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Smokies Bear Adventure

By Dan Addison

In 1979 I took a good friend on a 4 night camping trip in the Smokies. We left Cosby Campground one late morning in August on route to Walnut Bottoms. Hiking up Low Gap with full packs, caused my hiking partner to question my enthusiasm for this type of recreation. But once we hit the AT, the downhill hike and the beauty of the Smokies help considerably. When we reached the backcountry campsite there were already a couple groups of campers set up there. So we walked upstream a bit and looked for a level spot to set up our tent. We found a nice secluded area at the bottom of a small hill and pitched our tent.

That night heavy rains flooded our tent and our gear got soaked. But the rain stopped by morning so we grabbed a quick breakfast and began to look for Gunter Fork Trail. The trail was a bit was difficult to follow at first as it crossed a few small streams that were swelled from the nights rain. This is a very nice section of the trail with lush rhododendron, a cove of hardwoods and scenic stream views. As the trail started to climb the rains returned so we kept a steady pace.

Just off the trail to the right we saw a 10 foot cascade that plunged into a wide inviting pool. It seemed like a perfect spot for hot summer's day. Shortly after we passed a 150 foot cascade that started well up the side of the mountain. It appeared as a waterfall at the top and then it flowed over a large rock slab and into a pool right next to the trail. These were some incredible sites, too bad the rain kept us from stopping. We passed 3 huge hemlock tree that were up to 4 feet in diameter. Then during the last mile or so, the rain stopped and sun started to break through the clouds. The hillsides were covered by thick beds of sphagnum moss. This was an most unusual and incredible site. When we reached Laurel Gap shelter and it's beautiful grassy meadow the sun was bright and the sky had turned blue. With the help of fellow campers we built a fire, dried off our gear and changed into some dry clothes. The evening was full of trail stories by the fire and a densely star filled sky.

We headed out Balsam Mt Trail the next morning on our way to the AT and Tri Corner Knob. The trail was full of mostly healthy balsam fir trees with many dense groves. The forest floor was covered with soft balsam needles and the trees towered high above our heads. This day we really enjoyed some great high elevation ridge hiking. The shelter at Tri Corner Knob was a bit crowded but everyone seemed friendly as usual. We picked out some bunks, cleaned up, cooked some dinner and relaxed. My partner and I walked about a ¼ mile up the AT and found a secluded rock to enjoy a few sips of bourbon and enjoy a sunset through the trees.

Some of the other campers were also exploring the area when I heard someone say something about a bear. We walked back to the trail and noticed some commotion and several folks pointing down the steep sloping mountainside. Sure enough there was a good size bear moving along the side of the mountain about 75 feet away. Then the bear lurched up towards us and suddenly we all began moving quickly down the trail back to the shelter. When we returned the bear was nowhere to be seen and one bold hiker stayed outside looking about. Suddenly he too jumped into the shelter and locked the gate. Just then the bear entered the campsite and walked around the side of the building. Then we heard the sound of the bear as it climbed up the hill behind the shelter and on the roof. It came to the front portion of the roof and pawed over the edge towards the top of the shelter's door. To say the least, it was a bit unnerving. This spectacle lasted long into the night.

I woke at dawn and saw the bear sitting upright begging right in front of the shelter door. By first light he was gone and so we ate a light breakfast, packed up and hit the trail. As we hiked north down the AT were saw numerous piles of purple bear scat. After the experience the night before, we were both on bear alert. We hiked to Inadu Knob and then over Maddron Bald still seeing bear tracks and scat all along the trail. Near the bald we stopped and fired up our stove to have an early dinner so we could avoid cooking food at the campsite. After we finished our meal and headed down the trail we came upon a small bear heading straight towards us. When it looked up and saw us he headed into the woods and did a big circle around us. Then it climbed back onto the trail and continued on it's way.

Soon we reached the cool, damp backcountry campsite at Otter Creek. We quickly pitched camp and began to look for fire wood. All the sticks we could find were wet and as hard as we tried we couldn't get a fire started. It was getting late so we began to search for trees to hang up our food. We tied a rope around a stick and threw it over a lower branch. It was a difficult feat because many of the lower branches were still 15 to 20 feet high. Soon it got dark, very dark, so we climbed into the tent. About ten minutes later we heard sounds around the tent so we began to make noises hoping to scare off our late night visitor.

By first light we noticed our food was gone so we checked to see if there was anything left. Two small packets of instant coffee were all we could find, so that was our breakfast that morning. Luckily it was our last day so we broke camp and headed back to Maddron Bald on our way to Snake Den Trail. This time as we hiked back over Maddron Bald we noticed bushes full of blueberries and ate our fill. It quenched our thirst and our hunger.

We hiked back out to Cosby Campground and civilization. As we climbed back into the car and headed towards Gatlinburg we reflected on our adventures and the intense beauty of the Smokies. After days of granola and dried fruit, pizza and beer suited us just fine. Since that trip I have returned numerous times and enjoyed many more memorable adventures.

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