Passions & Pursuits

Wildlife in the Woods

Coyote, Hawk, and the Three Bears

Early one misty Spring morning, I hopped on my bike to climb one of my favorite mountains, Rich Mountain, which stands between historical Cades Cove and the farmland of Dry Valley. Dry Valley is named from its lack of above-ground streams or rivers. There are vast caverns below-ground which gulp up most of the water in the area. Only Short Creek manages to avoid being swallowed, and only for a short time.

This particular morning felt unique. The air was damp but warm, with the promise of sunshine in the sky. The woods still held their winter barrenness – that open feeling of bare trunks and brown-covered contours – yet the atmosphere was tinged with new greenness, not yet seen except in the eager honeysuckle vines and willow trees.

I once counted all the switchbacks to the top of the mountain, but I can never remember the number. Instead, I rely on familiar waypoints to determine my distance – like the crossing of Hesse Creek, an unnamed branch, and the giant sculptural chestnut oak in the clearing on the right. If I’m not paying attention, however, it’s amazing how I can lose track of where I am. As important as it is to keep my eyes on the road, it’s equally necessary to glance around if I don’t want to miss anything happening in the story surrounding me – like the bear around the next curve.

She was an average-sized adult bear. It’s not uncommon to see one up here, though always noteworthy and exciting. This bear, however, did not turn and run like most do. Neither did she snort or charge, which I was very grateful for. She reluctantly eased off the road and seemed to turn her attention to a rotten log, which I presumed harbored some tasty grubs for her. I pedaled on, inwardly rejoicing in the opportunity to view such wildlife close-up in its natural habitat. Looking over my shoulder, I watched her black shape lumber slowly down the bank. But there, up the road, in the curve, stood a gray coyote. Sentinel, unmoving, he watched me until I was out of sight, as I did him. I was beginning to feel like I was in the middle of one of those wildlife Christmas cards. What an unusual sighting! I started to wonder what kind of story I was riding through.

Of course, every next corner and switchback I expected to see something else: a raccoon, a rabbit, maybe even a bobcat. I’ve seen bobcats up here before. They always look at you like they’ve been watching you for weeks – it’s a little unnerving. Wildlife sightings are great jump-starts to awareness, really engaging your senses so that you are attuned to any flash of movement, streak of color, crunch of leaves, or even unusual scents. I kept an eye out behind me until I reached the top of the climb, and I wondered what awaited me on the trip back down. I spent a couple minutes taking in the view toward Laurel Valley and Chilhowee Mountain. The park service cut out this vista a few years ago, and I am grateful for it. Once again appreciating the benefits of a fresh perspective.

I did not see the bear on the way down. I did, however, startle the coyote enough to encourage his retreat around the right side of the mountain. I was perplexed as to why he had been so persistently lurking in that area, until something drew my gaze to the left, up to some small black movements in a tall tree on a downward slope. There were two tiny bear cubs, the smallest I’d ever seen, clinging to the trunk, safely supported, guided and guarded. Though I couldn’t see the mother, I knew she was there, and I was only a passing interruption in this story of their day. I may have scared the coyote away for a time, but I would be given neither credit nor blame either way.

My mind, reeling like the wheels on my bike, was still processing the experience as I neared the last curves on the gravel. A familiar cry broke out through the woods on my left and a red-shouldered hawk flew out in front of me. I followed him as he glided over the road for a few hundred yards, catching glimpses of his dusty red breast as he canted his flight to follow the switchbacks. He finally ducked back into the open woods to continue his hunt or meet his mate.

I mentally added the hawk to my Christmas card design, while realizing how precious and present a moment it was, just like everything else that morning. Similar to using the shifters to engage the gears on my bike, I had been alerted and awakened to sights and sounds of stories around me, engaging my awareness, though I was just passing through.

Joy Hopkins, Adventure Manager

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