What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
I caught a bear barehanded—or almost—my first week in the Smoky Mountains. I'd accompanied Bill Stiver, one of the national park's wildlife biologists, to the summit of Mount LeConte in pursuit of a problem bear who'd been hanging around the campsites.
I watched as Stiver set a leg trap for the bear, baiting it with a can of sardines. Then we turned in for the night. Sometime before dawn, the bear found the sardines. We heard him before we saw him: the quick grunts of his breath, his thrashing leaps amid the brush, and the snap of his jaws. He was firmly caught, a loop of wire cable snug around his right front paw.
"You stay in front and keep him distracted," Bill said to me. "I'll go get him from the back." Oh, nice, I thought. Let him eat the writer. I stepped clumsily forward through the chest-high growth of snakeroot and coneflowers, waving my notebook in front of me. "Hey, bear," I called. "Yo! Bear!" Our eyes met—the bear's and mine—and for a moment, I forgot the trap and wondered whether my day might be about to end before it had begun. But then Bill was behind him with the jab pole, and as the ketamine-xylaxine cocktail kicked in, the bear staggered woozily, fell on his side, and laid his big head down, eyes open and chest heaving.
Bill waited just a minute or so before stepping in to loosen the cable, motioning me to grab the outstretched hind paws while he gently lifted the head and shoulders. We laid the bear on a stretcher and carried him out of the brush, to the cheers of waiting tourists.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
One Saturday night in the Smokies, I went looking for a bar just outside the park limits where locals said I could buy real moonshine whiskey if I knew how to ask. I'd been instructed to ask the waitress for "panther pee" (that's a slight paraphrase). I followed her directions to the end of a long country road and ended up at a bar that looked as if it was made from two doublewide trailers bolted together. Seated at a booth, I smiled at the waitress and said cheerfully, "So, I've been told I should try your panther pee."
Maybe it was my Yankee accent, but she just looked at me steadily and said, "We don't serve that anymore." I felt like every eye in the place was staring at me. Sheepishly, I ordered a domestic beer, drank it down, and left in a hurry.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
A few years ago, a herd of elk imported from Manitoba was turned loose in Cataloochee Valley at the eastern end of the Smokies, where their forefathers (or rather, I suppose, distant cousins) had been hunted to oblivion by 18th-century pioneers. Now they've become a big attraction for the locals as well as for tourists.
One Sunday afternoon I found the valley full of people who'd arrived toting coolers of beer and folding chairs—as though headed to a baseball game—to sit and watch the animals emerge from the shelter of the woods and graze in the meadow at their customary feeding time. On one stretch of the road through the valley, a traffic jam of cars and pickup trucks formed as people crowded to watch a big buck browsing on saplings along the shoulder. I don't know which was a better show: the animals or the people.