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Of Bears and Backpackers: A Smokies Postcard

A bear in a field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
National Park Service
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A bear in a field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This year I decided to “reconnect” with the Great Smoky Mountains.  I was an avid Smokies hiker until middle age set in.  Now 20 years later there’s a sense of urgency to get back to those hazy green hills before it’s too late.  It’s still possible, they say, to escape the crowds in America’s most visited national park.

“You can still find solitude in the Smokies if you really try,” says Ranger Christine Hoyer.

Hoyer oversees the Smokies’ backcountry.

“We’ve got 89 backcountry campsites that all have places to put your tent, places for you to hang your food, fire rings; they’re very primitive, most of them are by a water source, hopefully they’ll have some level ground for you to sleep on,” Hoyer says. 

A majestic view of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Credit National Parks Service
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89.7 NPR News
A majestic view of the Great Smoky Mountains.

I wanted to camp at two sites on a trip up to Gregory Bald.  The Bald offers stunning views of the majestic North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains on one side and magnificent vistas of the fertile fields in Tennessee’s Cades Cove on the other. 

But I wasn’t able to because of bears.  They’ve forced several campsites to close, like number 13, known as Sheep Pen Gap.

“This year we’ve had a lot of closures for bear activity for this time of year.  Campsite 13 is one where there is a lot of bear activity because of some the food sources that are up there.  There’s some cherry trees up there that the bears like,” Hoyer says.

A study eight years ago estimated that 1,600 bears roam the hills of the Great Smokies.  Ranger Ryan Williamson, a wildlife technician, says their numbers may be increasing.

“We have seen an escalation of bear activity since 2008 ‘til now so maybe there’s more bears now,” Williamson says.

A black bear eats near Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Credit National Park Service
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A black bear eats near Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Williamson says bears are more visible this year because of a scarcity of food last fall.

“It was a really hard, low food year for the bears last fall.  So they wake up out of hibernation really, really hungry,” Williamson says.

Black bears like blackberries and blueberries, nuts and insects.  But they’ll also snatch a hiker’s backpack.  Williamson says bears are “one-time learners.”

“If a bear approaches a shelter and sees a pack laying there full of food he’s going to take that pack.  And then once he has done it one time he has learned that’s an easy food source,” Williamson says.

I reluctantly gave up the Gregory Bald idea, choosing instead to head to Thunderhead Mountain, stopping for the night along Anthony Creek.  All campsites now have devices to keep campers’ possessions out of the reach of hungry bears. 

Lulled to sleep by the sound of the creek, I woke the next morning to find that my pack was still there, untouched. 

Sunset from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Credit National Parks Service
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89.7 NPR News
Sunset from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

During my days on the trail I never did see a bear, which was probably a good thing.  Still, I was a little disappointed.

“Yep.  Ursus Americanus.  It’s kind of the classic mascot of the Smokies would be the best way to sum it up,” says Ranger Williamson.

“Bears and the Smokies do go hand-in-hand.  You know they’re native wildlife here.  They are really charismatic mega-fauna.  To see a bear and the majesticness of it – a bear being a bear in his wild habitat. And they’re very curious and beautiful creatures.

Creatures that Ranger Hoyer says should be admired from a distance.

“We’re not a zoo, we’re a national park.  And we try to encourage people to experience the wildlife but to do so from a distance,” Hoyer says.

Like thousands of other Ohioans, I’ll go back to the Smokies.  Not just to catch a glimpse of a bear but for everything the park has to offer.

“That’s what keeps people coming back to the Smokies and encourages people to come and visit: the mountain views and the waterfalls and the bears and the wildlife; all those things wrapped together,” says Hoyer.

LeContePanorama_0.jpg
Credit National Parks Service
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89.7 NPR News
Mt. LeConte as seen from Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park