Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bears over there

I think most people have their own special places. You know, the ones they're always glad to go back to, no matter how many times they've been there before. For some, it's attractions like Disney World, Wrigley Field or Las Vegas. For others, it's a little more personal, like a secret spot in the country, a deserted beach or the front porch at grandma's house.
For me, one of them is The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Careful readers of this column might remember that the Smoky Mountains have often been the proving ground for one of my most spectacular paranormal abilities.  I refer, of course, to the fact that I am able to make it rain, no matter what the forecast or conditions, simply by pitching a tent.
We have, in fact, been trying to enjoy sleeping under the stars in those beautiful mountains for over 30 years, but we've never been able to avoid some kind of wet weather, ranging from persistent cold drizzles to sudden gullywasher showers to frightening peak-rattling thunderstorms.
But I keep going back.
I foiled the rain gods on our most recent jaunt from our part-time place on the North Carolina shore back home to Illinois by skipping the whole camping bit and opting, instead, to stay overnight on the southeastern edge of the park before entering the next morning for a day-long visit. We stayed in a little mountainside town named--back in 1904--after a pretty 14-year old mountain girl with long blond hair and deep blue eyes named Maggie. Maggie Valley is sort of unique in that while it is, indeed, kind of a tourist town, it does it in a very 50s kind of way. Rather than the overwhelming gaggle of go-cart tracks, pizza joints, fast food restaurants and t-shirt shops found in many locales near the park, it is mostly gently dotted with a comfortable mix of mom-and-pop motels, a couple of homemade miniature golf courses, a rushing mountain stream and locally owned restaurants featuring fresh trout, fried chicken and a mountain blackberry cobbler so wondrous that it caused my traveling companion to roll her eyes and pound the table in delight after her first bite.
But the best thing about Maggie Valley is the view, surrounded, as it is, with high, tree-covered peaks and heavily wooded passes that seem so impenetrable that it's actually kind of easy to imagine the likes of Daniel Boone and other wilderness explorers taking one look before saying, "Oh heck, let's just go to the mall instead."
The park itself was chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. It encompasses over 800 square miles, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States.
In other words, it's big.
Much too big, in fact, to be viewed in its entirety during the kind of "on-the-way-home" daytrip we had planned. So we picked our spots, based on a combination of things we had seen before and wanted to see again, and a desire to visit a part of the park we had never encountered. First on the docket was Clingmans Dome. At an elevation of 6,643 feet, it's the highest mountain in the Smokies, the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and the highest peak along the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, along with being the third-tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. No, we didn't climb the whole thing. Just the last half mile, which is a steep, demanding trail that rewards the hearty hiker with amazing views and a sense of having done something no one in his right mind would ever do on purpose.
Our next foray was to the Elkmont Historic District, a lost-in-time section of the park containing the remains of an early-20th-century resort area that was once located near the logging town of Elkmont.  It is, as I described in a column I wrote after the first time we found the place, like a resort ghost town, with rambling rows and clumps of crumbling, architecturally interesting cottages winding all the way to the remains of the old Wonderland Hotel, a place where her parents stayed and relaxed back in the day.
But it was at our final stop that we saw something truly unexpected.
Cades Cove is an isolated mountain valley that was once home to numerous settlers before the formation of the national park. According to the guidebook, It is the single most popular destination for visitors to the park, attracting over two million visitors a year, due to its "well preserved homesteads, scenic mountain views, and abundant display of wildlife."
Oh yeah, wildlife.
We were on the driving tour of the area, an 11-mile. one-way loop route that offers the best overall opportunity to see the aforementioned buildings, vistas and critters.  We had seen log cabins, a restored mill and a whole host of deer, wild turkeys and other inhabitants of the lovely area when, suddenly, traffic, which had been spotty at best, ground to a standstill.
More than anything, it was like a deep wilderness version of that Chicago traffic phenomenon known as the gapers' block.
There were cars on the shoulder, cars in the ditch, and other cars stopped right in the middle of the narrow roadway, as folks streamed towards a little meadow area filled with berry bushes.
Oh yeah, and bears. A mama bear and three cubs, to be exact.
Now, I don't know much, that's a well-established fact. But I do know that you should NEVER, EVER GO NEAR A BEAR. ESPECIALLY ONE WITH CUBS.
But that's what was going on.
Now, park rules state clearly that bears are not to be messed with. They are wild animals, and a protected species to boot.
"Besides," I thought, "who's going to protect me?"
Me: Maybe we should roll up the windows.
She: There's bears over there!
Me: You know, you never, ever should go near a bear. Especially one with cubs.
She: Yeah. Right. I gotta go see.
So she did. And so did I. Not because I am known for my bravery in the face of danger, or even because I'm willing to risk anything to protect my loving spouse. But simply because I didn't want to have to explain things to our neighbors when I got home.
Neighbor: Where's your lovely wife?
Me: Oh, she was eaten by a bear.
Neighbor: That must have been awful!
Me: I wouldn't know, I stayed in the car.
Now, we didn't get up close and personal with that bear family like some of the remarkably foolish folks gathered around that berry patch. But we surely got closer than I ever imagined I'd get to a grumpy, 100+ pound omnivore capable of running up to 30 miles per hour in pursuit of a slow, tasty tourist in flip-flops and a brightly colored shirt. We looked and I got a couple of fuzzy, long-range pictures. Then I quickly hauled her back to our vehicle when Ursus americanus seemed to finally notice all the attention and suddenly stood bolt upright to check on the safety of her cubs.
All I can say is that I was rather out of breath when we reached the car; maybe even a little more than after climbing the top end of that 6,000 foot mountain.
But I guess I feel O.K. about the whole experience now that it's over. And chances are pretty darn good I'll even make myself sound quite a bit braver when I tell the story in the future.
But even now, when people ask me what I've been doing lately, I can tell them.
I saw a bear.
Over there.
And lived to tell about it.

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