Excited that my story, Facing Down Harry is up on the Women’s Adventure magazine web-site. The story is about coming face to face with Harry, a slightly pesky, very large black bear while hiking in the Smokies.
Facing Down Harry recently won a Silver award in the 5th Annual SOLAS Awards for travel writing from Traveler’s Tales in the Animal Encounter category.
A little shell-shocked, but really excited to learn that Harry will live on in infamy. Huzzah, Harry! Cheers!
Facing Down Harry
It all started on our honeymoon. Our attempt to find a hobby—something active we could both enjoy—led us to this creek. Bordered on either side by two very muddy hills was the creek that was the beginning of the end of our hiking trip in Maui.
“Angie, it’s okay,” Todd said calmly. “Just cross it. Here hold my hand.” He held out his hand to steady me.
“Really doesn’t seem like a good idea,” I replied crossing hesitantly. After devouring guide after guide about the ins and outs of hiking in Hawaii, I was fully aware of the danger that existed, perhaps just on the other side of that creek. Nothing in me wanted to go one step further. “During the rainy season, flash mudslides can appear out of nowhere,” the guidebooks warned with bold red letters and illustrations of unfortunate hikers caught unawares by a flash mudslide leading to their doom.
Todd had some hiking experience, but that wasn’t enough to calm my nerves. I’d read the warnings and it had been raining on this end of the island, perhaps for days. The mud on our boots was enough to persuade me to turn back. And if the mud wasn’t enough, the eerie whispers blowing through the bamboo forest around us did the trick. I could only imagine a very large snake slithering down the emerald trees, putting a quick end to our honeymoon in paradise and marriage of only a few short days. Todd acquiesced and resigned himself to turning back never to see the beauty of the waterfall waiting at the end of the trail.
When the opportunity to break out our hiking equipment came up later that year, the knowledge we’d missed out in Hawaii was enough to spur us on. This time it was backpacking on the backcountry trails of Smoky Mountain National Park. I was ready. I’d read up on hiking the Smokey’s, but this time I was determined to cage my fear in pursuit of adventure. Not just for me, but for Todd. He really wanted to go. So, we went. Joining us were Todd’s sister and husband, and a friend.
We reached our camp site at dusk. Exhausted from our hike up, we quickly set up our three tents and ate dinner. After hanging a line high up in the trees where we hung our food, we went to sleep early. At about 5:00 in the morning, we were awoken by an unusual and disturbing noise. A loud growl chased our sleep away filling us with sufficient dread.
“Angie, we have to get out of the tent,” Todd whispered through gritted teeth while shaking my arm to make sure I was awake.
“Out,” I groaned. “Why? He’s not bothering us in here?”
Todd insisted, as if seeing the bear barreling towards me would be better than staying happy and warm in my sleeping bag, in the safety of our new and fairly expensive expedition-grade tent. The outfitting guide at the mountaineering store assured us this tent could withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour and temperatures down to 50 below. The tent seemed hands down the safer bet. It could handle the bear, I reasoned in my sleep-induced stupor. I yawned hoping this was just a bad dream. Surely Todd didn’t intend for us to leave the safety of our tent.
Absolutely convinced our lives depended upon having a visual of the bear, Todd slowly unzipped the main door of the tent. We plodded out, just in time to witness the growling creature. It wasn’t a bear. It was our brother-in-law. An ex-military guy, he was standing in a menacing pose growling convincingly at a very large black bear whose only response was to lumber back and forth.
Guidebooks tell you if you ever encounter a bear, you should immediately make noise, lots of noise. We did. Five adults screaming and yelling while banging pots and pans did nothing to scare this bear away. He simply looked on, as if taking in the monkey exhibit at the local zoo. He seemed amused.
Two and a half hours later the bear finally tired of us and moped away. Returning to the base of the mountain after the long hike down, we entered the Ranger Station to report our bear sighting.
“Oh…I see you met Harry,” the ranger chuckled. I was incredulous that the bear that held us captive actually had a name, and it was Harry.
“Good thing it was Harry,” he continued. “He’s what we call a passive-aggressive bear. That’s why he didn’t attack.” I had no idea bears could be classified as passive-aggressive, but was grateful Harry fit the type. “Yeah, we just opened that trail back up on Monday. We’d closed it for the last six months because of all the bear activity. How about that?” he finished, still chuckling.
Today was Thursday. What irony, I thought walking out the door, not nearly as amused as the ranger.
Todd and I now had a decision to make. Everyone else was leaving to return home for work. Todd was the only one to have taken extra vacation days. Outfitting ourselves for our backpacking adventures was no small expenditure, and it could all go to waste in this one decision. Hitting the trails again would mean going it alone, just the two of us against whatever happened to cross our path. Knowing if we didn’t brave the trails now we might not again, we made our decision. Fear wouldn’t stand in our way.
Choosing the right trail for our overnight trek was easy after interrogating the rangers about trails that hadn’t seen any reported bear activity. Then we were off, back on the trail again. Beginning above the tree line, this rocky trek led down into a lush valley hidden deep in the woods. Our decision paid off when we stopped for the night. We made camp next to a creek, larger than the one in Hawaii and, at the moment, clear as glass.
At the head of the creek was an enormous boulder. Water glistened over this mountainous rock and fell into the creek below. It was beautiful. We immediately set up our tent at the base of the boulder. We fell asleep listening to the sound of the water, our tent lit by the stars beaming through the tiny screen in the roof.
It didn’t matter that we went to bed early that night, both of us still shaken from our encounter with Harry. I remember that hike today, fifteen years later. It was a memorable one and one that we shared. I’m glad we overcame our fear and pushed on. If we hadn’t, we may have missed some of our wonderful experiences since, like camping on the shores of Lake Michigan next to an ancient oak tree in full fall color with an absurd number of butterflies flittering around or picking wild blueberries while hiking the rugged coast of Maine. Guess I should be thankful to Harry for helping us face our fears, but I’m still not quite amused. One day maybe we’ll get to that Hawaiian waterfall, after all.
Published in Women’s Adventure Magazine, March 2011
Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress