This past fall, I spent 22 days of October out capturing fall color images and found some magnificent color. I also had my fair share of bear sightings. Unfortunately, I was not always in a position to get photos of them as many of my encounters happened while I was driving. But I did get a couple of shots and love seeing these wonderful animals out in their natural habitat. I thought I would devote this, my second blog entry, to telling you of my bear encounters and sharing some images that I captured in the process.
I have been hiking in the mountains of Western North Carolina since 2000 and have seen bears on several occasions. Most of the time though, as my daughter can attest to, I do my best to let the bears know I am coming as I hike. I have taught her that we let out an occasional, booming "HEY BEAR," as we venture through the forest. She likes to change it up and yell things like "HOT DOG," or "PICKLED EARLOBES," because she knows the bears do not know what we are saying just that we are being loud and are on our way into their habitat. The desired effect is to warn the bears, so we do not startle one. After all, my most valuable possession is hiking with me sometimes.
So on to bear stories; this past fall the bears were out and about and sightings were high due to a low acorn crop. I think overall I saw eight bears in October and three in one day near Chimney Rock. My most amazing sighting was early October, I started the first week of the month up at high elevations so I would not miss the leaves changing color at Graveyard Fields. I started all of my fall color shooting days at 4:30 to 5:00 in the morning so I could be out at my desired location for sunrise photos. This day, I started out at Looking Glass Rock for Sunrise and shot all day long driving up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway, Highway 276 and Highway 215. I had captured some beautiful fall color shots in the process.
Like this one of Second Falls at Graveyard Fields.
I also captured some nice images of Looking Glass Rock in the late day sunlight.
A few minutes after shooting this bright sunny scene, I was driving further South on the the Parkway. I had passed Black Balsam Knob, and was heading towards Devil's Courthouse when I drove around a curve into a heavily shaded section of the road and saw a BIG Black Bear literally walking on the wooden guard rail. I slowed down and reached for my camera, fortunately there were no cars in front or behind me as I almost completely stopped in the road. Now, remember the bright sunny photo I had just shot of Looking Glass Rock? Now, I am in a darkly shaded area, which means my camera is not set for the scene. I frantically tried to adjust my settings to try to get a shot off of him before he dismounted the rail with the vast mountain overlook behind him. However, I failed. He hopped down off of the rail and was about to trample down into the forest, but I had stopped the car just 15 or so feet from him. He saw me sitting there and was looking at me curiously. I was still trying to get set but everything was happening so fast, then he stood up on his hind legs and gave me a look. I did get one shot off, but it was drastically underexposed but enough to see that he was a big bear.
After this he turned and disappeared into the thick forest below. I wish I had been able to get set quicker but this whole process took less than 30 seconds to transpire, but at least I have one shot and a cool story.
Now, let's venture back in time years ago in the same neck of the woods. I mentioned Devil's Courthouse in the previous story and for those of you who are not familiar with our Mountains, here is the Courthouse, shot 15 or so minutes after my bear encounter.
This is above 5700 ft and is the origin or headwaters of Courthouse Creek. Courthouse Creek is home to a fairly easy to access and well known waterfall named Courthouse Falls. In the summer this is a popular swimming hole and many people even jump the 30 feet into the pool. I prefer viewing waterfalls from the base, but I am not 19 anymore either.
On one of my many trips to Courthouse Falls I had one of my most terrifying bear encounters. The trail to the falls is only 1/4 to 1/2 of a mile and is an easy hike. I was going down to get some shots on slides (for those of you not familiar with anything non digital, that is a type of film) back before I went digital. On the short hike to the falls, I saw a juvenile bear. Not quite a cub, but maybe a one or two year old, I guess. When he saw me, he ran across the creek and up the bank into the woods then turned and looked at me. He was small enough that I thought to myself, "Momma ain't far away." So I started in with my cadence of "HEY BEAR," every few seconds just to let momma bear know that I am coming.
The trail to the falls, passes the waterfall peak and then switches back and ends with a 20 or 30 foot drop where the forest service has built a nice, steep set of stairs down to creek level where you can capture the shot that I have above. Now on this day I was shooting some different vantage points and was standing at the end of the trail before the stairs. This view was above and to the left of the view I have provided here, but I do not have any shots from there to share with you that are not on slides.
So there I was, shooting away at the top of the steep stairs and end of the trail with no where to go. Do you feel the suspense building? About this time, I spot something big and black running down the trail directly toward me. I am trapped, no escape, I cannot jump down this bank, and the stairs are steep! There is no way I can get away from the impending doom that lays before me. I almost crap my pants, my thought is, "here comes momma bear and this is not going to be good." I turn and look and here comes a great big black LAB with his family hiking behind him. The sigh of relief almost knocks me to my knees, as my heart had plummeted into my pants, literally, I could feel my heart beat in my bum cheeks. I said to the family, "Oh my gosh, you scared me to death, " and I proceeded to tell them about the juvenile I had encountered and my reaction to seeing their Lab running to me. Thankfully, the Lab was friendly and liked to be petted, since I needed a little comforting after that scare.
If you want to safely get some nice, close looks at black bears, I suggest Grandfather Mountain.
But on one other occasion, I never saw a single bear but knew that they were close by. My friend and I had gone to a little known waterfall down in Highlands, North Carolina. We were very close to the Georgia state line and this was my first time attempting to find this certain falls. We parked and started our hike, again not a difficult or long hike but in a pretty remote area. So, I naturally began my booming cadence of "HEY BEAR." One thing that I can do is rattle some trees with a big booming voice when I want. Not too far down the trail we come across some very fresh bear tracks, and the strong smell of a large wet dog. This means that there is a bear very close by, black bears give off a pretty strong wet dog smell, especially after rain (duh). The tracks were so fresh that you could see the small pieces of dirt stirred up by it claws in the tracks. My booming "HEY BEAR," had done the trick, scaring this bear off when he heard us coming.
Feeling confident that we were relatively safe now, we head on to the waterfall. Along the way, we see several more spots with the same, very fresh bear tracks so I keep booming out my cadence. Finally we reach the top of the falls, and what a beauty it is, 75 or so feet and very photogenic. However, we needed to find a way down to the falls as the trail had ended and we did not see an obvious trail to the base.
As we looked around for a trail, or a goat path, or some way down, we heard a strange noise. It sounded like the deep "ribbett" of a frog or something similar. That makes no sense though, since it is fall, late October, not spring when you typically hear such a pronounced and LOUD sound. As we looked at each other befuddled, the sound grew louder and louder still. Then much to my dismay the "ribbett" became more of a "snort." We look up stream from the falls and there we see the culprits, now we are completely in trouble as our eyes saw three animals not to be trifled with at all, BOAR!
I took one look at my friend and said, "Kelly, the car is that way!" Fortunately the boar did not give chase, but my fear was that we were going to be running from the boar and run up on our friend leaving all of those fresh bear tracks that we encountered on the way to the falls. Thankfully, this did not happen and we were safe and sound. However once back in the car the boar crossed the road where we parked so they did come up the trail behind us, just not as aggressively as I have heard they can be.
The worst part of the day was having to leave the waterfall without taking one shot. And to this day, I have not been back. I hope to try again this spring and will add photos to the site once I do.
Bears inhabit these mountains and I am glad they do. I am not afraid of them but yet I respect them. Unless I am mistaken, I heard a news report this past year on the radio, that there has never been an unprovoked bear attack in the Mountains of North Carolina, ever. So do not fear them, but as you venture out and explore the beauty that we are so fortunate in which to live, let out your own rendition of my faithful cadence, "HEY BEAR!"
This last one is from the NC Zoo, and not a black bear ;-)