August 17-18, 2019
I’ve encountered an abundant variety of wildlife in nature, from a wolf, moose, skunks, an occasional bear, boar, and a plethora of smaller animals. These outdoor rendezvous’ are often brief, with the animal quickly fleeing. This trip was something else completely.
I am slowly hiking all 850 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Once a month, I will venture to the park to backpack. The set up of the trails deems it necessary to hike part of the a trail on one trip and another on the next. In the Cataloochee area, I had previously hiked part of the Rough Fork Trail and now planned on hiking entirely of the Caldwell Fork Trail and then coming down Rough Fork Trail (the part I had not hiked) and then visiting all the old buildings of Cataloochee.
Caldwell Fork is a fun trail. There are 5 nice water crossings. On this day, they were not higher than my calves, but on a rainy day, they would be difficult. I started early, enjoying the crossings and the lush, late summer foliage. Around noon, I arrived at my destination for the night, campsite #41 (Caldwell Fork). It was a glorious day, I decided to set up my hammock and brought a new thriller (The Salt Line) with me to read. Soon I had my boots off, my feet up and delved deep into reading. A post-apocalyptic story set in the near future, the book describes a group of eco-adventurers setting out into to the wilds of east Tennessee and North Carolina in a world where ticks will almost instantly kill you; hence the book was tense.
Soon a little thunderstorm arrived at camp, and I placed my tarp fully over my hammock and kept reading. It seems almost surreal now, but I was a tense portion of the book when I saw movement. I tilted my head to the left and there beneath my tarp was a brown nose and brown head. In an comical double take, I turned my head back to my book. In my mind, I thought, “huh, that’s a bear”. I turned back and then turned very quickly out of my hammock. I stepped out and there a foot away was a young, barely mature bear. My best guess was that he was a year and a half old, maybe 75 lbs. I started to walked backward, but after a couple of steps realized that my pack was underneath my tarp. I grabbed that and left my hammock and walked back maybe 30 feet. The bear was inquisitive and surely was looking to score some easy food.
There was a couple of young guys that had set up camp since I had a arrived, so I walked over. “Hey guys, just so you know, there’s a bear in camp.” They came out and together we watched the bear. He then took a keen interest in my tarp and hammock. He started sniffing it and motioned with his front legs as if he were going to jump on it. I retrieved my bright orange whistle and gave a short, high pitched blast. Nothing. I then whooped in the nature of when I grew up on a farm and needed to herd the cows out of an area best described as “Go on, geeeeet out of here”. Nothing.
I walked towards the bear and about 15 feet away I took my hiking pole and hit it against a tree, yelling for the bear to get out. He did not like that. He raised his front paws, and brought them down hard against the ground and lunged himself forward and stopped. The only sound emitted was a high pitched, guttural growl, the infamous black bear bluff charge.
The tarp was not important after all, I backed up 15 feet, near the other two guys and just started to really yell and beat a tree with my pole. That worked and the bear finally scurried out of camp. As soon as he left, I went and took down my tarp and hammock. “Well, I sure as hell ain’t going to set up there tonight.”
I went to set up my tarp in the middle of camp. I looked at the other edge and not 3 minutes after I had chased the bear out of camp, there he was again. A couple was set up near the creek, and the guy was waiving a huge branch against the ground and then threw rocks. I walked over to help, but the bear had fled. This was one bold bear. The guy was Sean and he and his wife, Megan were very nice. After we talked, I set up my hammock closer to them. Over the course of the next 4 hours, the bear came into camp an additional 8-9 times. It is amazing how quickly these majestic animals can move through such thick underbrush.
As I was making dinner, I looked behind me and there 20 feet away, the bear was walking near the creek. Sean and I threw rocks at him and yelled. A minute later, we would here pots being beaten and yelling 75 yards away on the other side of camp. This cycle continued for most of the evening, but after a while it stopped. Sean, Megan and I enjoyed a wonderful evening talking by the fire.
There was some mild worry that the bear would get too inquisitive at night, so for the first time ever, I put my whole pack on the bear cable lines (which are installed at every campsite in GSMNP). I slept like a log the entire night, with no problems. In the morning I woke, finished breakfast and started hiking. As I was heading out of camp, I stopped at a group of younger adults with a chaperone. I asked him if they had any problems during the night. He said no, but he woke up at 6:00 am and walked around and sure as the world, our friend was under the bear cables looking longingly up at the food and packs.
I hiked up the last 1.4 miles of Caldwell Fork, which is roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain. From there it was a really pleasant hike down Rough Fork to Cataloochee.
For those that have never visited Cataloochee, you should. I have traveled extensively and this place is definitely in the top 5 of prettiest, awe-inspiring that I have ever visited. Once an isolated mountain community (even by Appalachia standards), the National Park Service maintains the older buildings, church and school. It is an amazing place and I really enjoyed the road walk back to the Caldwell Fork trailhead.
This was certainly a fun little adventure. In no way did I ever think that the bear was going to hurt anyone, nor did I fear for my safety (tbh my heart rate did go up with the bluff charge and growling). Yet even a seemly ‘harmless’ bear can cause harm. This trip reinforced that nature is not just a human domain. It is the bear’s home. This is his environment. While I hope that this bear has not been fed by humans and was simply antsy to collect food as we approach acorn time, my fear is that he has become desensitized. As the locals say, “a fed bear is a dead bear”. My hope is that he does not continue to approach humans, so he may have a long life.
Total mileage is 12.2 miles.