Nov 23 2009

Some days, you get the bear

Okay, last Smokies post for a while (but not the last Smokies post, eh?).

On the last day of the trip, I made one final trip to Cades Cove in the morning, but again, came away pretty empty-handed—deer and turkeys again. Around 10:00 a.m., I headed out of the Cove and drove to the Newfound Gap Road. I wanted to shoot a few landscapes with my telephoto zoom and experiment with the compression it adds to the mountain peaks and valleys, a phenomenon that displays rather famously in the Smokies. I drove the entire length of the Newfound Gap Road over to Cherokee, NC and scouted a few overlooks where I thought I could get some good shots. I had lunch in Cherokee, then got back in the car to see if I could find a trail or something where I could shoot a little until the time was close to sunset.

After returning to the Tennessee side of the park, I was driving along the Little River Road near the Elkmont campground, when I suddenly found myself in a bit of a traffic jam. In the Smokies, that usually means one of two things: a) a very slow driver, since it’s difficult to pass in the park, or b) a bear sighting. Sure enough, it was B.

As I drove slowly past, I saw it was a black bear cub high in a tree near the road. There were probably 30 people out of their cars, attempting to take a picture with all manner of cameras and cell phones. Now, my initial reaction to this kind of thing is just to keep on going and leave the poor bear alone, but curiosity over powered my normal reticence and I pulled over to the side of the road after I’d gotten past most of the cars. I got out my 70-200 f/2.8 and added a 1.7 TC teleconverter for good measure and walked down the side of the road to the bear.

The cub was very high in the tree and surrounded by lots of tree limbs and vines, making any kind of a good shot impossible. I started to think this was really a mistake, but decided to give it a little time and see what happened. My encounter with the buck in Cades Cove reminded me that patience and perseverance sometimes pay off. So I waited.

In the meantime, car after car drove by, sometimes slowing down to get a picture, sometimes just grumbling about the “damn tourists”—of which, of course, he was one. The cub would occasionally look down from his perch at all of us, probably wondering what all the fuss was about. In my mind, though, I’m wondering where Mama Bear is. A single cub alone like this is rare, so I figured she had to be near.

Just then, the cub decided it had had enough of it and began to climb down from the treetop. I found a spot that offered a clear view through the other trees of a portion of the trunk it would pass on its way down. My hope was that the cub would pause long enough for me to get a good shot. Fortunately for me, it did.

Black bear cub

Black bear cub

Eventually, it made its way down the rest of the trunk and wandered off into the woods. Everyone got back in their cars and headed off with visions of bear cubs in their heads.

There’s a saying that goes: “Some days you get the bear; some days the bear gets you.” (It also sometimes refers to a dragon, but I was certain I wouldn’t find any of those in the Smokies.) This time, I got the bear. Fortunately for all of us, Mama Bear never showed or the story might have turned out differently.

Nov 21 2009

In Flanders fields…

So it’s only the first day in the Smokies and I’m feeling pretty good about the shots I have so far. I do a little editing and post-processing in the hotel room after dinner and decide I’m going back to Cades Cove in the morning. Animal activity is generally greater in the early morning and in the late afternoon/evening, so I should be able to get a few more good shots if get there early.

I wake up the next morning at around 6:30, realizing that I’ve overslept. I get dressed, grab my gear, skip breakfast (!), and head for Cades Cove again, hoping I’m not too late. I get to the entrance of the Loop Road around 7:30 and head into the Cove.

Nada. Nothing.

A few white-tail does and yearlings were out and about, but no bucks. Certainly no bears. It seemed I had hit the jackpot on the first day. I continue driving around the Loop Road, hoping I’ll find something, but again, mostly deer and a few wild turkeys.

At this point, it was nearly 10:00 a.m. and most of the wildlife had high-tailed it into the forests to beat the heat. (Despite being November, it would be 74° F today.) I decided to head to Gatlinburg to get some lunch, then drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to try a few landscapes and maybe some macro work. The last time I was in the Smokies—in April with JoEllen—I got some pretty cool shots of the rocky streams and spring flowers, so I was hoping for something along the same vein, but perhaps with some fall color. Instead, I found something else.

In Flander's fields the poppies grow...

In Flanders fields...

I stopped along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at the Jim Bales place, an historic homestead of one of the early settlers in the Smokies before it was a national park. A bridge crosses the Roaring Fork here and I hoped to get some good shots of water rushing between the rocks in the stream. However, I noticed a little trail from the parking area going the other direction from the bridge and the homestead. I decided to see where that trail led.

