Black bears are often fun to watch.

Sadly, people without knowledge of bears tend to consider them big clowns and get too close. I once watched a man in Canada watch several bears playing in a city dump. A bear cub climbed up a dead tree and the less-than-intelligent man stepped out of his car and poked the baby with a stick. The cub made a frightened sound and mama ran out of the brush and mauled the man who barely escaped with his life.

Soon many of you will be traveling around the country, this winter will not last forever. We actually have bears in Missouri and Arkansas, so you won’t have to travel far to find this potential danger. The following is a destination for you to visit and a good example of what to do if you ever have a black bear encounter:

National Parks are beautiful destinations. Pristine hills covered with different types of trees and ground cover offer campers, hikers and drive-by nature lovers plenty to see. Lucky visitors are often rewarded with wildlife sightings well beyond the average squirrel or songbird. Some sightings of big game can be too exciting, especially bears.

Glenn Wheeler of Harrison, Arkansas, and his wife Stacey recently led a photo workshop group through the beautiful Cades Cove that is located about 27 miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and in the middle of The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The 1,500-acre section of park is noted for above average beauty and many wildlife sightings. The park claims two bears per square mile.

Wheeler, one of our nation’s leading wildlife and nature photographers, led his small group into the thick cover early that morning before the roads opened. Less traffic meant more photo opportunities.

“I hiked in a group from the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association about a mile into the rolling hills of Cades Cove,” Wheeler said. “There is an 11-mile loop of paved road that runs through the middle. Traffic is not allowed until 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer and into early fall. Our early photography venture paid off. We saw deer, turkey, a coyote and plenty of beautiful scenery. We were alone in the park making it easier to find wildlife.”

The group started walking back toward their vehicles when a mature black bear slowly walked down a hill in their direction. Everyone stopped except for a woman who continued walking toward the bear while looking and talking to someone who no doubt stood and watched in shock.

A couple in the group starting saying “bear, bear,” very softly to avoid alarming the animal. The chattering woman finally looked toward the bear and stopped dead in her tracks before moving back to the group. The bear held up its muzzle for a better smell before deciding to investigate. Bears in public areas learn early that humans can mean an easy meal.

Wheeler and Jeff Williams, editor of Arkansas Wildlife Magazine quickly set up their tripods and started photographing the bear. Wheeler soon gave up as the curious bruin moved too close for his Canon 400mm f 2.8 lens. He turned to watch the group shoot pictures, then looked back to find that the bear had moved closer than expected. The professional wildlife photographer decided to stay and protect his $5,000 lens from the oncoming bear.

“The bear came down on the roadway everyone had reached by then and started towards us,” Stacey said. “Everybody moved down the road and I stepped behind Glenn. My heart really started racing as the bear moved closer. Finally it reached the tripod.”

Wheeler’s vast outdoor experience told him to raise his hand above his head and look huge to the oncoming bear. He said “Hey now, hey now,” with hopes of spooking the curious animal back into the woods.

To everyone’s amazement, the black bear walked up and touched its muzzle on the tripod’s front leg, then turned and walked back to the woods before suddenly turning back toward the group with a different attitude.

“The bear moved to higher ground, turned back towards us and bared its teeth before making mock charges,” Wheeler said. “He kind of bounced up and down on his back feet and took a couple of aggressive steps towards us. I continued to raise my arms to encourage the animal to retreat. We had about a 30-second stare-down before it turned away. The bear stood his ground, ran up the hill and mock charged some more while still chomping its teeth.”

The group was hypnotized briefly by the attacking bear. No one knew what to do and Stacey suddenly felt concern for her husband’s life. To everyone’s relief the bear finally turned back toward the woods and disappeared into the undergrowth. Everyone moved forward to get more photos of the bear, but by then it was gone.

“I never really felt threatened by the bear,” Wheeler said. “He seemed more curious than anything. That is until it turned back and started doing mock charges. The snarling and those chomping jaws full of teeth looked vicious and definitely caused good reason for concern. I would have liked more and better pictures.”

Wheeler and a friend returned two days later and had another bear encounter, not as close but within 12 yards. They watched the bear chase deer around a field about 100 yards away. Wheeler didn’t think the bear wanted to catch a deer, just seemed to be playing like a house cat chasing a ball.

The bear turned into a creek and disappeared in the undergrowth for and stepped out seconds later, about 30 yards away. Suddenly the big animal started moving toward both men. The curious bear walked a few steps closer, stopped for a long look, then stepped back into the woods. Wheeler took a deep sigh of relief.

ABOUT CADES COVE: “Cades Cove is one of the most beautiful and wildlife accessible areas in the country,” Wheeler said. “I have photographed in almost every state and few places compare with it. You can see a lot of wildlife including a rare red wolf.”

Some sections of the park are handicap accessible, including the 11-mile paved road. Willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards is prohibited. Cades Cove is a wooded valley on the west end of the 521,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The 11-mile Cades Cove loop is used by cars, bicycles and pedestrians. The loop is a restful way to see lush fields, old homesteads and wildlife. Bikes rides are popular. Full moon rides have become extremely popular in the park.

Camping or rental cabins are readily available. The Cades Cove Nature Trail is a short walk from the loop. For more information about Cades Cove, check their website at http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/cadescove.htm.

For more information about Glenn Wheeler’s photography, check his website at glennwheeler.com.

– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.