My Girl Scout buddy Carol enjoyed our wet adventures at Balsam Mountain in July so much that when she heard the rain forecast she jumped at the chance to hike with me again. We headed for the Smokies on a Monday morning for my first camping experience at Elkmont Campground. Each of us drove separately because I planned to stay until Friday and Carol had to head home on Wednesday. Note: when car camping, bring everything you own. I made good use of an umbrella, two rain jackets, a tarp and a beach canopy on this trip.
Between stopping for lunch, for caffeine, for gas and driving in the rain, it took about 5 hours to get to the Tennessee side of the Park. Over lunch I had convinced Carol that we could squeeze in a late afternoon stroll (just 6 miles, I promise). As I have mentioned here before, many of the hikes in the “Day Hiker’s Guide” have spurs in the middle or tail ends that make the hikes more efficient but long. In some instances, if I have a short amount of time it makes sense to hike a portion of a route to shorten a lengthy hike later. In this instance, I was looking at the Elkmont/Tremont Hike #14, and saw that if I covered this section of Sugarland Mountain now, the rest of the hike could be done as a lollipop rather than as a shuttle hike.
Loop hike: Begins and ends at the same point but does not cover the same ground
Shuttle hike: Begins and ends at two different points and the hiker needs a car or a driver at each end Lollipop hike: Hike out for some distance, then in a loop, then return on the original trail (just draw a lollipop and it will make sense)
In-and-Out hike: Hike out and return by the same route
The Sugarland Mountain trailhead is off Little River Road opposite the trailhead for Laurel Falls, an easily accessible and therefore very popular waterfall. As I was getting out of my car, Carol yelled, “Hey, bears!” There were half a dozen people, including children, on the paved trail near the parking lot, watching a mama bear and two cubs going up the hill – and one cub on the other side of the trail (and thus the people).
Let’s review: Do not get between a mama bear and her cubs.
Of course we had our cameras out for protection. I got a photo as the single cub headed up a tree and then it suddenly cried for its mother. At that point Carol and I said, “Time to go,” and everyone else ran forward with their cameras. Don’t know what happened after that.
So off we went on the Sugarland Mountain Trail at 4:00 PM. We expected to be done before 7:00 PM. The trail goes up, then down, then starts back up and we were enjoying the day, noting the fact that the rain had stopped. We saw some leaves already beginning to show their fall colors. And then…
Back to our story: Carol was perhaps 15 feet behind me. I glanced over to my right and saw a mama bear about 20 feet from me, standing and looking at us from behind a tree on the high side of the trail. In the moment this took to register and say, “Uh, Carol,” I had traveled a few steps past the tree. Carol stopped. Here we were in a triangle, me, the bear and Carol. It went something like this:
ME: (looking up): I see two cubs way up in the tree.
BEAR (looking at Carol): I don’t like you – you are too close.
CAROL (looking at mama bear): What should I do?
BEAR: Huff, huff, huff.
ME: Neither of us can pass her so let’s both back up. (Potentially dumb move that fortunately does not cost us our lives, for now Carol and I are separated even more.)
BEAR: (still looking at Carol): Back up some more, sister.
CAROL: Maybe this big stick will help.
BEAR: (clacking jaws): I suggest backing up even more.
ME (now 40 feet away): Keep backing up but let’s stay in sight of each other.
BEAR: Huff, huff, clack, clack, I’d much rather you go away altogether
CAROL (now 40 feet in the other direction): Where’s my camera? Do you think she’ll mind the flash? (Intermission for several minutes while we wait for…what?)
BEAR: Okay, I’ll go up the tree.
CAROL and ME: Let’s get a photo since we are here.
BEAR: Get away while you can.
After mama bear was way up in the tree with her cubs (click picture to see mama looking down at Carol), Carol walked past and up the trail to where I was, pausing to lay her big stick across the path to mark where the bears were for when we came back past there later on. Then we headed on our way, hyperventilating and rehashing what we should have done (stayed together and backed up toward the trailhead, or me going off the trail and circling around back to Carol).
Within five minutes we hit the intersection at Huskey Gap, our turnaround point, which we thought would have taken much longer and given mama bear more time to relocate. Ummmm…do you think the bears have left? Going any other route would mean a long detour and hitchhiking back to our cars. So we headed back and approached our marker on the trail. We could see a black spot way up in the tree, a cub, but we could not see mama anywhere. We kept talking loudly, walking and swiveling our heads around 360 degrees like moms are able to do, but mama did not reappear.
Safely back at our cars, I realized that we had seen 7 bears in the first 3 hours of this trip to the Smokies. An auspicious beginning! Paraphrasing Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh, "I wonder what's going to happen exciting tomorrow?"