A short distance form the parking area, there was a small cemetery lined with many old and broken headstones, with an occasional complete one. It was fenced and closed off to the public because it was in the process of being renovated. From where I stood on the trail, though, I could see an Arlington-like headstone standing tall in the back of the cemetery. The sun was now behind the trees and would soon descend behind the mountains, but for the moment, it was illuminating that headstone so that it almost glowed. I set up quickly and got a few shots before the sun faded from the headstone and the ethereal glow was gone.

It’s funny how sometimes you go looking for one thing and you find something surprising and completely different. I’m glad to have this image to remind me of that fleeting moment. It remembers the sacrifice that Private Harrison L. Bales and many others since have made on the battlefields of Europe, Vietnam and others. We remember them, “though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”

May they rest in peace.

Nov 19 2009

Work it

So, it was time to pack up and head out from the Red River Gorge and the Natural Bridge State Resort Park. Why? Because I realized that I wasn’t very far from one of my favorite places: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sure, it was another 3-1/2 hours in the Smart car, but I love the Smokies.

Road Trip, part deux.

I rolled into Townsend, TN around 3:00 p.m. and promptly grabbed a hotel room, then got back in the car and headed for Cades Cove to try to catch some wildlife in the late afternoon/evening hours. I reached the Cove around 3:45 p.m. and started down the Loop Road to see what I could see. There were several groups of wild turkeys almost immediately after I enter the Cove and I got a few shots, but for the most part they were just strutting around and feeding. No displays; no real activity at all. Bummer.

As I moved through the the Cove, I began to see several white-tail deer grazing in the meadows, mostly does. In one spot, though, there were a few late-summer fawns eating alongside the does. I pulled off to the side of the road and grabbed a few shots of the group. Luckily, a doe and a fawn moved off by themselves and after a while, lay down to rest.

White-tailed deer fawns rest in a meadow in Cades Cove

A white-tailed deer doe and fawn rest in a meadow in Cades Cove

I headed back out along the Loop Road, passing several groups of white-tail does in the meadows, when I came to a bend in the road and saw several cars pulled off to the side. Wondering what they had seen (a bear?), I pulled over as well and got out. Several does were grazing in a small meadow by the road, but that wasn’t where everyone was looking. An eight-point buck had come out of the woods and was grazing in the same meadow. He moved around quite a bit and I wasn’t able to get anything worthwhile. so I began to think about moving on. Then he decided to cross the road to the meadow on the other side.

Now he was all by himself with the majesty of Cades Cove and the Smoky Mountains all around him. This was looking good! I grabbed my tripod from the car, anchored the camera and the longest lens I had on it and started after him—as did a couple of other photographers who had been shooting him on the other side of the road, too.

Except he didn’t really cooperate. When there was a good background, he steadily moved until he was away from it. When the mountains and trees behind him were nicely lit by the setting sun, he moved into the shadows. I followed him for a good 150 yards away from the road, pausing occasionally to take a few shots. I got what I thought were a few decent shots (turned out later in editing that they weren’t, really) and began to think about packing it in. The sun was setting, it was getting fairly dark, and the other guys had moved off upon hearing of another, bigger buck on the other side of the meadow. I had the camera and tripod on my shoulder and turned to walk away.

Then he just laid down. Right in front of me.

I was about 40 feet away when he did this. I slowly put the tripod back on the ground and began to shoot, not believing my luck. The two photographers that had gone in search of the other buck appeared over a rise in the meadow and immediately began to make their way back to us. But for a little while, he was all mine.

White-tailed buck lies in the meadow in Cades Cove

A white-tailed buck lies in the meadow in Cades Cove

Sure, he’s apparently not very afraid of me (and who would be, really?). He was comfortable enough to lie down in my presence, but part of that was because I always respected his comfort zone. The whole time I followed him after I crossed the road, I constantly watched his behavior to make sure I wasn’t disturbing him. I would move as close as possible until he seemed bothered by it—pausing and looking directly at me—and I would freeze where I was until he was comfortable again.

In the end, it turned out that this was the best and the easiest shot I got all day, but I worked pretty hard for it. I would never have gotten it had I given up after the first few underwhelming attempts. Persistence certainly paid off.

At this point, it was getting dark quickly, so I did shoulder the tripod and walked back to the car. I drove the rest of the Loop Road, but only to get out of the Cove, and I returned to Townsend to get a bite to eat. So far, it was gonna be tough to top this first day.

But I did.