Backcountry Bears    Thomas Divide/Kanati Fork and Newton Bald  7/12/14


I"m starting to feel like Steve Irwin or that Jeff Corwin guy with all the wildlife encounters lately. 

It was in the nineties when I left Knoxville and by the time I reached Thomas Divide the temps had moderated into the middle seventies.  This is a favorite trail for me.  So many drive right past but our goal was to drop down to Newton Bald and meet Mike and Slapnuts.  Sally Dumplin was unable to attend this outing.

I stopped for a little break right before Kanati and heard some crunching overhead.  Look what was in the tree munching down on some acorns?   He was making so much noise he didn't know I was there until he did.  Then he vamoosed out of that tree faster than lighting.  He was number one.

You can determine the time of year by the spiderwort plants.  It sprinkled mildly on me as I rode the undulating path of soft mosses and ferns in the high country of 5000 feet in the Smokies.  Unfortunately, Dave was unable to see this wildflower and experience this nice drop in temperature.

I met up with Slapnuts and Jerky Mike.  We had originally planned to meet AJ but he had to drop out of this excursion.  They secured a fine camping spot and Newton Bald is becoming a preferred high country spot.  McGhee has been here before with us a time or two so he may not have liked the spot.

I set about preparing some smoked gouda for the cheese and apple board.  Jerky Mike's face looks like that of a serial killer in blue.  And he was holding the knife over my lap.  That should have sufficiently scared us.  But nothing was more frightening than the super moon.

No, it doesn't seem so super when on the computer screen.  But it was big un!   McGhee used to enjoy barking at the super moon like a treed coon.  I suppose he is treed himself these days having to work so much and all.

I retired to my tent at the top of the hill around 1 am.  I decided to go up there away from the group for a little privacy and a softer spot.  About the time I start to doze off I hear another bear jumps down out of a tree.  I spring to life and shine the light out of the tent but see nothing.  Scat was everywhere.  Fifteen minutes later he was back.  I suppose I had camped under his favorite tree.  After shining the light about for a half hour he finally scampered off. 

After a delightful evening I decided to drop out Kanati Fork and pick up some new second miles.   Right before the Kanati Junction, I run into this guy (below) who was in the tree for five minutes and wasn't the least bit concerned about me at all.  He had a brown nuzzle.  I shot two minutes of video of him but it isn't that great.  Those brown muzzlers are the most unpredictable.

When he decided to come down out of the tree I realized that he was pretty fat and healthy.  The biggest one I had seen in the past year.

You may have heard all the stories about Gregory's Bald being closed for bear activity.  I can vouch that they are definitely on the move right now.

Speaking of backcountry activity we heard tell that actress Ashley Judd was enjoying a backcountry camping excursion to Gregory's Bald.  She posted pictures on her twitter feed showing herself in front of the flame azaleas with her dog in tow.   As a result, we (the Southern Forest Watch) emailed the acting Superintendent for clarification.   Enclosed was her response.

Acting Superintendent McCloud,
I am writing on behalf of the Southern Forest Watch to request clarification and full information about a recent backcountry camping trip in the Smokies by actress Ashley Judd.  There are varying and extensive social media accounts of her presence on Gregory's Bald with a dog and she has posted pictures to that effect on her twitter feed.  As you are aware that campsite has been closed for bear activity for some time and dogs are strictly forbidden in the backcountry. Obviously it is in the Park's interest, as well as that of the general public, to clarify this situation.  Did Ms. Judd have a camping permit?  What action, if any, has the park taken? Was the park even aware of this situation?  Perhaps there is no substance to this, although the photos suggest, at least to some extent with the dog, otherwise.

If I need to go through the formal Freedom of Information Act Request Route, then it is no problem for me to do so but I thought I would contact you as acting Superintendent directly as a courtesy first.  We are simply seeking clarification for what I am hoping turns out to be, in essence, nothing more than rumour.
John Quillen
Board President, Southern Forest Watch

Dear Mr. Quellen:

In response to your inquiry from July 3, I cannot provide you with some of the specific information you requested. The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, generally forbids a governmental agency from disclosure of particular information on an individual that is maintained in a system of records such as the NPS maintains for Special Use and related permits. Therefore, I cannot disclose details from our backcountry permit system concerning any particular person. 

I can tell you, however, that no permits have been issued (or permissions otherwise granted) for any campsite that has been closed for safety reasons.  We would not close a campsite for any other reason.  In the area of Gregory Bald during the time frame covered by your request, you are correct that Campsite 13 was closed due to bear activity, but Campsite 12 remained open and could be reserved through the permit system.

In reference to your concern with dogs, as you know, dogs are prohibited in the backcountry unless they qualify as service animals. When law enforcement rangers come upon parties in the backcountry with non-service dogs, enforcement actions result and are logged. A review of our dispatch records covering the time frame of interest to you did not reveal any reports of dogs (or other violations) in the Gregory Bald area or rangers contacting any violators in that section of the park. I am dismayed that all too frequently park users put themselves, their pets, and the wildlife of the park in jeopardy when they do not follow the park regulations.  


Cynthia MacLeod
Acting Superintendent
Great Smoky Mountains National Park 
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
865 - 436 - 1200 office
865 - 436 - 1206 fax


We had heard that Ms. Judd suffers from mental issues so her dog was likely permitted as a service animal.   It opens up a can of worms, for sure.  For example, since I see so many snakes, couldn't a mongoose be considered my anxiety reducing service animal?   I didn't see any snakes this trip, the bears overtook that one.  I am not belittling her condition, no one is more sensitive to mental issues than me.  However, were permits issued because she is a famous thespian?  What if we wished to have our dogs permitted as such.  It certainly is no surprise that such a thing could occur in our beloved Smokies.

And last, a recent trip to explore the blackberry farms private trail system within the Smokies resulted in this picture being forwarded to me by a Southern Forest Watch member.  This is at the intersection of Ace Gap and Beard Cane where the private trail system begins.  Does this look like an NPS sign?

I"m thrilled to experience nature and see all the bears, snakes, skunks, possums coons an coyotes.  As a matter of fact last night, a pack of coyotes howled for a few minutes at our group atop Newton Bald.  However, I have yet in all my time to experience a bobcat.  I've heard many of them late at night in varying backcountry spots.  It is for me, like an elusive snow leopard.  One day I will see one and then a great light will shine from Heaven and I can move on to Nirvana.   Except being in the backcountry is nirvana and the closest thing to Heaven and soon we will have this egregrious backcountry fee reversed by the legal genius of Myers Morton.  We are nearing another landmark in that he is soon to furnish our retort to the NPS.  I expect his usual high caliber of work that has gotten us through these many hoops with the bureaucrats that manage the NPS.

And last, Slapnuts is preparing to embark upon the Colorado Trail  We wish him the most delightful and safe of journeys on his 500 mile endeavor.  As a result, Mike and I vowed to make a concerted effort to reintroduce Sally Dumplin to the joys of backcountry camping through an introductory backpacking course.  You see, when you miss a calendar year of backpacking, that is a requirement, so we decided.  And since Dave hasn't made a trip to the backcountry in 2014, Mike agreed to conduct his refresher course.  I am looking forward to the return of Sally Dumplin to the backcountry.  However it will likely be when the temps drop a bit, If I know that dude.