Calling All Bears – Smoky Mountain Discoveries

Under cover of a thin ribbon of mist, I could make out the outline of a buck, his antlers branching off the top of his head. In the foreground, a solitary photographer, respectfully watching from a safe distance. The quiet of this early morning was quickly disrupted when I heard several car doors slamming behind me. iPhone in hand, a group of women squeezed beneath the wire fence and marched directly up to the deer.

Snap

“I just love deer,” said one of the women as they tramped across the wet grass and back to the car. The deer, while mostly used to such intrusion, moved quickly across the field and high tailed it to the other side of the road, leaping effortlessly over the fence.

buck jumping fence

Effortlessly leaping over fence – photo: Barry Scully

This was to be one of many such encounters as Barry and I wandered through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Inching forward at 10 miles an hour along the 11-mile conveyor belt loop circumnavigating the broad valley, you are guaranteed to see wildlife if you peer beyond the bumper-to-bumper line of cars.

“Hey Bear, over here, check these guys out.” I say to Barry who I rarely call Barry.

“What? Bear? Where?” asks a stranger from across the street.

“Oh no, just a bunch of turkeys. I call my husband Bear!” That really cracks me up, but when the stakes are high, this is no laughing matter.

barn in cades cove

Approaching this barn on a well-worn path in the early morning is almost dreamy with the mist

Animal encounters in National Parks are what people come for – in this case, everyone wants to see a bear, and it’s obvious when there’s a sighting. At an already crawling pace, traffic comes to slow halt, each car edging forward to try to get a glimpse. It doesn’t help matters when people abandon their cars in the middle of the road – doors wide-open, engines running, to get a closer look at the animals.

Of course, not all encounters end amicably for either the people or the animals. At another part of the park, volunteers tell me about people getting close enough to pet the elk. In another incident at Yellowstone, a tourist put a bison calf in their back seat because they thought it was cold. Unfortunately, that bison was rejected by the heard and was euthanized.

boy and elk

Too close for comfort. A huge elk keeps his distance from a little boy eating grass (yes, the boy was eating grass).

With iPhones acting as a magical protective shield, people approach the wilderness through a rectangular screen, once removed from harm and inches away from the animals. The animals, for their part, either reluctantly move deeper into the bush or bolt across the road to escape. Some of them are clearly agitated, but being outnumbered, they cower away.

old man new tech

Trying out the panorama feature on his new iPhone for the first time!

I have slowly learned to abandon travel agendas and checklists of ‘Must Sees’ or ‘Top 10 Must Dos’, their authoritarian tone causing me an alarming level of anxiety. In a time where people are embracing so-called minimalist lifestyles and moving away from accumulating things in preference to acquiring experiences, there is the proliferation of bucket lists that turn these experiences into a commodity. The rush to tick off all the boxes leaves little time to linger, where is the pleasure in that?

Now, if everyone turns to go left, we turn right, and in spite of these traffic jams, we pull off the road several times and lose ourselves in the bush. Our favorite time is early in the morning, just before the sun burns off the dense mist, slowly, patiently peeling away the layers of fog revealing the distant hardwood forests and ancient mountains.

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Beautiful black bear foraging for acorns – Photo: Barry Scully

We hop back onto the conveyor belt and drive a mile before Barry spots a black bear. I let him out and park off the side of the road. By the time I join him the bear, a large male, has moved into the trees. A group had come up behind me, and in their excitement at seeing a bear, scared him off.

Later in the day, we decide to hike a trail that follows Abrams River to the falls. As we begin our hike, the mass exodus of people streaming out surprises us.

“You planning on camping overnight? It’ll be dark by the time you come out,” offers one hiker.

salwafarah

Me venturing upstream along Abrams creek – photo: Barry Scully

Undeterred, we enjoy the solitude as we walk deeper and higher up the valley, the river getting father away beneath us. We round the bend and start our decline toward the river, and eventually to the falls. We’re not the last ones in and a few fishermen follow behind us – it looks like a favorite place to catch trout. We do make it out before dark and just in time to join another line of cars leaving the park.

