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Peace in the valley: Franklin photographer Bill Lea captures beauty and history of Cades Cove in new book

For nature photographer Bill Lea, Cades Cove is heaven on earth.

It’s the abundant wildlife. Majestic trees. A verdant valley ringed by ancient mountains. The wildflowers. The deer. Bears. Butterflies. Old pioneer homes and historic cabins.

“It’s just my favorite place in the world,” Lea says. “You could spend a lifetime photographing Cades Cove.”

The Franklin photographer and retired U.S. Forest Service ranger captures two decades of photos from one of the most visited parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in his latest book, which he also wrote and designed himself. Cades Cove: Window to a Secret World, published by Mountain Trail Press in Tennessee, came out in September and quickly sold out of its first printing. Its second printing just hit the shelves of local bookstores. Included in the book are about 200 photographs as well as ongoing commentary that tell the stories behind these images – the history, flora and fauna of Cades Cove from one of its most admiring fans.

Lea, who has photographed some of the most beautiful natural settings in the United States from the Alaskan wilderness to the Florida Everglades, says he feels blessed to be able to share his love of the outdoors and hopes the photographs help connect people to this treasured place so they will be more willing to protect it for generations to come.

Over the last 30 years, Lea has published some 6,000 photographs in a variety of books, magazines, calendars and advertisements. His work has appeared on the covers of Field & Stream, in National Geographic books, and in publications for Audubon and the Nature Conservancy. In 2005, he authored a coffee-table book, Great Smoky Mountains Wildlife Portfolio and co-authored Great Smoky Mountains Wonder and Light. He also teaches photography workshops at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

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Lea’s work is charged with a limitless curiosity and a boundless passion for the outdoors. The foggy mornings and crisp autumn afternoons, hoarfrosted mountains and sun-dappled fields, grazing deer and strutting turkeys. Silver-limbed trees against a deep blue, wintry sky. A rustic cabin. A split-rail fence. White-tailed deer resting in a rocky creek.

Over the years, Lea researched the habits and habitats of the animals he’s photographed. With the Cades Cove book, he also read up on the local history of places and residents in the area.

One fascinating person he discovered from his research was Becky Cable, who lived to the age of 96. Cable, who never married, farmed, herded cattle, ran a general store, sheared sheep, boarded guests, and raised her brother’s three children after he was committed to an institution. The children’s mother had died of tuberculosis. Cable’s story is included in the book as well as tales of Civil War strife, subsistent farming and the lives of the Olivers, Shields, Hyatts, Sparks and other families linked to Cades Cove.

Dan Lawson, a prominent Cades Cove resident in the 19th century, helped establish the Hopewell Methodist Episcopal Church, deeding an acre of land to “God Almighty” — which proved particularly troublesome when it came time to sign over this land to the federal government to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Lea notes the bittersweet chapter in Cades Cove history when the government bought family lands to establish the park. While some welcomed the news as officials promised residents they wouldn’t be kicked off their land, others fought to keep their way of life and rejected such regulations as no hunting. Eventually families moved away. Some left in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s only to fall into deeper calamity after placing their money into banks that folded.

Today, old cabins, church buildings and tombstones stand as monuments of a bygone era.

In some places, the wildflowers at Cades Cove have outlasted the cabins. The only remains of a family homestead are the jonquils and daffodils that these early settlers planted a few centuries back.

“And that happens a lot in Cades Cove,” Lea says.

Today, Cades Cove welcomes about 2 million visitors a year. If Cades Cove were its own national park, it would rank in the top 10 among most visited parks in the U.S., according to Lea.

Bill Lea grew up far from the sylvan peace of Cades Cove. A city kid in the Peoria area of central Illinois, he liked fishing and being outdoors, so forestry seemed a natural fit for a career. He earned his degree at the University of Florida, where he met his wife, Klari. In 1978, one of Lea’s first jobs out of college took him to Vicksburg, Miss., where he couldn’t quite get used to fishing in a muddy river. He decided to take a camera into some nearby woods and photograph deer.

Lying on his stomach in the quiet among the trees, he waited. Then came a rustling. Footsteps of something wild.

“It was just an adrenaline rush not knowing what it was,” Lea recalled.

And suddenly out came a pair of wild turkeys. They sensed him and flapped away as he snapped a quick photo, but all he got were two blurry dots.

