I have to admit that I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to the topic of bears. Well, black bears anyway…I don’t think I will ever take a Grizzly for granted! I live near a state park and see black bears walking thru my yard all the time. So last week when I was photographing a sunset in the Smokies and the guy next to me insisted I see the bear photos he had taken the day before, I took a deep breath, hid my lack of enthusiasm and glanced over at his smartphone. And what I saw took my breath away. He didn’t have your garden-variety photos of bears…he had photos of bear cubs!
I had lived around bears for twenty years but realized in that moment that I had never seen a cub. And Lord…they were so incredibly cute! Although I had made my trip to the Smokies intent on photographing landscapes and spring wildflowers, that focus suddenly shifted.
A couple days later, I was taking a sunrise shot from the Foothills Parkway when a lady pulls into the overlook and sets up her tripod. I couldn’t help notice that she was still in her PJs…and that started a conversation. It turns out she was a local (she had rushed out of her nearby home to photograph the sunrise and didn’t have time to change, which explained the PJs). As we talked, I realized that I had seen her photography on Facebook. Her name is Kellie Walls Sharpe and a friendlier person doesn’t exist on this earth. As we worked the sunrise, I mentioned the bear cubs. Kellie knew all about them and told me exactly where they could be found (her local knowledge of wildlife and photography locations was amazing). Well, as soon as the sunrise had faded, I thanked Kellie and headed off to the spot in Cades Cove she had told me about. About an hour later I was hiking across a field and sure enough, spotted a bear. But it was just a yearling…kinda scrawny and not terribly photogenic. So I kept walking and looking. Ten minutes later movement caught my eye near the base of a hill. I ambled up and saw a pair of cubs…and a big mama bear about 20 feet beyond them.
Now, let me say that the Park regulations require you to keep a 50 yard distance from bears. And although black bears are not usually aggressive, only a fool would get between a mother and her cubs. Fortunately, I had brought my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter, so I was able to keep my distance and still get tack-sharp images.
The twins immediately scrambled up a tree. Mama took a hard look at me, decided I was just another fool photographer and then promptly and totally ignored me for the rest of the day.
I lifted all seven plus pounds of the 200-400 for the first time and started shooting.
The cubs were delightful. They played like a couple kittens…taking swipes at each other, rolling around in the grass, tripping over their own feet…just adorable.
Soon I noticed that the bears had a system. Mama bear would look up at the tree…make a series of short grunts and the cubs would climb down. Then she would rumble about a hundred feet away to a new patch of the forest and start scavenging for food. The cubs would tag right along behind her and as soon as she stopped, they would head right up the nearest tree.
Being youngsters, they had big appetites. They nursed at least twice over the next few hours. Afterwards, I think mama needed a break, so she took a good stretch and rubbed her back against a tree.
By late morning the cubs were getting tired. They climbed a big walnut tree, settled in a comfy fork between two branches, stretched, took a good look around, snuggled together and started to snooze.
I hung around for another 20 minutes but the cubs didn’t move an inch. And frankly, by then I had been following them for three hours and had lifted that darn 200-400 what felt like a million times. No, I hadn’t brought my monopod. I had figured that if I did see bears, it would be for only a few minutes, so why bother bringing another piece of equipment? I’ll never make that mistake again…my arms were jelly…heck, my elbows still hurt now and it’s a full week later!
Anyway, I figured the 1500 frames I had were plenty, so I left mama and babies in peace and hiked by to the old Subaru. As I walked back I counted my lucky stars. It had been a blessing to spend the morning with my little ‘Bruin’ family observing their antics. I knew that I had captured some nice images and even if I drove home right then, my trip would have been a success.
But little did I know that the best was yet to be. With that teaser, I’ll conclude this story. You’ll just have to wait till next week for the rest!