Monday, September 8, 2008

Are bear encounters on the rise in the Smokies?

Have you noticed the rash of encounters and aggressive bear activity over the last several weeks in the Smoky Mountains?

First there was the much publicized attack on the eight-year-old Florida boy back on August 11. If you remember, his dad was forced to fight the bear off twice before the bear relented.

Just four days later, Appalachian Trail ridge runner Jim Mowbray was bluff-charged by an adult female at the Russell Field Shelter.

That same night, a bear spent the night tearing a hole in the metal roof of the Mount Collins trail shelter and terrorizing the ten backpackers inside. The bear tried to peel the metal roof back like a tin can, continuing even as the occupants jabbed it with their hiking sticks.

The park service was forced to close both shelters.

There are stories of other encounters from the blogosphere. Smoky Scout has a report on her blog about an encounter she had with a mother and two cubs on the Sugerland Mountain Trail. Chris over at Your Smokies has had two recent encounters. Around the same time as the attack on the Florida boy, he was stalked by a bear on the Lead Cove Trail. Then just last week, he saw several bears on the Cold Spring and Hazel Creek Trails.

If you haven’t seen the National Park web site recently, there’s a laundry list of trails and campsites that have bear activity warnings. They include: Gabes Mountain Trail, Laurel Falls Trail, Little River Trail, Rabbit Creek Trail, Ramsey Cascades Trail, and the West Prong Trail. In addition to these trails, the Icewater Spring Shelter, the Tricorner Knob Shelter and backcountry campsites 5, 6, 12, 16, 18, 31, 50, 52 and 113 all have warnings as well.

Backcountry campsites 10, 15, 24, 26, 29, 53, 113, and, as mentioned above, the Mount Collins and Russell Field Shelters are all closed due to aggressive bear activity.

So what does this all mean for you?

The first thing you should do is learn and understand bear behavior. As much as possible, you should try to avoid bear encounters. Finally, and most importantly, know what to do if you come across a bear while hiking. A good place to begin learning about bear behavior and knowing what to do if you see one on the trail is by checking out the black bear page on the National Park website. There’s also a pretty good video (although somewhat comical) on the Backpacker Magazine website that shows how to handle bear encounters on the trail.

Black bear populations are on the rise in the park. This can only mean that human-bear encounters will also increase. Be prepared. Do what you can to avoid encounters and know what to do if you do meet a bear on the trail. If it makes you feel at ease, carry bear deterrent spray with you. But again, know how and when to use it.

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, hiking gear store, and more.

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