Trail Report: The Smokemont Loop

Now that Great Smoky Mountain National Park is back open, and within driving distance for so many, they are having record visitation. On a recent trip, I could have tried a more popular trail, going for big views like on Chimney tops, or Mt LeConte, but based on the packed parking lots, a quiet hike immersed in nature would have been all but impossible. Instead, I gave up iconic views and headed for the Smokemont Loop, a 6 mile circle located near the southern end of the park.

Here’s my video version of the hike.

The hike itself starts within the Smokemont Campground, near the end of Loop D. Instead of hundreds of cars filling large parking lots and lining the roads, there were just a few cars in the designated hiker lot.

The route begins right by the lot on Bradley Fork Trail,  at about 2,200 feet in elevation. Although the loop eventually climbs to over 3,500 feet, The first 1.7 miles are wide and relatively flat, following the creek. Certainly the creek is an early highlight. Keep your eyes open as the trail is also used by horses and a few had left their calling card.

I’ve read the trail can be muddy at times, but after several dry days, there were no problems in that regard. Just over a mile in, the trail hits an intersection with Chasteen Creek Trail. A very short distance up this side trail is one of the parks designated back country campsites, Number 50 for those keeping track. It’s a very nice site with water nearby, flat spots to camp, tree stump tables and even cables to hoist your food up and away from bears or any other critters that might have designs on it. As this might be the easiest back country campsite to reach in the entire park, it would be a great spot for that first time camper.

Another half mile or so, Bradley Fork Trail intersects with Smokemont  loop trail and immediately crosses Bradley Fork on a long log bridge, an interesting crossing.

Soon thereafter, the trail leaves the creek, cuts into the deeper woods and starts climbing. While the climb is very noticable, it remains moderate, with a few switchbacks when needed. Despite being late September, a few summer wildflowers were still hanging on to provide a bit of interest during the uphill trudge.

It is mainly a walk through a green tunnel, though there were glimpses of views. I’m assuming a winter hike on the trail would be significantly better in that regard.

After a bit over 1 1/2 miles of moderate climbing, 3+ miles total, the trail tops out at around 3600 feet. A log had been thoughtfully placed at the spot and worked out as a great spot for a break and a snack before continuing on.

Had I been a little quicker with the camera, I’d have a new bear photo to share.  I came around a corner and as soon as we noticed each other, the bear took off running.

From elsewhere in the park

As the trail drops back down, there are a few more open shots, but mostly just more pleasant hiking through a green tunnel.

Eventually, the trail winds its way back down, hits a service road and follows along Bradley Fork for a bit. Throughout the stream there were a few folks trout fishing.

Soon the service road dumps you back into the campground. Hang a left and stroll for a bit until you get back to loop D and your vehicle, just over 6 miles from when you started.

While the Smokemont loop doesn’t provide much in the way of expansive views, it’s a great break from the crowds that are rediscovering GSMNP. I saw almost as many bears as other people, and that makes for a good day in my book.

What about bears?

A variation of this article first appeared on TheTrek.co

Hiking through Glacier National Park, my wife Michelle and I had already seen multiple bears that day. Michelle had a more than healthy respect for the animals. I, on the other hand, was complaining that I still had not gotten a really good picture of one. Just then, she whispered, “Bear!” and quickly started moving away from the cute ball of fur (black bear) that had run right past us. My mind registered only, “Hey, a cub!” as I pulled out the camera.

Seconds later, from a distance I heard a shout of, “Keep walking!”

I then realized my folly and started laughing at my own stupidity. From an even greater distance I then heard, “You’re not taking this very seriously!”

I thought to myself, “No, I guess I’m not,” then finally began to leave the area.

As with most bear encounters, we lived to tell the tale, but were we really in any danger? Should backpackers and thru-hikers be worried about bears while on the trail? I resolved to find out.

Black Bear or Grizzly?

For starters, there are two very different species of bears living in the Continental United States. Much less prevalent and with a smaller range is the grizzly bear (U. a. horribilis). Grizzlies are found in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone area and north) as well as the Bitteroot Mountains. Most U.S. bears are black bears (Ursus americanus). Any bear you see on the AT will be a black bear. While in theory, Grizzlies could be at the very northern edge of the PCT, there has only been one verified sighting in the northern Cascades this century. So, it’s a safe bet that if you see a bear on the PCT, it will also be a black bear. That being the case, let’s concentrate on black bears.

