One of my first wildlife sightings occurred on an autumn afternoon on a hike to visit my grandmother’s birthplace, a cabin on the mountainside near Pigeon Gap, off U.S. 276. A beautiful red fox materialized on top of a large rock ahead of me. With a backdrop of fall colors and highlighted by the afternoon sun, it posed there while I struggled to silently place a new roll of film in my camera. By the time the camera back was closed, the fox was gone, a scene left only to memory.
An outing in the Cataloochee area led me around a bend near a small stream just in time to see a long, dark animal scurrying down the trail. It was the first time I had seen a mink. Since then I have observed other mink, as they are fairly common. I sometimes spot them along a stream while trout fishing or kayaking. One day on Jonathan Creek, I watched a brood of five young ones tagging after momma mink as she taught them to hunt along the riverbank.
Working at Mount Mitchell in the late 1970s, I would often venture out at night, going about my duties, or stargazing. There was a generous population of striped skunks that hung out near the campground and restaurant, scavenging for food scraps. They weren’t trigger-happy for humans, and would not spray unless provoked. My biggest dread, however, was that I would step directly on one during an evening jaunt and end up having to bury my clothes. Fortunately that never happened, but one night I was lucky enough to witness a litter of baby skunks squeaking along behind their mother, learning to live the life of a skunk.
There are grown men that will not venture into the woods during warm weather for fear of snakes. I don’t worry much about them, but it only makes sense to watch for them. I have only met up with two timber rattlers on the trail. Both of them were in the Cataloochee area within a mile of each other, though nearly 25 years apart. I’ve come upon more harmless garter snakes on hikes than any other species. Near water, it has been northern water snakes, which are often mistaken for copperheads. Snakes of any kind should never be killed, as they serve their own purpose in the ecosystem.
Signs of deer activity are perhaps the most abundant and easy to spot of any wildlife indicators. White-tails are always a delight to watch, no matter how many you may have seen. Deer often sound a snorting alarm if they get your scent, or if startled, they usually bound off waving their white-tail flags and silently disappear like ghosts into the forest. One of nature’s unforgettable sights is a newborn fawn curled up in a bed of ferns.
Black bears are usually first in mind when it comes to meeting wildlife on a hike. Recently there have been a couple of fatal bear attacks in Tennessee. This is unusual, but explained by increasing populations of both people and bears. Bears met while hiking deep in the woods are much less likely to show aggression than those that frequent campgrounds and trashcans. Most conflicts with bears can be avoided or defused by common sense and clean camping habits.
The closest I ever came to a run-in with a bear was in the Mills River area of Pisgah National Forest. Very early one morning I was bushwhacking up an old trail, creeping through a tunnel of overhanging rhododendrons. I heard a scratching sound, but thought it was branches against my pack. When I came into the open, there was stuff floating down in front of my flashlight beam.
I followed the debris upward to find three bear cubs clinging to a tree crotch twenty feet above me. The scratching I heard was the cubs climbing the tree to safety, obeying their mom. I knew that Momma Bear would be nearby and sure enough, a short distance away on the hillside, there she was, looking right at me. My flashlight blinded her, or I could have been in trouble. I stood quietly watching as she turned and headed slowly uphill out of sight. After another good look at the cubs, I left the scene.
Hiking near Mt. Pisgah, my uncle and I once watched a healthy bear enjoying fresh blueberries. It stood up on its hind legs, grabbed the bushes, then pulled them down to munch the berries. We watched for several minutes and discovered the bear was wearing a radio collar. Even so, this was a truly wild animal, for when it detected a slight movement from us, it ran full speed down the side of the mountain. There’s an old belief that a bear will ball up and roll down a slope to make a fast getaway. As quickly as that bear disappeared, I can understand how that old tale came about.
Insects are the wildlife contacted most often while hiking, and the most likely to do harm. Even if they aren’t seeking a meal of mammalian blood, these tiny chemical factories can inflict serious wounds in their own defense. On one excursion, I found some low bushes loaded with huckleberries. Stripping handfuls right off the branches, I shoveled them directly into mouthfuls of juicy sweetness...until I loaded an unseen insect into my mouth with a scoop of berries. At first there was a noxious taste, then a burning sensation on my lower lip. It may well have been a bombardier beetle, capable of mixing a couple of chemicals together in its body to make a mini-Molotov cocktail. My lower lip took a week to heal.
I am no expert birder, but I watch for them constantly. Hiking in the Shining Rock Wilderness one March day in the mid-1970s, I lay down in the trailside grasses for a break. Something caused me to sit up again. In the distance, I saw a large, dark bird gliding over Graveyard Fields. Through my binoculars, its massive beak and dark underbody identified it as a golden eagle. I watched the magnificent bird fly over Black Balsam and soar westward out of sight without a single wing beat. That is the only golden I have seen in these mountains, though bald eagles are frequent on area lakes.
A wildlife encounter that remains vivid in my memory happened in early fall in 1980. It was part of my job with the state park to patrol the park boundary during hunting season. I had hiked from the very top of Mt. Mitchell to Camp Alice, and decided to return via the old fields below the restaurant. As I approached a blackberry thicket, a large animal started up from inside it. “Deer,” I thought. I could hear heavy footfalls, but saw nothing as the creature ran, hidden by vegetation until it rounded a spruce tree and headed downhill through an open draw. It was barely taller than the grasses and white snakeroot flowers, but I could see the top of a rounded head with rounded ears and a long sloping back covered with tawny, reddish hair. It was no deer; there was no white flag and September deer are grayish in color. It didn’t act like a deer. It was running hard and fast, pulling itself forward with the front part of its body, then pushing off powerfully with the rear. As it disappeared in the deeper forest below me, I realized I had just seen a mountain lion. My adrenaline still flows a little when I remember it.
Keep your eyes peeled and ears perked up. Travel quietly and watch for movement or unusual sounds. Don’t forget to look up. If you happen upon one of our full-time forest residents, let them carry on their business as usual. Do not approach them, or try to feed them or pet them. Running away from a predatory animal might cause it to chase you. Read up on the best ways to find and view wildlife without confrontation, and learn ways to deal with aggressive animals. If you are quick and lucky, you may be able to get a good photo, but don’t expect the animal to pose for its portrait. A meeting with wildlife is always exciting; using common sense will make it treasured memory.