This article is about my adventure to the Smoky Mountains, to photograph Black Bear in a springtime setting. The Smokey Mountains in the spring is a wonder of green color and excitement as new animals begin their lives and year olds or yearlings have become solitary. While in Cades Cove we found several black bears feeding on grasses and leaves. They are such a beautiful animal, but they can be dangerous. In the Cades Cove area the bears have become used to the thousands of visitors that come through looking at them so they tolerate humans. But caution is advised when you see a female with cubs, they can get nasty.
Note: All the photographs you see are shot with a Canon EOS 6 or an EOS 7D and a Canon EF500L IS lens with a 1.4 Extender attached and a 28-135 zoom lens. The photos were processed with Lightroom 5.4. I shot most of the photos in autofocus at ISO 400 in Program Mode in order to get the shutter speed need to capture well focused photos. Some photos were shot out of the car window and others were shot from a steady tripod. The long lens allows you to remain in the parks safety rules of 150 feet of the wildlife.
I am a self-taught photographer living in Beverly Hills, Florida, I am a nature and wildlife photographer and an ex hunter. Having been raised in the country of upstate New York I have had many opportunities to observe and learn wildlife signs and their habits. Therefore I possess an understanding of the animals and the dangers they can be. I always have an eye out for the unexpected. I have spent many patient hours spent in the field, exploring, absorbing, seeing and figuring out the world around me to be able to get an outstanding image. On most outings everything comes together, the shutter speed, the exposure, The Focus and composition to bring home impressive images, on other hand there are times when nothing seems to work, you missed the focus or a bad exposure. However, I enjoy every minute of the outdoors whether it’s in the wilderness or a city park, regardless of my photographic success.
Cades Cove is a spectacular valley in the Tennessee section of the Great Smoky Mountains. It is a flat valley surrounded by mountains and ridges. It features well preserved homesteads, scenic mountain views, and abundant display of wildlife. The cove draws attention for numerous black bear sightings, the reason we decided to make the nine hour trip to Cades cove.
The access to the Cades Cove is the 11 mile, one way Cades Cove loop road. The road features pullouts, and parking areas to alleviate traffic buildups. It is used by pedestrians and bicyclist as well as cars so caution should be advised. However when a bear, deer or other wildlife presents itself, Traffic jams are present, in case of a Bear it would be a Bear jam. A Bear Jam is similar to a traffic jam except there is a bear involved. When the travelers along the loop road see a bear close by they slow down, some pull over, some stop in the road causing a tremendous backup of cars. Normally when that happens the Park volunteers rush out to the site and direct traffic.
After seeing numerous photos of the Cades Cove black bears some with cubs on my friends Facebook pages, I had to go to capture some of my own photos.
Our journey began on Monday May 12, 2014 with a nine-hour uneventful trip to Gatlinburg Tennessee arriving late in the afternoon. After checking in we took a quick trip to the Roaring Fork Motor trail a 6-mile-long, one-way, loop road as a side trip do to the lateness of the day as it is a 26 mile tip from Gatlinburg to Cades cove.
Rising early on Tuesday May 13, 2014 we entered the valley early in the morning when most of the wildlife is active. We started down the one-way loop road, we starting seeing wildlife right away. There were some Wild turkey’s strutting hens in the horse pasture. A simple pull over and shoot out of the window.
Driving on down the loop road, we were seeing some wildlife in the fields and meadows, when suddenly we ran into a Bear Jam. The cars were stopped and people and photographers were gathering at the site of a mother bear feeding with some new born cubs. I immediately jumped out of the car grabbed my tripod and camera gear and headed to a spot where I could photograph her and hopefully the cubs. Photographing the bear was tough as the grasses and weeds were very tall hiding her face. However I was able to get a couple of good shots of her. However the cubs were not with her in the field. They were back in the woods. As the bear moved I was able to move with her as she blended back into the woods. Looking through the lens I was able to capture her climb a tree staring into the woods looking for her cubs. I captured her joining with the cubs and immediately moved deeper into the woods. Unfortunate I was not able to get the cubs in a good photo, only in a brief shot of them in the woods partially hidden by bushes. My camera was set on “P” at ISO 400, Autofocus and I let it do the work only changing the settings when the bear went into the woods. The Bear Jam dispersed and we continued driving the loop road uneventful eventually arriving at the start of the loop road.
