Be(ar) careful in the Smokies
In the natural world there are certain experiences that rivet our attention and remain stored in our memory banks. Through the years, I’ve written about my own encounters with rare plants, endangered landscapes, copperheads and timber rattlers, coyotes, skunks, eagles, red and gray foxes, box and snapping turtles, and so on. Not infrequently, I’ve received feedback from readers reporting that they have had similar experiences.
An encounter that took place back in the late 1970s was one of my most memorable, but, for whatever reason, I’ve never gotten around to writing it down. It involved a female black bear with cubs that at dusk invaded my camp on the headwaters of Hazel Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To cut a long and rather hair-raising story short, let me just note that — after driving me and my companion back up the trail to the Silers Bald shelter — she obliterated my tent, most of our camping equipment, and all of our food supply. For good measure, she even made off with my backpack.
Recently, I chanced upon a collection by Mart Baldwin titled Drifting the River: Growing Up Wild in the South (Old Fort NC: Wolfhound Press, 1999) in which the author captures the essence of my bear-invasion episode. My guess is that not a few readers will be nodding their heads in agreement.
Baldwin, who currently resides in Hendersonville, grew up in the Carolinas and Georgia. He attended Furman University, spent a year in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from UNC-Chapel Hill, and retired as vice president of Shipley Company in Boston. Aside from all that, he grew up with a love for wild places and animals.
Drifting the River consists of 26 chapters in which the author chronicles his and his family’s experiences with themselves as well as with water moccasins, swamps, hurricanes, porpoises, a catfish named “Hopkins,” fishing worms, hammerhead sharks, “an octopus the size of an orange,” a fishing lure named “Pecks Popper,” and more.
In the chapter headed “A Bear’s Reach,” Baldwin relates an incident that took place in 1965 on Hazel Creek, where he and three friends had ventured for a week’s trout fishing. After crossing Fontana Lake on a motorboat, they hauled their gear — which “hard decisions had pared … down to the very barest essentials … a pile so high it resembled a slightly compacted Mt. LeConte” — in a cart to a campsite six miles upstream.
Baldwin’s fly-fishing skills were about like my own — that is, just about nonexistent. I read his account of a midweek outing with sympathy: “I stepped into the creek and, using my fly rod for balance, headed across. I almost made it. As I reached for a hardy limb to pull myself up onto the other bank a foot slipped and I sprawled backwards. The swift water was only about 18 inches deep there, but it rolled me over. I began to slide downstream toward the next waterfall. I grabbed a root and managed to pull the top half of me up onto the moss of the shore. My bottom half stayed in the water because I couldn’t lift my legs. In brim-full hip boots, they felt like elephant stumps. I threw fly rod and all the detachable equipment up on the bank and, with both hands, lifted one leg and then the other high enough to drain, then lay there shivering and gasping.”
After finally getting back to camp and companions, Baldwin found that “dry clothes, a warm fire, and food restored me.” Everything was starting to seem OK. They were having fun. But that, of course, was the moment when the bear made his appearance. First there was an unexpected “sound” in the nearby brush. Nobody moved.
The sound came again, closer this time. One of the campers “groaned, struggled to his feet, groped in the table clutter for a flashlight, and aimed the beam toward the noise. A black bear about the size of a breeding bull at puberty was standing a car’s length from us, staring.
“We jumped up and yelled and waved arms. The bear regarded us for a moment, then turned and ambled back out of sight into the woods.”
Anyone who knows anything about this sort of incident knows that the bear would return. It was only a matter of when.
“We had already stored all our food according to the forest ranger’s instructions,” Baldwin noted. “Everything edible was in a heavy plastic bag pulled up out of reach by a rope thrown over a limb of our oak tree and tied to the trunk. How high was the bag? I don’t know … but even the tallest among us couldn’t reach it.”
After the bear’s first appearance, they “piled pots and pans and everything to do with cooking on the camp’s wooden table, replenished the fire, and went to bed.”
By the time Baldwin “had settled myself on the roots and lumps that were my mattress, the bear was back, clattering among the pots and pans …. Frustrated, I suppose, by smelling food but not finding any, the bear came over to my tent — I heard him through the canvas, probably less than a foot from my face, snuffling and rooting around. I tried to think of what I would do if he came into my tent. I imagined waking up with bear breath in my face. With my arms zipped inside the sleeping bag, I knew what would happen. The bear wouldn’t have to bite me. I’d die of fright.
“But even with hideous, hungry death so close I could hear its teeth click, my camping-in-the-mountains-anesthetic took control. I went to sleep ….
“Jim’s shout woke me the next morning, ‘Oh, no! The bear got our food!’
“I crawled out of my tent into a cold, foggy drizzle. Our food cache, disemboweled, hung from its limb, flaccid and empty. Food remains, mostly ripped-up packages, littered the whole area under the bag. A broken jar of grape jelly, with the purple surface licked smooth, lay next to a chewed box of pancake flour. All our cooking gear had been swept off the table.”
The group momentarily contemplated sticking it out for the whole week, making do with the few supplies that were unscathed. But suddenly one of them came to his senses and blurted out: “’NO . . . LET’S . . . GO . . . HOME.’ All hearts suddenly lifted, blisters shrank, hunger departed, and the freezing drizzle became a May shower. The camp disappeared in a blur. Everything was piled — stuffed — on our cart. In hardly more than it’s taken me to write about it, we were loaded and ready for the six-mile trudge down to the lake.”
Before long they were eating dinner at the Fontana Village Resort. Back across the lake, way up on Hazel Creek, a well-fed bear was hunkering down, waiting for the next influx of campers.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in February 2007.