Great Smokey Mountains National Park


by Michael S. Couch

turkey
turkey

After a busy and hectic summer I was looking forward to my trip to the Smokies for the Labor Day Weekend. For the past six years, I have spent the Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays in the mountains photographing black bears. I also try to spend a week in October for the foliage and bears and then another week in December covering the winter landscape. I left out of Auburn at lunch on Friday traffic on I-85 towards Atlanta was not that bad until I reached the Atlanta perimeter. What normally takes about thirty minutes to bypass Atlanta took almost three hours. I did expect the entire state of Florida to be evacuating up I –75 and just about shutting down the interstate system. I had left early so I could get to my campsite and setup everything before dark but this was now out of the question. Finally I got underway again and made it to my campsite about 9:30 in the evening. What normally takes me about 4-1/2 hours took over 9 hours. I setup my tent and went strait to bed. I awoke about 7:00 in the morning and went and checked in at the registration office and asked the ranger about bear activity. The morning sun was rising to a clear and beautiful day without a cloud in the sky. I packed up all of my camera gear and setoff to look for bears. I spent Saturday morning hiking around in the woods looking for bear sign and I was able to photograph several deer and a small flock of turkeys.


Bear, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, 9.5.04
Bear, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, 9.5.04

I left around noon to go back to my campsite and get a bite to eat and to rest a bit in my hammock. As soon as I laid down in my hammock a woman camping next to me starting screaming at her daughter not to move because there was a snake next to her. Without blinking I jumped out of my hammock and ran to the girl. I told the mother it was okay to get her daughter and that I would catch the snake, and that it was not poisonous. As soon as I saw the snake I knew immediately what it was and grabbed it. It was the largest and most aggressive Garter snake that I had ever seen. It bit me repeatedly drawing blood each time and it expelled a foul musk scent all over my arms that many snakes use as a defense (the snake emits a foul odor which is supposed to make the predator say, that snake stinks, I do not think I want to eat that.) By this time a large crowd had gathered and I did not want to stress the snake out so I carried it out of the campsite and released in the woods. I then went to the Ranger station and let them know what I did so they would not think some crazy person was running around the campgrounds with a snake. After a refreshing and much needed nap, I again packed up my gear and headed for the woods. With only two or three hours of daylight left, I decided not to carry my camo blind. I parked my jeep and began walking down a gravel road when I noticed some movement off to my left.


Deer, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, 9.5.04
Deer, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, 9.5.04

This was the exact same spot that during the Memorial Day weekend I had two coyotes on my left and two bears on my right. As I turned to look I sat up my triod and mounted my camera. This time it was not a bear, just a young doe walking and foraging through the woods. I am very selective of Whitetail deer shots because I have so many but she was very photogenic. I kneeled on the side of the gravel road and shot a couple of pictures of her and then she jumped the road and headed off in the other direction. I left my camera on my tripod and began walking very quietly along the edge of the road and stopped to listen. Believe it or not, I find most of the animals that I photograph, including snakes, by stopping to listen. I sat for about five minutes and did not hear anything so I took a couple of steps forward and then noticed some movement about 15 meters in front of me on a steep embankment on the left side of the gravel road. I crouched down with my eyes focused on the movement and a small black bear was ever so slowly making its way up to the road. I did not try to setup my tripod right away because the bear had not seen me and I did not want to spook it. I waited about five minutes until the bear jumped down onto the road and all of a sudden it stopped and focused in on me. My cover had been blown. The bear made several huffing noises and crossed the road at full speed.


Deer, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, 9.5.04
Deer, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, 9.5.04

I was not too concerned because I knew that more than likely there would be mama bear following the cub and that I probably had better chances of setting up and photographing her. I easily slid down off the road and into the woods and setup against a tree. I waited until the light was falling and headed back out to my jeep. As soon as I drove off headed back to my campsite a coyote ran out in front of me but it was too fast and too dark to get a shot. The next day I returned to the same spot after lunch and set up my blind down in the woods where the bear had crossed the day before. I was setting back in my chair in the blind and I heard a crack behind me. I had my tripod setup between my legs with my camera mounted so I just slowly turned my head around and there was a gigantic buck deer, with antlers still in partial velvet, standing two meters behind me. There was no chance of me releasing my camera or moving the tripod around without the deer seeing me so I decided to wave my hand and let the deer know I was there. When I did this I was expecting the deer to go from 0-60 in a second flat but he did not. He looked up at me and continued grazing around me. I picked up my tripod and swung it around and got off a few quick shots before the deer began walking away. I sat for another hour scanning the deep green woods with my binoculars seeing nothing but squirrels. I began scanning the woods about a 100 meters away when I caught another movement.


Sisters taking a sharp turn
Sisters taking a sharp turn

I checked my blind to make sure everything was covered and began scanning the woods again. I focused in and spotted a coyote coming in strait for me. I had my flash mounted on my camera with a flash x-tender, which greatly extends the flashes ability but also is very large and visible. The coyote continued coming at me as if it was searching for an easy meal. I had prefocused my camera at an opening that would allow me to start shooting when the coyote got into an open lane. As I peered into my viewfinder I accidentally hit the focus button and moved the camera slightly to recompose my frame when the coyote spotted my flash x-tender. It froze on the spot not sure what he was looking at or what to do. He ran. He ran as fast as he could and never looked back. With that my trip ended. Although I did not get the shots that I wanted I left a happy camper. Especially knowing that I would be back for a 10 day stay in a few weeks. Please stay tuned at the end of October as I will have an updated article, and hopefully, a lot of great photos.