It was a cold and foggy morning in the Smokies, and the weather forecast called for rain, so we decided to take a drive round Cades Cove instead of attempting to drag the children on a wet hike in the mountains.
Cades Cove is a wide valley surrounded by mountains, which was home to Cherokee and European settlers before the founding of the national park, and is currently one of the best places to go wildlife spotting. The road through Cades Cove is an 11 mile one-way loop which takes you around the most scenic parts of the valley. Driving slowly, it takes about four hours to complete the whole loop, including stopping off to explore the well-preserved historic buildings.
We were able to see herds of deer grazing peacefully in the meadow, with the occasional lonesome young buck leaping through the tall grass, turning its head proudly to display its antlers. J and Little E had a little competition to see who could point out the most animals, so every so often there would be a cry of “deer!” or “turkey!” from the backseat of the car.
We were often so busy gaping at the magnificence of these wild creatures, that by the time the Aged P raised his camera up to snap a picture, they’d turned round to walk away from us. Which is why we now have a large collection of animal butt photos.
The Aged P had been driving for a while and was starting to get a little sleepy (he was still very jet lagged) so we had to find a place to park.
There was a small dirt road running through the middle of the valley so we turned into it, drove up to a stream that was flitting with little birds, then parked the car. Winding the windows down so as to better hear the bird song and the trickling music of the stream, we all tilted our heads back to breathe in the fresh air and have a little nap.
Well, everybody except myself.
I was about 6 months pregnant at the time, so instead of sleeping, I was taking this opportunity to unbuckle my seatbelt and massage my tired legs.
Looking out the window, I saw a flash of black in the rearview mirror. A fuzzy little black bottom, disappearing behind the back of the car.
I rubbed my eyes.
I looked out the back window of the car. Nope. Can’t see anything.
Then, a shiny little nose appeared from behind the rear window of the car.
“BEAR! BEAR!” I shrieked, thumping excitedly on the car seat, trying to wake up my slumbering family.
“HELP! THERE’S A BEAR! WE’RE GETTING EATEN!” wailed the children in alarm.
“WHERE? WHERE?” yelled the Aged P, leaping out of the car, clutching his camera in one hand and his spectacles in the other.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING GET BACK IN HERE!”, squeaked the other Aged P in obvious alarm.
“HELP! AH KONG IS GOING TO BE EATEN BY A BEAR!” wailed the children, struggling to be free of their carseats.
Then we all saw the bear, ambling into the rushes by the stream.
It was a black bear, about as big as a german shepherd, which is to say, not as big as we all thought wild bears would be.
“Awwwwwwww”, we all said in unison, “It’s exactly like a fluffy teddy bear.”
“Keep still, little bear,” wheedled the Aged P, raising his camera to take another photo to add to the Wildlife Butt Archive.
Excitedly, we drove to the Cades Cove Visitor Centre, and told the Park Ranger there what we had seen. She was very excited, saying that there had been bear sightings all over the Smokies that week as the weather had not been as cold that week.
Black bears, apparently, do not hibernate in the same way as other hibernating animals. Black bears will reduce their heart rate down to 8 beats a minute, and decrease their metabolic rate, recycling the body’s nitrogen waste back into proteins during dormancy, but they do not drop their body temperature and will remain semi-alert. This means that when the winter weather is mild, they will rouse themselves from their winter dens (usually a hollowed out tree trunk or a comfortable dirt bed under a rock) to forage for more food.
The Cades Cove Visitor Centre, which is halfway along the 11 mile one-way loop through Cades Cove, is located near some very well preserved 19th Century homesteads, so we took the kids exploring.
The kids ran around inside the Becky Cable house, a huge white building, playing hide and seek within empty rooms behind the old-fashioned iron cookstove, but what I found the most interesting was the John Cable Grist Mill.
The overshot wheel of the mill had iced over because of the cold weather, so it wasn’t turning, but the water was still running down to the mill from a complicated looking series of wooden troughs. These wooden troughs diverted water from two nearby creeks, Forge Creek and Mill Creek, and had been built in order to make sure that there was enough water power to keep the millstones grinding when the water levels were low in the summertime.
The mill is still in working condition, and apparently, you can still get cornmeal milled onsite from the Cades Cove Visitor Centre.
The kids were completely intrigued by the water delivery system and followed it all the way down towards the creek, passing by the topsy-turvy ‘Cantilever Barn’, so named for the large cantilever supporting a large hayloft on top of a row of small log cribs (for housing animals and farm equipment) on the first story. This curious design is unique in the Southern Appalachian region that is East Tennessee and was designed to aid in the storage of hay in the wet mountain climate, with the improved circulation of air keeping the hay off the moist ground and thus mildew and mold-free. J and Little E were mildly fascinated by the Cantilever Barn as it looked utterly impossible but were too afraid to walk under it, so they walked cautiously around the outside.
It was starting to get pretty dark by this time, and we still had at least an hour’s drive to get out of the park, so we decided to head back home, singing songs all the way.