At that point, he had no clue about how to track wildlife or take photographs, but he knew he wanted to learn more, to see more.

“I started spending more time in the woods,” he said.

He took his camera to other locales. Mostly what he photographed was wildlife.

After a stint in Vicksburg and another job in Arkansas, Lea and his wife moved to the Great Smoky Mountains in1983 — first coming to Brevard, where Lea worked as a forest ranger in the Pisgah National Forest and then moving to Franklin in 1987, where they’ve lived ever since.

“This is where I really feel is home,” he says. “This is where my heart is.”

For five months out of the year — from late April to September — his wife operates a black bear sanctuary in northern Minnesota. It’s tough being apart, Bill admits, but the two have forged a common bond through a love of animals. They own a house in Townsend near Cades Cove, where Lea often visits after taking early retirement two years ago.

After years of making just about every kind of mistake you can make with a camera, this self-taught photographer has learned to let weather conditions and lighting dictate what subjects he’ll find.

“I try to find the best light, and whatever subject is in that light I photograph,” he said. “A lot of times you go out and you get nothing.”

A patient photographer learns to wait for his subjects. Good photographs are simply a product of luck, he says, but you have to be out there for that luck to occur.

“Ninety-five percent of photography is just being there,” he says.

On overcast days, he’ll venture into the woods. On sunny days, open fields and big mountain scenes draw his eye. Spring and fall are his favorite times to shoot.

Using a Nikon D2X — he made the transition to digital two years ago — he tries to capture the mood and lighting just as he sees it. But cameras don’t always capture what the human eye sees. A deer at the edge of the woods might look dazzling in deep shade, but when there’s not enough light to penetrate the shade, all you get is darkness.

Lea made plenty of these mistakes — and still admittedly makes others.

“I was a slow learner,” he says. “It took me a long time to see the light.”

Through his work as a photographer, he’s not only found an appreciation for different kinds of animals and the hardships they endure. He’s also learned to find that balance of peaceful co-existence even among animals some might consider threatening. While tracking a coyote, the two developed an unspoken mutual respect in the wild — one watching the other, each in tune with his own surroundings.

Sometimes even the most dangerous situations offer the opportunity to take that unexpected shot.

Lea remembers an Alaskan trip through Tsongas National Forest, where he came across an adult grizzly feeding on salmon. The startled bear spotted Lea and started to charge.

“I was scared to death,” Lea recalled, so he instinctively lifted up his tripod over his head to make himself look bigger, more imposing. The bear took notice, stopped about 75 feet away, sat down and started scratching himself. Lea wound up taking a few photos of the scene.

Another close call came in Cades Cove when Lea was observing a black bear feeding on acorns in a white oak tree. There were too many branches in the way to get a good shot, but all of a sudden the bear came flying down the tree and raced away. Apparently, on a ridge behind him, a herd of nearby cattle sensed danger from a potential predator and gathered into a collective stampede.

“I was standing between them and the bear,” Lea said. “I thought that was it. They were on me before I knew it.”

Lea was already imagining the news headline for his obituary: “Wildlife photographer stampeded by cows.”

Luckily for Lea, the cows veered around him as they chased off the bear. Somehow, he escaped unharmed.

Capturing nature in its essence continues to be both a challenge and a blessing for Lea.

“You take the busy world and try to simplify it,” he says. “Pick out something you want the viewer to see.”

The goal is to give the sense of a three-dimensional scene in a two-dimensional picture. The thrill is to find those contrasting colors — a snow-topped cabin against dark woods, gray shingles against golden leaves, layers of green with tan field grasses.

“I’m always looking at colors,” he says.

That’s what guided him through the layout of his latest book. Each double page is a chapter unto itself. Some photos show deer scenes in different seasons. Other pages offer a contrast of windows, roads, treescapes, farm tools, or morning views. Leaves suspended in the cobweb on a barbed wire fence. Rolls of hay. A wide-eyed squirrel.

Rising before dawn, sometimes as early as 4 or 5 a.m., Lea returns to Cades Cove where time and weather have shaped this scenic haven into a familiar respite for one photographer eager to tell its stories.

“It’s like photographing an old friend,” he says.


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To see more of Bill Lea’s photos please visit his Web site at

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