We knew there were bears up ahead on the trail to Abrams Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A mother and three cubs, reported hikers we passed on their way back.
All week long, trails had been closing due to what rangers termed “aggressive bear activity.” News reports said the bears, malnourished for this time of year, were plundering ripening berry patches and cherry trees. You didn’t want to get in their way.
But there was no question of turning back. My two oldest nephews, strapping college football players decked out for the 4th of July in cheeky singlets emblazoned with “Running the World Since 1776,” picked up the pace. This was the last day of our trip marking my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and a bear encounter on the trail would put an exclamation point on an already memorable family vacation.
Finally, up ahead we saw a handful of hikers stopped along a ravine. As we approached, the mother bear crossed the trail to feed on some berry bushes just below – leaving her cubs slightly hidden in bushes above.
“Never get between a bear and her cubs,” our parents always told us over the many decades our family’s explored the Smoky Mountains. But now here we were, in exactly that predicament.
“She seems pretty chill,” one of my nephews said.
“Wild animals are unpredictable,” Grandpa warned. I grabbed my youngest cub and edged forward, in case we needed to make a run for it.
Grandpa gave everybody with a cell phone a chance to snap a photo, then announced it was time to move on. Nobody argued, though we kept looking back until we rounded the next bend.
Abrams Falls were spectacular, the most powerful ones we’d seen on five hikes totaling 21 miles and thousands of feet in elevation climbed. They emptied into a quiet pool where hikers were wading and even swimming.
We watched them wistfully, knowing we had only a few minutes before we had to head back. Grandma and some of the others were waiting back at Cade’s Cove, where we hoped to get in a quick game of Ultimate Frisbee in the meadow before going back to our mountaintop condos to grill burgers and watch fireworks shot off in the valley below.
This was already the most memorable Fourth of July ever, having started with a cheesy but enthusiastic midnight parade down in Gatlinburg. Now after numerous trips in the past without seeing any bears at all, we had two sightings in one day. Earlier, on the drive around Cade’s Cove, we’d gawked at a mother and two cubs hanging out in a tree. In all, our family would total a dozen bear sightings on this trip, the most ever by far.
We’d done more hiking than ever before, tried whitewater rafting for the first time, and most importantly, savored the memories of my parents’ half century together. Earlier in the week, over cake and champagne after 22 of us had gathered for a celebratory dinner, we’d strung up 50 special memories, one for each year.
I hadn’t been able to put down on a card in fancy script what I’d really been thinking: How amazing it was that with their polar-opposite personalities, getting married so young with all kinds of obstacles to overcome, had not only persevered but forged a bond built on the one quality they both shared: a fierce family loyalty that rivals anything you’d encounter in nature.
The bears were gone when we came back down the ravine. But we’ll remember them – and this trip – forever.