Last weekend my wife and I celebrated our 11th anniversary in a cabin in the Smokey Mountains. Well, actually we spent the days leading up to our 11th anniversary in a cabin in the Smokey Mountains. We spent the majority of our anniversary driving home in the rain. More on that later. But first: bears.
Before we set off on our hike, we stopped by the visitor center to talk to a Ranger about the trails. While waiting in line, I overheard one of the Rangers tell the couple in front of us that the animals were out. When pressed for specifics on what animals? the Ranger said bears and snakes; they even had a bear in the parking lot earlier that morning.
NOTE: I was with my friend Mike, and my wife was not with us, so she never heard this little bit o' advice, which probably would have made her more anxious than she already was. As she is a lurker on this blog, she will undoubtedly learn about this conversation ex post facto. Sorry honey, meant to tell you! Love you! Happy Anniversary XOXOXOX
When we spoke to a ranger ourselves, we didn't discuss animal safety / dangers. We just told him our goal was to see a waterfall. He told us how to get to a trailhead for both Grotto Falls and Rainbow Falls.
"Grotto falls is nice, it's the only waterfall in the park where you can actually walk behind the water and stand under it without getting wet," he told us.
"Hence the name Grotto," I pointed out.
"You know, you're the first person who ever figured that out," he said. (Aside from the person who named the falls, I assume.)
"I have my moments," I said (my standard response for times when people mistake my smart-assery for insight).
We drove to the trail head and walked into the wild. About a mile-and-a-half in, my wife asked me if I thought we would see any bears.
About a mile-and-three-quarters in, I heard a rustling off to the right. "I keep hearing sounds in the woods, and I keep thinking it's a bear or something," I said. Then: "It's a bear."
"What? Where?" my wife asked.
I pointed into the woods. About thirty yards away stood a black bear. I'm guessing it weighed between 400-500 lbs.
"Ohhhhhhh. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God," my wife chanted/prayed as she turned and quickly walked away. The air behind her rippled with Stark Terror.
The bear looked at me but didn't move. I turned and walked away, checking back over my shoulder occasionally. The bear didn't follow us.
We met up with our friends and another couple of hikers who had caught up with them. After much deliberation, we decided that we would go back up the trail toward the bear, talking loudly in hopes that our noise would scare him away.
It did not.
He was hiding behind a tree, waiting for us. I'm sure he was ready to pounce and eat us all. Everyone else may have shared that opinion, because there followed a quick and unanimous decision to go back immediately. But I did take this picture. There is a blurry bear head in the center of it. (Extra points if you can pick it out, in my haste I didn't have the camera settings right. Look for the brown snout.)
We saw another, smaller bear along the roadside near the parking lot. I was able to snap much better pictures from the safety of the car.
I also saw this snake:
When we drove home the next day, we encountered rain less than an hour after leaving the cabin. It was the hardest downpour I've ever driven through. The storm system was so large that we drove in the rain through the remainder of Tennessee, all through Kentucky, and into Columbus, Ohio. When I checked the news I was saddened - but not surprised - to learn that the storms caused fatalities in Tennessee. The amount of water coming down was damn near Biblical.
We all made it home safely, and now I'm looking forward to my dozenth year of marriage. Like the encounter in the woods, I am sure my wife and I will both do the same thing: grin and bear it!