True tales of my adventures with bears across the continent
Bears fascinate everyone who ventures to wild places: aweing us with their power and size--and scaring us with the same qualities. These stories are my most memorable encounters with black and grizzly bears.

Down in the dumps

Five bears fed in close proximity to each other--with a handful of people watching them nearby. Was it an Alaskan salmon stream where bears playfully cavort while fishing for sockeyes? No, it was a garbage dump located on Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. The time was about 1960--way before dumps became sanitary landfills and a decade before park biologists decided that it was dangerous to mix people and bears.

I was a young boy at the time, and I remember our family driving from the campground to the dump, my Dad behind the wheel of the Chevy station wagon. When we reached the dump at dusk we parked next to a row of other cars filled with similar families--all waiting as if a drive-in movie was about to start. Soon the bears ambled out of the woods and began rummaging through the freshest garbage; I vividly remember one big cinnamon-colored black bear digging up a whole chicken and tossing it through the air.

As dusk turned to night, the car headlights were switched on, illuminating the dump in harsh beams of light. In retrospect, it really was a bizarre scene, with all these big and shiny American cars lined up in front of the piles of fresh and not-so-fresh garbage, watching bears rummaging through trash in the beams cast by our headlights. But it sure was a fun experience for a family, and it was my first introduction to wild bears!

Nightmare bear I

At age 20, a college friend (Dowell Jennings Howard III) and I took a Greyhound bus down twisting roads through the Kentucky night toward Knoxville, Tennessee. Our destination was the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The bus trip itself was an adventure; the vehicle was filled with ecstatic rural Kentuckians coming off a Billy Graham Crusade, and I still remember stopping for pie and coffee at a Corbin, KY, roadside diner at 3:00 a.m. Lit by harsh fluorescent lights, the establishment reminds me (in retrospect) of Edward Hopper's famous painting "Nighthawks," in which lonely people are sitting at the counter of a yellow-walled urban diner in the dead of night.

Okay, back on topic. When we reached Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we hitchhiked to Cades Cove and set up camp in the organized campground. We were poor students, so we used a tube tent--a clear vinyl sheet formed into a big tube and suspended by a rope stretched between two trees. Then we followed National Park Service directions and hung a bag containing our freeze-dried food from an overhanging tree limb to avoid possible bear problems. Excited about the next day's start to our hike, we shimmied into our sleeping bags for the first night of our Appalachian Trail adventure.

We awoke at first light to a ruckus: a nearby camper was making loud noises and a black bear was running away from our campsite. The remnants of our food lay in a pile on the ground. Tin cans of freeze-dried meat had been opened from the end like a can opener--actually done by the bear's teeth and/or claws. Plastic food bags had been split open and licked clean--leaving only a moist sheen of bear spit. We never did find a big jar of mixed peanut butter and jelly--the bear must have carried it off and saved it for lunch.

Clearly we had some things to learn about hanging our food in the presence of bears smarter than we. Fortunately, along the Appalachian Trail most of the three-sided log lean-tos had chain link fencing across the front, so that we could lock the food inside the shelter with us while we slept. The biggest foes we fought at night were the hordes of white-footed mice infesting the shelters.

One ridgetop shelter near Mount Le Conte didn't have a chain link fence at the front. We wanted to leave the shelter for a few minutes to register for dinner at a lodge along the trail (to be our first real meal after ten day of dried foods). Dowell suggested we hang our packs, but I was tired from the hike and said "What could happen in a few minutes?" So we left our packs sitting on the ground in the shelter.

When we returned, of course, a cub bear was chewing a hole in Dowell's pack. We began throwing rocks toward it (trying not to hit the cub, but just to scare it), when mama bear came around the corner of the lean-to. Needless to say, we backed off. Fortunately, the grumbling mama urged her cub away from our packs, undoubtedly irritated by our shouts and stones. And that was the end of our Appalachian Trail bear adventures.

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Old claw scars where a black bear climbed a beech tree to seek beech nuts
An aside: other trail tales

Our Smoky Mountains hike was in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War. We shared one lean-to with two grad student bear researchers and a troop of Girl Scouts. While we went about our camp chores, a half dozen muscular young men came noisily down the trail, pausing at the shelter. Most were drunk from the jugs of wine several carried, and two guys started making obscene comments about the Girl Scouts. They were recent Vietnam Vets, and they also directed threats at us if we were war protesters. Fortunately for everyone, their group decided to move on before the situation got really ugly. In retrospect, I realize that the war was hard on everyone, including the Vets who came back to a mostly ungrateful nation.

Further down the trail, we met a couple of young mountain men accompanying an old man. They camped near us, and we struck up a friendship with the man; he had lived in the foothills of the Smokies his whole life and had some great tales to tell. The interesting thing about his young companions was that they pulled a two-wheel golf cart behind them on that stretch of the Appalachian trail--filled with cans of beer! They whooped and hollered all night long.

Our underwear drying by the cooking fire inside a Smoky Mountains lean-to. Note the chain link fence on the right--used to keep bears out.
LEE RENTZ PHOTOGRAPHY
Phone & fax: 360-427-5310 E-mail: lee@leerentz.com
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