The second trip down the loop we were seeing Wild Turkeys and deer in the fields a little far off to photograph, until we ran into another Bear Jam. This time there is a yearling black bear up in tree feeding on leaves. I grabbed my equipment and my tripod and took off leaving the car parked in a pull off. Once I got up to the bear I could see it was going to be another hard photo to capture as the bear was feeding on leaves out on a branch entirely covered with leaves making it very difficult to capture his face. At this point, you must remain patient and eventually he will eat the leaves and present his face in the opening he made after eating the leaves. I was able to get a few photos of his face partially exposed. After watching him eat leaves and getting a few photos on him, he decides to lie down on the branch and let his feet just hang down. The Bear Jam finally dispersed with him lying in the tree not moving. We went on around the loop and exited off on sparks lane. We were just creeping along looking for wildlife, when my wife shouted out there is a bear in the field, I took a quick look and saw a turkey but no bear, but she insisted that there was a bear. I pulled into a pullout and took my camera and lens and went into the small woods next to the field where she saw the bear. I still could not see the bear. I came back toward the car at a little higher elevation and I saw the bear. I studied the situation and figured I could sneak out of the little draw and approach the bear with my big lens and still be within the rules of engagement. I walked out of the small wood lot as stealthy as I could, approaching where I thought the bear would be. I kept moving very slowly in order not to spook the bear. I still could not see the bear. The grasses and weeds were deep and partially covered the bear making it impossible to see. I figured my only chance to photograph the bear was to see him before he saw me. As I slowly moved along in the direction I thought the bear was, I saw a sudden movement in the tall grass as the bear must have heard or smelled me and ran behind a thick clump of Blackberry bushes. I turned and moved along the opposite side of the bushes angling away. As I approached the end of the blackberry bramble, I saw a yearling black bear. He was just sitting there trying to figure out what that was that spooked him. I was able to get several shots of the bear looking at me, however the composition is still unfortunate as the grasses and weeds are just too high to eliminate. I moved a little to try to eliminate the grasses from the photo but it is impossible. The bear that was looking at me just suddenly turned and ignored me. I took the shots handholding the camera as I braced it with my arms against my chest and fortunate for me my lens has an image stablator built in allowing you to get better focused pictures. I would at this time state always use a steady tripod but I thought I would not have time so I went without it.
After returning to the car with my photos of the field bear, we headed across Sparks Lane to get back on the loop road. As we traveled on down the loop road we came back to where bear was in the tree and found a jam starting. I got out grabbing my tripod and equipment and went to see what was going on. The bear had awakened was working his way down the tree eating leaves as he moved along. The bear would reach out and grab leaves and eat them while hanging on the tree trunk. Eventually he finally came down out of the tree and proceeded to cross the road and head off into the woods. I captured a photo of him by the tree he had just come out of.
The next day we went to the Cataloochie Valley in the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains to see the Elk that have been re-introduced. Under estimating the time to get to Cataloochie we were way to late as the Elk had already moved back into the woods. Unfortunate we struck out and headed back to Cades Cove.
We arrived back in Cades Cove midafternoon and started our cruise down the loop road. Nearing the cross road off Hyatt lane I saw something a car parked and something black moving along the hillside fairly near Hyatt Lane. We immediately went over to investigate and found a yearling black bear feeding along in the grasses of the meadow. This time the jam had not formed and we were able to drive right alongside of the field where the bear was feeding. Once again it was going to be an extremely tough photo shoot as the weeds and grasses were way taller than the bear. I got out of the car and used a fence post as a steady mount to photograph this bear. In this case patients were a virtue as you had to wait for him to raise his head in order to capture a good photo. The bear kept feeding in the grass with his head barely raising it at all. He was very tolerant of the masses that were starting to gather to photograph him rarely he would raise his head for a split second to see his surrounding, that is where you need to be ready. By ready I mean staring through the lens waiting for him to move or raise his head in order to capture a good photo. He was moving all over just feeding away. My patients won out this time as I was finally able to get a couple of good photo of him with his head raised although the grasses are present in the photo. I was able to capture a number of photos and moved on leaving the bear jam to others.
Continuing on the loop road, I became aware that darkness was fast approaching and I figured that was it, time to put the equipment away and end the day, that is, until we ran into another Bear Jam. On the far side of the valley a large bear jam was happening right in front of us. I was able to pull the car over and grab my equipment. I rushed to the site as a large female black bear and her yearling cub was feeding right alongside of the road and the people were going crazy taking photos. The bear did not hardly raise her head as she was so used to cars and people she let people get very close and photograph her with phone cameras. As I has stated it was getting dark and most cameras don’t shoot very good in the dark. I found my big lens was way too much lens to photograph her as she was so close to the road, so I went and got out the EOS 7D with a 28-105 lens. I re-adjusted my settings and turned on the auto ISO and shot her handholding the camera. The camera auto ISO mode brings up the shutter to a reasonable speed in order to capture a subject in low light. But this was no ordinary subject; it was a black bear in failing light. I just used the setting and fired away leaning against a vehicle to steady the camera as much as possible. By the time we finished shooting the big bear it was dark and time to put the cameras away and head back to the hotel for the night.
The next Day was Thursday May 15, 2014 we leaving the area heading home. It was raining but we wanted to give Cades Cove one more chance to capture the Mother bear with cubs. So we headed over and down the loop road. We saw Wild Turkey Gobblers Strutting; we saw deer in the fields, but no bears. We scouted the fields and meadows to no avail as the rainy weather put a hold on the bear activity. As we drove on around the Cades Cove loop road for the final time we started reminiscing about the couple of days we had photographing the bear and other wildlife that grace the valley between the Mountains.
To summarize my adventure to Cades Cove, It was an incredible experience, I believe Cades Cove or the Smoky Mountains for that matter is a winner for nature and wildlife photographers as well as amateurs with phone cameras. There is so much to photograph, no matter the season you will find subjects that are willing to give you that prefect photo. After being in the Smoky Mountains twice, I would not hesitate to load up my camera equipment and head back for a third time. However the third time would be more specific to the activity of the season such as bugling and rutting Elk in the Cataloochie Valley, the big whitetail bucks that frequent the fields and meadows of Cades Cove and the Black bear of Cades Cove.