The next day we explore several homesteads scattered around the valley, their isolation a testament to the tenacity of the early settlers who carved out a living in this remote region that was once part of the Cherokee nation. A walk through some of the cemeteries reveals the story of nature’s indifference to people’s resolve. There are numerous children’s graves, some with pennies left atop gravestones as remembrance.

historic child's gravestone

In remembrance of a short-lived life

“Bear, bear,” I hear myself saying as I try to get Barry’s attention, trying to conceal the panic in my voice. Barry was walking deeper into the woods, but the bear that had previously disappeared into the bush had doubled back and was hunched on a branch behind me, looking even more nervous than me. The small yearling eventually crossed the road safely, appearing to pause for the numerous paparazzi before rambling into the bush.

bear_crossing_road

Why did the bear cross the road? Photo: Barry Scully

We were reluctant to leave the park, having become familiar with the trails, anticipating what is around the next bend and predicting where the bears are likely to be foraging. It is easy to understand why Smoky Mountain is the most visited National Park, averaging more than 10 million visitors annually. But if you do go, a few steps into the woods will uncover solitude readily found within the layers of mountains.

Link to the Smoky Mountain Portfolio for more images

Moonshine in the Dark Corner

October 21, 2016 South Carolina, Upstate 0 Comments

I’ve already written about my uncanny and comical ability to get lost, so heading into the woods on my own to explore some of South Carolina’s state parks would seem foolhardy. Setting aside my fear of bears, and armed with a portable GPS and an active imagination, I set out for a ramble along the Middle Saluda River in Jones Gap State Park.

Avoiding the ominously named Hospital Rock trail, I instead hiked up the friendlier sounding Rainbow Falls. The crescendo of rushing water fades in and out as I climb higher into the woods along the switchbacks.

The rivers and tributaries of the Carolinas were the powerhouses behind the once thriving textile industry; they were also the means to accessing fresh water that kept the illicit liquor supplies flowing through these hills. This particular region of South Carolina was notorious for moonshiners. Once the reviled backwater of the more refined Palmetto State, the ‘Dark Corner’ is cloaked with legendary blood feuds, a disdain for authority and a refusal to join the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

moonshine

Moonshine in them hills – photo Barry Scully

I first became aware of the Dark Corner from the man who refilled our propane tank last winter. As a local, he knew the area well and pointed to Hogback Mountain, just northeast of our house. While the geographic area remains ambiguous, the general boundaries span from northwestern Spartenburg County to Pickens County and western North Carolina.

The settlers arrived in the late 18th century and embraced the value-added economy of turning corn to whisky, which was easier to transport and less dependent on the fluctuation market value of crops. These outliers lived in tight-knit communities and had a general distrust toward outsiders.

moonshine the old way

Not too much of a stereotype? His trusty little dog makes sure he never misses an episode of Gunsmoke – photo Barry Scully

Just when I thought these legendary moonshiners were mostly relegated to myth, their bad-ass reputations capitalized by the legal selling and distribution at liquor stores, I met Robert. An archetypical Appalachian figure complete with overalls, beard and still, Robert was working the still at Hagood Mills, a historic site and folklife centre in Pickens, SC.

whisky still

A functioning still at Hagood Mills – photo Barry Scully

Robert, it turns out, is a well-known character around town. He had driven his ‘35 Dodge pickup truck to the site earlier in the day, the tires worn and cracked. Typically he would have some kind of menagerie in tow. This time, it was a rooster and possum (presumably pets) that were crated on the wooden flatbed. Apparently his little dog, a Chihuahua mix, barks at one o’clock every afternoon to remind him that Gunsmoke is on TV.

old flatbed truck

pet possum or dinner?

Robert comes by his pursuit honestly. As he stokes the fire on the primitive looking still, he explains that he learned how to distill from his father who was in and out of jail several times before having to swear off illicit alcohol production for good. I comment at how the fire could easily betray the location of the still to the authorities. That’s why you work at night, Robert explains. Besides, smoke is not longer an issue since what few moonshiners are left now use propane.

 

wooden steps

Wooden logs create the stairway in Jones Gap State Park

 

Back in Jones Gap, I climb steadily up the mountain in awe of the people who made this trail, carving steps into stones and meticulously placing logs into spiraling stairways to the waterfalls. The squirrels in the woods keep me alert, surprising me by leaping in front of me or scurrying in tree tops, just out of sight and enough for me to imagine a bear waiting to ambush me.

The view at the top is spectacular, of course. The waterfall cascades from the cliff top and I scramble up the side of the hill to try to catch a glimpse of a rainbow. I run into a park ranger who assures me that I needn’t have worried about the Hospital Rock trail. It wasn’t legendary for sending hikers to the infirmary as I had presumed. The lore of the area suggested that it was a route to a makeshift hospital that cared for Confederate deserters. He also tells me that rangers continue to find old stills hidden in the bush along the rivers and streams, further fanning my curiosity for exploring the dark corners of these surrounding hills.