By Harold Ross
I just got back from my annual six-day backcountry camping and fishing trip, and boy it got a little exciting this year!
It all started Friday night as my fishing buddies and I were settling in around the campfire discussing the day’s adventures. Our campsite is right on the creek bank at the confluence of Sugarfork Creek and Hazel Creek in the backcountry of the Smokies. We have made this same trip for the last 34 years. During those years we have seen and encountered all sorts of wildlife.
It was a little after 11:30 p.m. We were all tired, and with bellies full, the conversation faded as we heard an odd noise in the distance. It was a vehicle coming up the primitive road/trail that winds up the mountain following the creek. It proceeded to stop at our campsite. Two guys got out stating they were park rangers and needed to share some important information.
In pitch-black darkness with headlamps to light our way over, we all gathered at the vehicle. One of the rangers told us there was a bear incident at a campsite three miles up the trail from our campsite and were on their way to investigate. He also said we needed to be prepared to pack up and leave the next morning. He and his partner would be back in a couple of hours to let us know.
This news gave our conversation new adrenaline, and we were wondering what had happened at a campsite only three miles upstream from our location. We stayed up for another hour but decided to go to bed and figure out the rest of the story in the morning.
Now to a lot of you are probably thinking, “We need to get the heck out of Dodge!” Well hold on – we have seen many bears over the last 34 years. Only one time did we have an aggressive bear incident in our campsite. This was back in 1995.
This particular bear had lost all his fear of humans. Over a three-day period, he prowled our campsite over 30 times. Most of the time he would just circle with his nose high in the air catching drifts of hushpuppies frying in the iron skillet. Other times he became more aggressive and false charged a couple of our members.
We had a pile of rocks strategically placed at the front of each tent and on each side of our kitchen area to pelt the aggravating bear every time he would get too close for comfort. He would then hightail it out of camp, and with one jump, almost clear a 20-foot-wide creek next to camp.
The only thing that saved us from the continuous harassment of this persistent bear was the naive new campers who moved into the site next to ours. Boy, were they in for a surprise. We laughed all night the next night listening to the unlucky camper fending off this big black hairy intruder. Generally speaking, bears in the wild will avoid you like the plague unless you get between a mother and cubs and they feel threatened.
Back to the story – Saturday morning came, and we still had not heard any news. Half of our group had already left to go fishing for the day. Then around 9:30, three park vehicles arrived with over 10 rangers in them with supplies and heavy-duty weapons headed to the incident scene.
We asked this large group what was going on at the scene. All they would say was that someone had an encounter with a bear and that bear had been exterminated. We would not have to leave our campsite early as previously thought.
As of today, here is what we heard took place. A single camper hiked down from Clingmans Dome Trail. He set up camp at campsite 82 (Calhoun campsite). At some point, he passed away.
A day or so later, a black bear wandered into the campsite, found a dead body and, as bears do, began scavenging the man’s carcass.
On Friday, Sept. 11, two more hikers from the Clingmans Dome Trail rolled into campsite 82 from a long day of hiking. They set their backpacks down, surveyed the beautiful campsite and happened to notice the bear. It was on the far side of the creek, and it was eating on something.
Upon closer investigation, the two saw the bear feeding on human remains. Within seconds, they had their packs back on and were hightailing it out of the area back up stream. The hikers hiked over 10 miles back up the ridge to get a cell signal, and that is what started the chain of events with the park service. There are no further details at this point, but it sure made for an interesting trip this year.
In closing, we did not have to leave camp on Saturday, and we enjoyed another day of fishing and relaxation with crazy memories from camping in the backcountry of the Smokies. The tradition continues…