My wife has come to expect that anytime we take a family vacation or trip, i will find something that i obsess over photographing before we leave. Our vacation this year took us to Gatlinburg Tennessee which was a first for both of us. She of course had a list of things she wanted to see including museums, restaurants, shopping and such... but i had a very simple goal for this trip: photograph a Bear.
My wife and daughter joined me on my first trip into Cade's Cove... it didn't go well. Not only were we to late in the morning for good light but Paisley wasn't nearly as intrigued and went ticked-off-toddler about halfway around the loop. All-in-all it still served as a good scouting trip and we ended up seeing two Bucks including a 6 point still in velvet as well as a few Doe. It was cool but i had set a pretty strict "bear or bust" goal for myself and this stop did not check that box.
By the time the last day had arrived we had pretty much knocked out the list of places to see so i was able to get back to Cade's Cove. I woke up at 5:30 am and drove the near hour drive in the rain to the entrance to Cade's Cove where i found myself 6th or so in line waiting for the gate to open and the sun to rise. Weather focasts from the night before were calling for a break in the rain from 7:30 or 8 until maybe 9 or 10 but they were wrong. I got out of my vehicle to speak with some of the regulars and other photographers who were all talking near the gate and learned quite a bit from them about hotspots and what to expect.
Finally at 7:22 the gate was opened and the string of cars now 20 or so deep started rolling. Immediately there were several Doe grazing in the fields as morning fog rolled softly past the surrounding mountain tops. Just over halfway through the loop i spotted a small Cub playing along a tree line but an over-anxious individual behind me scared it into the woods. A mile or two ahead i rounded a corner and saw a beauitful Coyote lurking in a field but was unable to photograph him due to my position. Continuing forward another 100 yards i saw a few cars pulled off (locals and regulars call traffic jams for wildlife sightings things like "bear jam", "deer jam" etc) and soon realized what they saw. A beautiful Buck grazing with two Doe's in a field and upon closer inspection his Antlers were covered in blood from freshly rubbing his velvet off. This was easily the biggest Buck i have ever seen and very likely the last time i will ever see one of this size in this stage again. I photographed him for 15 minutes or so before moving on to see what was waiting ahead.
Not even 50 yards farther i spotted a group watching a tree closely and was told that a Black Bear and her three cubs had just climbed into the tree for a nap. The view was mostly obstructed from the front of the tree but after watching others i decided to join few other photographers who had walked through the wet field to get a better vantage point on the tree. The mom was snoozing on a limb with one cub at her back and one on a limb directly above her. We kept a safe distance from the family and snapped a few photos until they woke up and began to climb down. Unfortunately another group of people had approached from the other side of the tree unsettling the cubs who began calling to their mother for help. We backed off even farther to provide an escape route and as we were doing so a Park Ranger began yelling at the other group to get out of the field. I later learned that being within 50 yards of the wildlife (we were good, they weren't) can result in a fine of up to $5000.
The weather was terrible but i was able to get a few decent photos from the trip and most importantly it was a good experience. For the morning i saw 1 Buck, several Doe, 1 Coyote and 4 or 5 Bears (there were others, but i missed a few). In addition i made a few new friends that are regulars to Cade's Cove and who were a great help in clueing me in on where to go when i come back. We intend to go back next year and if we do i will definitely be returning to Cade's Cove and hopefully the Cataloochee Valley in North Carolina to see some Elk. Thanks for reading.