Bears, turkeys, deer & butterflies

Great Smoky Mountains make “amazing” an overused word

My friends told us to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife as we drove along the Cades Cove loop in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We could see deer and wild turkey. If we were really lucky, we might spot a bear. Cars stopped along the road would be a sign something was up.

Black bear and cubs

Black bear and cubs

We hadn’t been in the park a half hour before the first cluster of cars brought us to a stop. We searched in the direction all the cameras pointed and spotted a black bear foraging in the leaves, digging for something to eat. The bear was a good distance away and paid us no mind. How exciting to check bears off our wildlife list so early in the day. Amazing, we said, and drove on.

In quick succession, we spotted turkey in an open field and deer in the woods.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove

We drove on, stopping periodically to see the log cabins and churches of the people who settled in Cades Cove in the 1800s. The valleys traded beautiful views, abundant clear water, and plentiful wildlife in exchange for what must have been a hardscrabble living scratched from rocky fields.

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The cemetery stones told us stories of the first settlers, wars fought, and the challenges of living past childbirth.

We hiked to a waterfall. Five miles roundtrip, over log bridges, up increasingly steep hills. Billed as a moderate hike, I realized the past few months of more limited activity due to my broken wrist have taken their toll. The waterfall was beautiful, though, and the diversity of wild flowers, tiny black rat snakes and startling blue-tailed lizards were a bonus.

Great Smoky Moutain, Cades Cove, church, cemeteryBack in the car we continued the loop only to be stopped by another cluster of cars. A woman gestured “five” and waved toward the woods. We scanned the trees and were rewarded with a mother bear followed by two cubs. They were coming toward us. I had my window down and camera clicking.

The mama bear kept coming. Without a look in our direction, she sauntered across the road and climbed the hill on the other side. She looked back for a moment to ensure the cubs followed, then they all disappeared into the woods. Amazing!

My friends could not stress how unusual it was to see these bears. In their many trips to the park over the last decade, they’d never seen so many bears, so close. We drove on and spotted two young deer with velvet antlers resting in deep grass twenty feet from the road. From time to time, we’d spot deer in the woods. One bounded across the road amidst the cars. Wild turkey were abundant.

Butterflies clustered on the ground

Butterflies clustered on the ground

As if we needed more to entertain us, clouds of butterflies were everywhere. As we headed out of Cades Cove at the end of the day, we were rewarded with one last bear sighting. He was quite a ways away, but the now familiar black against green was easy for us all to spot. The crowd of stopped cars helped.

Whether it was the pleasant temperatures or the time of year or serendipity, who can tell? But the day, the weather, the wildlife, were all amazing.