This is a longer than normal post, but I wrote it so I would remember this adventure with friends and fellow bear trackers!
We always sit on this porch in Balsam, North Carolina, and look out to the mountains in front of us and wonder about their location. We knew the Blue Ridge Parkway runs through them, but that’s about it.
Lately, Beth started talking about hiking along the ridgeline, and I’ve tried to avoid listening because I’m still recovering from chemo and just didn’t know if I could do the hike. But the more she talked—the more mysterious the mountain sounded. . . . I was intrigued.
Years ago, she had hiked part of the Yellow Face Mountain trail with one of her brothers, but they never made it to the top. They stopped when the trail turned and went straight up. Still, her memories were full of adventure and danger. She told me how they saw the boundary for the Great Smoky National Park and how they were on the ridge of the mountain.
“If we ever do hike that trail,” she said looking out to the ridgeline, “we’ll definitely need to carry bear spray.”
As “fate would have it,” Yellow Face was on our list of hikes that we needed for our Southern Sixer Hiking Challenge. We read and reread about the trail. Talked about the difficulty and finally, I said, “If we can do it, fine. If not, then we would have tried.”
So the decision was made and off we went to hike the mountain. And at first, the trail began like most of the others—beautiful, peaceful, and not too difficult—just a little isolated.
We hiked past mountain grasses and plenty of wild flowers that I will post later.
At times, the foliage was dense, and then the trail began to go up. Of course, it would. We were in North Carolina and everything always goes up. Plus, we were hiking up to a ridge—something that I’m beginning to look forward to on every hike.
At times, the trail was obscured by mountain flora and brush. All smiles in this photo and guess what? Not a single thought of bear spray. At this point, we were all about the adventure, the trail, the flowers, and the views. Turn the page . . .
When we entered deeper woods, we were captivated by the beauty. The smell of Balsam trees surrounded us. Occasionally, we would catch a “hint” of something very wild in the woods, but no worries, right? We didn’t even stop or think anything about it. I do think one time we did say, “Bear” but that was it.
Tree roots were visible and seemed well worn from hiker-foot traffic. People had been there before us and we hiked on.
Finally, we made it up to the mountain’s ridgeline and found that certain sections were covered with ferns. We must have continued along this trail for another half a mile or so. By this time, Beth had totally disappeared as she hiked on in front of us.
At times, we did drop down below the ridge and would end up on the opposite side of the mountain. The trail was stunning. I absolutely love soft and firmly packed balsam-needle pathways. I remember thinking someone should write a poem about trails like this one. It was way too beautiful to be forgotten.
So we went down and then we had to climb back up. Three of us carry camera equipment plus water. This means packs are always around 15 to 20lbs. I tell myself that the extra weight only helps to make me stronger.
I turned to look back down the trail and that’s when it happened! I heard Beth shouting, “There are dogs on the trail!” My first thought (because I’m originally from a large city) was: “Are they on leads?”
Well, no—not in this remote area!
Sure enough, a few seconds later two American Coon Hounds wearing GPS collars came barreling down the trail. I assumed they were being trained but had no idea what for.
They didn’t stop to “chat.” They just kept going as if on some type of important mission!
Odd, I thought, but we kept hiking. Where were our brains? Dogs, wild smells, and no bear spray!
Finally, we could see sunlight and sky up ahead and we knew we were getting close to the top. . . . Celebration time! Another Mountain peak down!
We had made it to the first summit but not the one for Yellow Face. We had further to go. Still the forest opened up before us, and we looked back across the valley to where the Balsam home is located. This was pretty special!
We were so excited to be near the top, that we stopped and posted photos on Facebook! Well, I didn’t but Anne did. She always lets her “tribe” know where she is and what she is doing.
Then suddenly one of the dogs was back with us and this time she was not going to leave! As we bushwacked our way through the underbrush, she pressed even closer. Now, I was beginning to wonder why this dog was so attached to our group. Her GPS collar was going off on a regular basis, and we heard people in the distance shouting.
Were they calling for help or calling for the dog? We didn’t know. I had been on one rescue mission the Friday before and wasn’t sure I was up for another one. What was this dog doing?
At the top, the dog (Memphis) lingered as we did all the “girlie things” we could think to do. Laughed and posed for photos! We were on the top of the mountain and needed to gather photos of our conquest to turn into the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy as proof we had reached the summit.
Through it all, Memphis remained with to us. For these few moments, we were her pack. Then we noticed she had stopped going from one person to another and was face-first into heavy undergrowth.
Oh, no, I thought, but I didn’t see anything in the brush.
I’m pretty good with dogs; so when it was time for us to hike back down the mountain, I tried to persuade her to go with us. I tugged on her collar but realized she was not going to move! She was locked in on something!
So, we left her and told ourselves her owner would soon find her. After all, she was wearing a GPS collar, and it was still signaling commands—commands that were not being heeded!
As we headed back down the mountain, we talked about dinner and if we would eat on the outdoor porch or the sunroom—both overlook the mountains. At the moment that was a fairly important decision!
It seems that things just kept appearing out of nowhere on this mountain. With no warning Memphis’s owner was in our midst. GPS tracking device in hand, he hurried past but asked if we had seen his dog. We told him she was still on top of the mountain, and we couldn’t get her to come down with us.
“She’s trained to stay,” he told us as he hurried by. Then he added, “We have been tracking bears on this mountain all day. She’s my best dog, and she’s probably tired. I’ll go get her.”
Tracking Bears. On the Mountain all day! Big Gulp! We looked at one another and for the first time, we thought about the BEAR SPRAY! It had been left on the counter in the sunroom at the Balsam house! Fun!
A few minutes later Memphis’s owner and Memphis reappeared. This time we stopped him and asked about the bears he was tracking and how he trains his dogs. He told us that bears were all over Yellow Face. (Who would have thought!) He had tracked them since he was a young boy. (Yikes! Imagine that!!) His team had cornered four on this particular day and pointed to where the last one was found—a few feet from where we were standing. Faint.
“‘But Youins’ are safe,” he assured us, “as long as you don’t get in between a mother and her cubs.” I’ve heard that lots of times before, and it’s really not much comfort. How do you avoid something like that on a narrow wooded trail that is dense with undergrowth?
While he continued talking, I noticed Memphis turn and look in my direction. She gave me a “knowing look” before looking back up at her owner. I caught that image on my camera.
After I left, I wondered out loud if “old Memphis” had a bear spotted on the top of Yellow Face and just stuck with us for protection? I think she did.
She may have been tired, but I think she knew exactly where the bears were still located and remained with us. Thank you, Memphis. . . . And you had better believe we got off that mountain in a fourth of the time it took to climb it!
In closing, I want to mention that Anne was the only one of us, who had something with her to discourage bears! A cute little red “bear bell” that does absolutely nothing except announce our presence to every bear within a half a mile! And so it goes. . . .