Of Big Views and Big Bears

Of Big Views and Big Bears

Sue Wasserman

Story and photos by Sue Wasserman

I’m a sucker for ‘big’ views. So when Steve Kemp, GSMA’s former creative services director and the namesake for my writing residency, suggested a hike to Andrews Bald, I was psyched—especially because it was yet another trail that would be new to me.

Hoping to avoid the mid-June throngs, we set out early and arrived at the parking lot under a heavy early morning fog. After several days of oppressive heat, the chill was refreshing. I happily pulled a light jacket from my backpack and zipped up before walking towards the trailhead.

Rugel’s ragwort
Rugel’s ragwort is unique to the Smokies and found in greatest abundance at higher elevations.

Like me, Steve is a confirmed meanderer. I’ve heard him use the word sloth while referring to his method of walking, which makes me smile. Slow walks, after all, are conducive to maximum noticing, one of my favorite pastimes.

The drifting fog created a wonderful air of mystery. When the sun burst through the trees, slicing into the murkiness with rays a-blazing, I was reminded there is such a place as heaven on earth.

As I gazed into the woods, wondering what was blossoming, Steve was focused skyward, pointing out the sweet sounds of winter wrens. Until that morning under his tutelage, I hadn’t known how much bird song is generated by the males of any given species.

Knowing my passion for wildflowers, he told me about Rugel’s ragwort, a wildflower that, while not particularly colorful, is unique to the Smokies and found in greatest abundance at higher elevations. No sooner had he said it than I spied one ‘in-training,’ as I like to say, or just about to bloom.

As we were comfortably lollygagging, I caught sight of a bear lumbering through the trees just ahead. I’d been hoping to see one as they remind me of the oversized Newfoundland I grew up with, often referred to as little bears.

My first thought, of course, was to whip out my camera to take a picture. The camera went away quickly once Steve said, “I’m concerned by its behavior.”

After allowing time for the bear to be on its way, we went on ours as well, unaware that a second encounter was only moments away at the bald. It happened while we were taking a break for a snack and enjoying the big view we were after thanks to a perfectly timed clearing.

Another hiker spotted the bear at the same time and immediately headed our way, asking if she could join us, believing there was safety in numbers. Steve tried to warn a trio of teens who initially believed he was pulling their leg. When they finally realized he was serious, they quickly backed away, joining others who had arrived at the bald.

Bear on Andrews bald
The bear Sue Wasserman encountered on Andrews Bald was tagged for aggressive behavior, likely due to being food conditioned by humans.

Despite being shooed away with the banging of sticks and tossing of rocks, the bear kept returning. Steve noted it had been tagged for its aggressive behavior. He explained the likely cause of that behavior was access to improperly stored food, whether at a campground or neighboring community outside the park. Once ‘food conditioned,’ the bear simply wanted more.

While waiting for Steve to signal the all-clear, I took the opportunity to snap those pictures I’d skipped earlier. As I watched that sleek, powerful creature, I considered Steve’s comments. That bear was nature’s art in motion, moving in harmony with his surroundings. We were the curious interlopers who were endangering the bears’ lives.

Steve suspected the chances were slim that this bear, whose behaviors were being monitored, would live a long life. Concern and a sincere desire to better understand led to a conversation with Great Smoky Mountains National Park Supervisory Biologist Bill Stiver. Stiver is actively involved in BearWise®, a nationally designed and regionally orchestrated program that helps individuals, businesses, and communities live responsibly with black bears.

Stiver spoke of watching the bear population grow from 500 to 1,900 over the course of his 31-year tenure in the park. During that same period, the Sevier County population doubled from 50,000 to 100,000 residents, and park visitation exploded from 8.5 million visitors to 14 million.

“In a research project we undertook a few years ago, we placed GPS collars on bears that had been food conditioned,” Stiver says. “We were convinced they were not getting their food in the park. What we discovered through the GPS was that a sizable portion of these bears left the park. We realized we could do the right thing in the park but still wouldn’t be successful without the help of those in the surrounding community. Once the bears become food conditioned, there’s little we can do. My hope, though, by collaborating with neighboring communities to take proactive measures, is that we can keep the bears from becoming food conditioned.”

As much as I loved my ‘big view’ from Andrews Bald, I realized there’s an even larger and more important view—one where we learn to connect with nature and, at the same time, leave everything the way we found it. Ever the optimist, I have faith we can do both.

Sue Wasserman is the author of A Moment’s Notice and Walk with Me: Exploring Nature’s Wisdom. She has also written for the New York Times and Southern Living. She currently lives in North Carolina.

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