Not all black bears are black

Black bears are spread throughout the U. S. with populations in 41 of the 50 states. The total population is estimated to be around 750,000 in North America. An adult typically weighs between 125 and 500 pounds, though there’s a captive male living at the North American Bear Center that tips the scales at close to 1,000 pounds.

If you’re hiking the AT or the PCT, chances are you will see a black bear at some point. There are an estimated 30,000 bears living in California and an estimated 1,500 just in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When on these trails, you are in the bear’s home. Some of my most exciting moments on the trail involved bear sightings but, is it dangerous to share the woods with them?

Dangerous?

Statistically and relatively speaking, the answer is a resounding no. From 2000 to 2019 there have been 9 deaths by black bear attacks in the lower 48. Of those, 3 involved either feeding a bear or joining one in a cage. Counting those in the wild, it works out to roughly one death every three years.  By contrast, just last year there were 20 people killed by lightning (a low year) in the U.S.

In an average year, over 3,000 people drown.

Over 36,000 die annually in motor vehicle accidents

In 2017, 89 people were killed in the U.S. by bees, wasps and hornets.

Typically, between 30 and 50 people are killed each year by dogs. (Also known as “man’s best friend.)

Heck, according to the Washington Post, in a six year period through 2017, over 250 people had died while taking selfies. (if someone died while taking a selfie with a bear, I’m not sure which list they ended up on.)

To get some specifics, I spoke with Lynn Rogers, the Founder and Board Chair of the North American Bear Center. He has been studying and working with bears since 1967. It may come as a bit of a surprise to those that have grown up reading about bear attacks in outdoor magazines, but black bears are actually a rather docile species under most circumstances. In fact, Rogers stated that black bears are reluctant to even defend their cubs from people. “The greatest misconception about black bears is that they are likely to attack people in defense of cubs.  They are highly unlikely to do this. In fact, there’s never been a documented case of anyone being killed by a black bear defending her cubs”

Momma with cub waaay up a tree.

Grizzly bears react completely different to threats to their cubs and are the cause of this, and other misconceptions. The fact is that few people differentiate between the two species, but lumping them together results in unwarranted confusion and fear.

A black bear’s typical reaction to meeting a hiker on the trail is to turn and run. Even those that act more aggressively with vocalizing or slamming their paw to the ground are doing so out of nervousness. Slowly backing away will give the bear the space it wants.

So, if you see a black bear on the trail, what should you do? Per Rogers, “Basically, enjoy it.  We like to make ourselves inconspicuous to watch them longer before they discover us and run….We have seen a lot of advice to avoid eye contact and avoid running away, but we have been unable to find any instance where doing these things has precipitated an attack.  Fearful people usually tell us ‘I ran one way and the bear ran the other.’”

All that being said, there is still the rare black bear that is aggressive and will attack a human. Rogers estimates that these bears are literally one in a million. In addition, bears that are exposed to people (like those that live near trails) are even less likely to be aggressive than those that live where they rarely see a person. Despite the “one in a million” odds, attacks happen.

Dealing with that “rare” bear

If a black bear appears aggressive, the National Park Service recommends the following:

If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, Change your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. Act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Talk loudly or shout at it. Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear. Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.

If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked, Separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.

If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey, Fight back aggressively with any available object! Do not play dead!

Rogers recommends carrying pepper spray, (The small containers designed for dog protection are plenty strong.) He has tested the spray extensively on black bears. If a bear does act aggressive around you or your food, pepper spray solves the problem quickly and safely. When hit with the spray, the bear “doesn’t go away mad, it just goes away.”

Studies have shown pepper spray has a higher success rate at stopping aggressive bears than even a gun. In addition, no one needs to make an accurate shot under duress. Just keep spraying. If you accidentally hit your fellow hiker, no permanent damage. Plus, the bear is not killed, but has learned a valuable lesson to fear humans. One note of caution, pepper spray is a chemical irritant to be used on the bear. It is not a repellent to be sprayed on yourself or your gear. Apparently bears like the smell and have been known to come into camp to roll on tents that have been sprayed.

Despite the extremely low odds of attack, it is still very important to continue to protect your food from black bears, whether through use of a bear canister, a bear locker or cables where available, or bear bagging everything that smells like it could be food. Doing so protects the bear as well as yourself. Bears are smart, resourceful animals that learn from experience. If a bear successfully gets food from a person once, it will try it again, quickly raising the odds of a conflict between the bear and people that it now sees as a food source. Bears that have been rewarded for interacting with people quickly become “problem” bears. Relocation of problem bears is expensive and has a low success rate. Quite often, the decision is made to eradicate the problem bear. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear.

