By Johnny Molloy
Bear attacks in the Southern Appalachians are rare. However, on May 21, 2000, Glenda Bradley and her companion Ralph Hill were hiking up the Little River Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The two separated, Hill to fish and Bradley to relax streamside. What happened after that is not certain. Later, Hill found Bradley’s daypack, then searched the area, finding Bradley about 70 yards away, being fed on by two bears, a 111-pound adult female and a 40 pound cub. Hill tried to chase the bears off, but their aggression forced a retreat. A passing hiker sought help.
Three park rangers later arrived. The bears guarded the body, forcing the rangers to kill the two bears. Autopsies revealed Bradley died of blood loss and the bears had consumed human tissue. Neither bear had a history of being a park nuisance. Rangers concluded that Bradley ran a short distance and the bears intercepted her. The daypack—containing food—was undisturbed.
This was the first fatal black bear mauling in an American national park.
Backcountry visitation did decline 10% from summer of 2000 to summer of 2001. But park officials don’t attribute the decline entirely to the mauling. The vast majority of backpackers who inquired about the mauling went ahead and obtained backcountry permits.
The park service took the mauling very seriously. Their philosophy: since it has occurred, it can occur again. They have responded by changing the language in backcountry trail maps, brochures and signs, reflecting a stepped up level of seriousness. Also, the literature gives more direct advice on how to react to bear behavior. Signs are now immediately put up and/or areas are closed where bear-human “interactions” have occurred.
And then it happened again. In Tennessee again.
This time it was in the Cherokee National Forest near Cleveland, during April of 2006. Forty-five year old Susan Cenkus and her two children, ages two and six, went to Benton Falls. A black bear was spotted near the falls. Hikers attempted to scare the bruin away. Instead the bear swooped in and grabbed two-year-old Luke with its jaws. In a mother’s frantic energy Susan Cenkus hurled rocks and branches at the bear, which unleashed its grip of Luke.
And then the bear went after Susan, getting ahold of her and dragging her from the trail into the forest. Meanwhile, other nearby hikers valiantly drove the bear away from Susan.
Just when it seemed the ordeal was over, Susan realized her daughter Elora was missing. The hikers desperately searched for the six-year-old, who had run away during the initial encounter. A man spotted the bear hovering above lifeless Elora.
TWRA later trapped a live bear, which was euthanized. The UT vet school could not determine conclusively if the trapped bear was the culprit. Susan and her son survived.
So for all you scared to get in the woods, there’s a story you can repeat as evidence to stay inside.
Great Smoky Mountains
With its secluded mountain waterways, awe-inspiring views from grassy balds, diverse plant and animal life, and impressive stands of old-growth forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers an overwhelming number of outdoor adventures. Top Trails Great Smoky Mountains National Park describes both the park’s classic destinations and lesser-known jewels in 50 must-do hikes.
The trails range from an easy family stroll by a soothing stream to a 7-mile trek through spruce forest atop a peaceful ridge to a 22-mile overnighter to a mile-high camp. This guide will help you leave the roads to explore the heart of the park. Whether you’re looking for a scenic stroll to stretch your legs, a full-day adventure, or a rewarding backpacking trip, you’ll find it here.
Each hike includes:
• Clear and concise directions to the trailhead
• A detailed route map and elevation profile
• “Don’t get lost” milestones
• Expert trail commentary
Author Johnny Molloy has spent over 800 nights backpacking in the Smokies, and used his vast experience to choose the best hikes to maximize your national park experience.