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Monday, November 07, 2011

Bear With Me.

Smoky Mountain High_2

Once upon a time, a nice wonderful delightful family of four decided to spend their Saturday hiking in the Smoky Mountains instead of participating in any tennis tournaments. They were so glad when they woke up and saw that the day was going to be spectacularly good - clear and cool - just perfect for some hiking.

They packed some snacks and a picnic blanket in backpacks, loaded up the car and drove for about two hours, through foggy valleys, until they reached their destination. They could have gone somewhere closer, but on particularly clear days, the best view to be had are at Clingman's Dome, on the Appalachian Trail - the highest point in Tennessee and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When they arrived, they marveled at the view from the parking lot, and that they had gotten there early enough to avoid the ample crowds that would arrive after lunch. They set out for Andrew's Bald, a two mile trek through the forest. The trail was damp and muddy in places, but that didn't matter, because the temperature was perfect, the birds were singing and the cutest little red squirrels on the entire planet were chasing each other all over the place, chattering and calling to each other across the trail.

The family noticed a sign at the trail head that noted that campsite #68 was closed due to aggressive bear activity, but there was no notice about the bald, or the Forney Ridge Trail, so they pressed on. The mom led the way, the two boys next, and the father brought up the rear - an arrangement that allowed for the maximum protection of the youngsters...just in case...

(this is what you might call foreshadowing, folks...)

Along the trail, they noticed signs of bear activity - red berries scattered here and there - what looked like bear poop - and in one particular location, a smelly, musty, wild animal smell - but they didn't see any actual bears. I will tell you that the mom was paranoid as hell, mainly because the trail was so empty - they only passed one other set of hikers on the way to the bald - and her eyes were moving back and forth like a Cylon's. Sheesh.

At the bald, they set up their picnic blanket and had snacks of nuts and beef jerky and apples, drank some water, and soaked in the views. They wandered around the bald, looking at the azalea buds that will open next spring, and the moss covered brush. They climbed a few rocks and took some photos and lay in the grass and soaked up the sun. Other hikers came and went. Finally, they decided to head back up to the tower on the dome.

On the way back, they ran into many more hikers, and so the mom was feeling much more secure. There was a large group of German hikers, who politely asked if they were on the right trail for the bald, a group of about 4 older ladies who were having a fabulous time. Everyone was friendly and engaging. About a mile into the return trip, the family stopped to allow a couple, traveling the opposite direction, to pass on the narrow trail. They stepped off the path and drank some water, gearing up for the uphill section of the hike. After a few minutes, they noticed that the other couple wasn't coming down the hill, so they stepped back onto the path.

"There's a bear, " called the man. "How close?" asked the mom. The man pointed to a spot about 20 yards in front of us, just to the left of the trail. There, at the base of the tree, sat a small black bear - not much bigger than the family's German Shepherd dog, who was suddenly much missed by the mom. The family stopped, children pushed behind them and waited to see what the little bear would do.

It climbed the tree with the red berries. Up and up and up it went to the top, feasting all the way. None of the humans on the trail moved. "Should we wait?" the man uphill asked. "Probably. He went up that tree pretty fast. I'm sure he can come down it even faster," the father replied. So they waited. And waited - the family on the downhill side, the couple on the uphill side. Another couple walked up behind the family. They were young - mid 20s at best. They waited, too. A group of about 7 arrived with the couple on the uphill side. They were louder - more boisterous. The young couple on the downhill side decided to try going past the bear in the tree.

Everyone held their breath and watched as they passed under the limb where the bear was perched. The bear watched, too. But he didn't move. The large uphill group decided to go all at once, and the family knew that's when they'd have to make their move. They passed under the tree just as the larger group passed them. The mom looked up and saw the bear looking down at them. Her heart beat faster than it ever had, her eyes darting between the bear and the trail and her children and her husband. On the other side of the tree, with the children uphill from her, she turned and looked back. The bear had gone back to stuffing itself with red berries, unconcerned with the parade that had passed below him.

"Well, that was exciting!" said the mom, trying to keep her children from panicking. "My heart is beating out of my chest!" the older son replied. "Mine, too. I guess that was our adventure for the day," she said.

Or maybe not...