NPS photo   Creating problem bears in the “old days.”

Some additional rumors to put to rest:

There is no evidence that menstruating draws any additional interest from bears.

Black bears are not always black. They can be brown, cinnamon, and rarely, even white.

There have been no studies to show that, if attacked by a bear, crapping oneself will deter the bear.

Bears will go anywhere they can find food. Don’t help them become problem bears.

Black Bears are neither the roving monsters they are often portrayed to be, nor are they cute teddy bears to attempt to feed or take a selfie with. They are wild animals trying to survive and mostly avoid humans. If we treat them as they are, both us and them can safely coexist.

Featured image courtesy of the North American Bear Center.

The Perfect Job?

Help Wanted: Beer Drinking AT Hiker

Yes, you read that right. Despite the recent surge in unemployment, there is a position available that requires hiking the Appalachian Trail and drinking beer; and it includes a salary as well as a title. The title would be Chief Hiking Officer (CHO) for the Devils Backbone Brewing Company (DBBC).

Headquartered in Lexington, Virginia, DBBC’s Basecamp Brewpub is located right off the Appalachian Trail around Mile 842. Over the years they’ve hosted thousands of thru-hikers. Per the company’s COO, Hayes Humphreys, these hikers have affected the brewing company, in a good way. “Those folks really understand how life-altering it is to slow down and take in what’s going on around you, and they’ve taught us a lot about the benefits of taking a break from the pace of daily life. So, these days, we refer to our company as “Slow by Nature” and we are committed to protecting that lifestyle.”

Devils Backbone has partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for years, but obviously the creation of a Chief Hiking Officer takes things to a whole other level. I asked Humphreys why the company is making such an investment. He responded, “The inspiration for the Chief Hiking Officer came from the thru-hikers and their stories. The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike is a life-changing adventure, available only to those with the mental fortitude to complete the 2,200 mile journey. And as we’ve learned at Devils Backbone, the AT isn’t just a hiking trail, and it doesn’t just affect the lives of the hikers. The AT is a collection of communities, from Georgia to Maine, full of people who support the hikers in lots of little ways, and who, in return, find their own lives enriched by the people they meet.”

The Job Itself

DBBC has created the CHO position with the 2021 AT season in mind. The qualifications are fairly straightforward. Per their website, “You’ve gotta love hiking and beer. We mean really love it.”

That’s all I needed to know, but Humphreys added a bit more detail. “So, we are looking for a Chief Hiking Officer who loves hiking and can be a voice for responsible hiking and protecting the trail with sustainable recreation practices like Leave No Trace. We also hope the CHO will help us celebrate the communities and institutions along the trail who make the journey possible for so many hikers every year. Telling stories is part of the trip, and we hope to highlight some great places to drink a beer, eat a meal, and recharge along the way. We’ve learned that spending time with thru-hikers prompts reflection and restoration, and looking around the world today, I think we would all benefit from some time spent with these amazing people.”

Beyond the basic (hiking, beer drinking) qualifications, the folks at DBBC have some specifics in mind. They are looking for someone that is likely to succeed. If you apply to be the CHO, plan on being able to show hiking/adventure experience. The ability to share the adventure on social media is another plus. And, of course, a keen interest in drinking beer won’t hurt either. In fact, the successful candidate is likely to be involved in “product research” along the way.

As far as a schedule, you’d be expected to “hike your own hike,” with the CHO and “Home Office” working out details for events as the season progresses.

The Benefits

As with any job, there are not only responsibilities, but also benefits. The benefits of being CHO include daily exercise, no time clock, rarely seeing your supervisor and never being stuck in a cubicle. If you’re hired, gear and transportation to the trailhead will be provided. During days off in town there will be access to your new employer’s product. I have to imagine that there will be plenty of DBBC swag to be had as well. All this and did I mention a salary? That’s right. There’s a $20,000 stipend included as well.

I’ll say it for you: “Holy crap! How do I apply??”

First, some bad news. Due to legal guidelines, they have to limit applications to residents of the specific states where their beer is sold. So, if you live in Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia or West Virginia, you are in luck.

To start, Go to the DBBC website and fill out an simple application along with sending in a 60 second video explaining why you’d be the best beer drinking hiker they could hire. For the top applicants, there are more steps to determine the best candidate, including a background check. Here’s the fine print.

Applications will be accepted until July 31, 2020. Remember, being prompt always looks good to a prospective employer. Don’t bother stating, “I was born to do this job!” as I’m using that line and will be sending in my video this week.