There’s bears in them there hills!
Straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the beating heart of bear country in the eastern United States. The National Park Service estimates there are over 1,500 black bears living within the park’s boundaries. That works out to about two bears per square mile. If you spend time on the backcountry trails in the park there is a good chance you will encounter a black bear or two, or three, or ten.
That is not meant to scare you. I had nine separate black bear encounters on my last hiking trip in the Smokies. Those chance meetings are among my most cherished memories of that trip. Handled properly, bear encounters should be the same for you.
Black Bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The opportunity to see bears in the wild is one of the exciting things about hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bears are naturally wary of humans and generally avoid close encounters with us. They are entertaining to watch and may appear docile, but it is important to remember they are wild animals and their behavior can be unpredictable. They can become aggressive if startled or disturbed. It is important to be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times when hiking in the park.
A typical male black bear in the park weighs about 250 lbs, but after gorging all summer may grow to twice that size by fall. But if you think their large size makes them lumbering beasts, think again. Bears are intelligent, climb and swim well, and are incredibly fast and agile for their size. Witnessing a black bear lope up a steep mountain slope and scale trees with the ease I climb I flight of stairs quickly altered my notion of the bear as slow-moving, lumbering creature.
Bears are most active during the morning and late afternoon/evening hours. More than once during those hours I have rounded a turn in a trail to find a black bear strolling along in front of me. At that point, the hiker is on “bear time”. The only thing to do is wait for the bear to finish whatever he is up to and move off the trail. Sometimes that takes a while. All you can do is remain at a safe distance, relax, and enjoy the experience.
Bear Encounter Rule Number One: Do not Approach the Bear
Meeting a black bear in the wild need not be a nerve-wracking affair, but you must exercise caution and have a basic understanding of bear behavior. The outcome of your bear encounter will depend on your approach, which brings us to Rule One of black bear encounters: Do not approach the bear.
Not only can approaching a bear be dangerous, it can get you in big trouble with the authorities. Federal regulations state that “willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear is illegal.” Violating this regulation can result in arrest and fines. The bottom line is do not approach bears and do not allow them to approach you.
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to feed bears in the wild. It is dangerous for you and bad for the bears as well. Bears with access to human food and garbage can become “nuisance” or “panhandler” bears. They lose their instinctive fear of humans and begin associate humans with food. This makes them vulnerable poachers, and sometimes they are hit by cars. Most bears in the wild can live 15 years or longer. Panhandler bears life expectancy is half that.
Bear Encounters: What You Should Do
Most bears encountered while hiking in the park are busy foraging and pay scant attention to humans. Exercise caution if you see a bear. Remain watchful and do not attempt to approach the bear (I know that has been addressed but it bears repeating). This is where an understanding of basic bear behavior is helpful.
You are too close to the bear if your presence causes its behavior to change. If it stops feeding, or changes its direction and begins watching you, you are too close. In these situations, the bear may exhibit aggressive behaviors such as making loud noises, popping its jaws, swatting the ground, and slapping vegetation. It may even lunge towards you in a bluff charge. These are defensive behaviors, or bear talk for “Back off Jack.” And back off is exactly what you should do, even if your name isn’t Jack. Back away slowly and continue watching the bear. Do not turn your back and do not run. Put some distance between you and the bear and he will probably do the same.
The bear may approach you steadily without making noise or exhibiting any of the defensive behaviors. Often its head will be low and ears laid back. This is considered offensive behavior. The bear is approaching you for a reason. It probably wants your food, but in extremely rare cases it may be evaluating you as prey.
Give the bear the right-of-way in this situation. Change your direction and allow the bear to travel in a certain direction if it wants to do so. If this does not work and the bear continues to approach or track you, stand your ground. Act aggressively and try to assert your dominance over the bear. Talk loudly, yell, and move to higher ground. Try to make yourself look as big as possible. For example, stand close together if you are with a group. Documented bear attacks on groups of three or more people are practically non-existent. Throw non-food objects like rocks or large sticks at the bear. Trust me, he is not accustomed to prey species hitting him in the head with rocks!
Whatever you do, do not turn away or run from the bear. This actives his hunting instincts and there is no way you can outrun him.
Most injuries from bear encounters are the result of the bear trying to get at a hikers food. Separate yourself from your food and slowly back away if the bear indicates that is what he is after.
In the rarest instances the bear may consider you prey and physically attack you. Do not play dead. Fight back aggressively with any available object.
Finally, for the safety of your fellow hikers and the bears, be sure to immediately report any bear incidents to the park rangers.