moment, and then broke out laughing.

What kind of reaction is that? I wondered? Who was this nut I married, and was laughing himself silly? Hadn’t I warned him with all solemnity that danger lurked close by?

At last, Alan turned around and saw I was right. There was a bear. Rather than panic, as I had done, he simply picked up our food, walked back to the car and unlocked it. Thank goodness for that! We both got in. Safe at last!

While I was telling him how frightened I was, he was assuring me I was overreacting. He began fumbling for his camera and film. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m going to get some pictures of the bear and her cub.” Alan said blithely.

“You’re what?” I looked across the stream to see the bear was indeed a mother with her cub. They were sniffing their way through the picnic area especially around the trash cans. “Are you nuts?” I asked Alan as he reached for the door handle. “You’re not leaving me out here!”

Alan got out of the car and began striding down the road toward the bears. Instantly, I envisioned myself as a young widow and quickly leaped from the car to protect my new husband. Exactly how I was going to do that was unclear. As we walked toward the roaming bears, I alternated between acting brave and warning of impending doom.

Meanwhile, Mama bear and her cub had attracted the attention of an older couple who were driving into the area. They stopped their car just as the bear began walking in our general direction. Impulsively, I climbed on top of the couple’s car, saying, “I hope you don’t mind!”

“No, not at all.” the old man said. Incredibly, he was somewhat amused. He turned his attention back to the bear, and my husband’s boudacious charge. The mother bear and cub disappeared into the edge of the forest. Alan held his forefinger in the air and said excitedly, “I’ll be just be a minute!” Then he too disappeared.

Very quickly, Alan saw his chance for the perfect picture! Excitedly, he framed the “perfect” scene: the cub with it’s paws on the side of a tree and looking right into the camera! Experiencing a bit of tourist nervana, Alan thought, How cooperative! In an instant his delusion of cooperation was shattered by a heart-stopping roar, and the sight of mama bear headed right for him! Alan froze, and mama bear stopped only a few feet from his stunned stare. Luckily, she was only bluffing in an effort to scare off the intruder. Mission accomplished! In shock, Alan retreated a safe distance.

Many naturalists claim the black bear is the strongest animal for its size in North America. Knowing this, and being, no doubt, discerning, you won’t repeat Alan’s mistake by chasing one down for a photo op. Hopefully you will be lucky enough and cautious enough to enjoy the park bears from a reasonable distance. Should one get too close, however, it is helful to know that bears have very poor eyesight and loud noises often scare them away. Also, it is helpful to know a campground bear is more likely to be dangerous because they can be enboldened by the desire for food and a history of having been fed by unsuspecting tourists.

Finally, if you are very unlucky indeed, and do run across the rare bear that shows a persistent interest in you, long-time hiking enthusiast, Charles Blair, suggests throwing rocks and, if all else fails, abandoning your food and climbing a tree.

Keep these things in mind and both you and the bears will survive your trip to the Great Smokies National Park!

Black Bear

Classification:  Animalia – Chordata – Mammalia – Carnivora – Ursidae – Ursus – Americanus

The black Bear has long been the emblem of the Smoky Mountains.  These large mammals roam the full elevation of the Smoky Mountains looking for food and places to sleep during the winter months.  They are one of the most sought after animals to spot in the Smokies and people often determine the success of a trip to the mountains by how many bears they see during the National Park visits.

The American Black Bear has made its home in the Smokies for thousands of years.  These omnivorous creatures live off the land, follow the spring growth of plants and insects out of the higher elevations in the early spring and then higher up during the summer months where it is cooler.  In the fall, as the trees burst forth with fruit and nuts, the bears take to the trees in the valleys looking to put on pounds for their hibernation.

Black Bear
Black Bear in Cades Cove

Black bears are quadrupeds that have the ability to stand on their hind legs for short periods of times.  Most black bears in the Smokies average about 300 pounds with larger bears topping out between 500 and 600 pounds.  Though the black bear can be cinnamon colored or even white, the Smoky Mountain black bears are exclusively black.  Female black bears start to have their first litters between the ages of 3-5.  Black bear usually have 2 cubs to a litter and they are born in January or February of the year, during the hibernation period.

And speaking of hibernation… Black bears are no longer considered to be true hibernators.  Black bears reduce their metabolic rate during the winter months when food is scarce and the weather conditions are harsh.  During October and November, the bears start to bed down, choosing caves, logs and other hidden and secluded areas that are protected and well covered for their long winter’s sleep.  As their metabolic rate slows down, their bodies also go through some chemical changes that allow them to recycle their waste products, suppress their appetite and sleep for long periods of time.  During the hibernation period they will occasionally wake up but, for the most part they ‘nap’ through the cold months waiting for the spring thaw.

If one of your goals is to see a Black Bear while you are in the Smoky Mountains, then there are a few options:

  • Cades Cove – Get up early.  Be one of the first cars through the gates and you might get several bear encounters while you are cruising around the loop road.  By early, you need to be there before dawn waiting for the rangers to open the gate.
  • Clingman’s Dome – During summer, head to Clingman’s Dome.  There have been many sightings of black bears during the summer in recent years at this highest point in the Smokies.
  • Watch for Large Crowds – While the sighting of a deer will stop traffic, the sighting of a black bear will bring everything to a halt.  If you are stuck really far back in the traffic jam and you are wondering why the cars aren’t moving – it might be a bear.