Published: August 2006
Michael Melford

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

I was watching the Weather Channel while on another assignment when I saw that a snowstorm was going to hit the Smokies. Perfect! I was photographing the park over four seasons and needed a winter shot, which is tough to get because it usually doesn't snow much there. I immediately called my travel agent and caught the last flight out of Boston to head down to the Smokies.

I wanted to be there when the snow hit, so my plan was to drive into the mountains up to Newfound Gap that night and sleep in my car. I got to the park by about 10 p.m., but the rangers had already closed the road in anticipation of the storm. I went back the next day, and the road was still closed. I was kind of bummed until I convinced a guy driving down the mountain to turn around and take me up most of the way.

I took some pictures, but I wasn't completely satisfied with them. But that night it snowed again, and the next morning I was the first one up the mountain. It was just beautiful, and one of the photographs I took ended up making it into the magazine (see NGM August 2006, page 96).

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

To get into Cades Cove, you have to take a one-way looped road that can get horribly jammed with traffic. Park rangers open the road at sunrise, so I always tried to be first in line to avoid getting stuck behind other cars. If someone spotted a deer or a bear, they'd stop right in the road and cars could be backed up a mile (two kilometers). In those cases, it was always faster for me to pull over and start walking.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I met another photographer who happened to be a hunter as well in Cades Cove who told me that I was in luck because the park was having a bumper crop for acorns, and the bears love to eat acorns in the fall. All I had to do, he said, was look for oak groves. That was the best advice I'd ever gotten; I could walk 50 yards (45 meters) off the road into a grove and find bears. I actually found a mother and her cubs, and they let me hang out with them for a couple of days—but at a safe distance.