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Exhausted and soaking with sweat, husband-and-wife backcountry guides Joel and Kathy Zachry had just crested a bald on the Appalachian Trail. The two were catching their breath when, just ahead,

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Exhausted and soaking with sweat, husband-and-wife backcountry guides Joel and Kathy Zachry had just crested a bald on the Appalachian Trail. The two were catching their breath when, just ahead,

Exhausted and soaking with sweat, husband-and-wife backcountry guides Joel and Kathy Zachry had just crested a bald on the Appalachian Trail. The two were catching their breath when, just ahead, a black bear stood up in a blueberry patch and looked right at them. The pair froze; the bear was only 30 yards away, much closer than the recommended 50-yard distance that they knew they should keep from wildlife.

Suddenly, the bear charged, and the Zachrys, who knew exactly what to do — stand your ground, make noise — did the opposite. They turned and ran down the trail in sheer panic. Loaded down with backpacking gear, they ran for what seemed like miles — in retrospect, they realized that it was probably only a short distance — before they looked back and saw that the bear had given up the chase and loped down the mountain toward Fontana Dam. They were lucky to have escaped harm. “That’s the very textbook description of what not to do when you encounter a bear,” Joel says.

Joel and Kathy Zachry have a respect for nature, and especially black bears, that they share with guests at Snowbird Mountain Lodge and The Swag. photograph by Nate Bowery

The Zachrys ought to know; they’ve since written the book on bears — literally. Joel penned Bears We’ve Met: Short Stories of Close Encounters, published in 2010, but he credits Kathy as his “best editor.” The book includes anecdotes of their experiences with bears in remote areas across North America. Several of the stories — like the bear in the berry patch, their first close encounter — took place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the one that they’ve visited most often. They also lead hikes and teach about nature through their outdoor travel company, Great Outdoors! Adventure Travel, or GOAT. Their GOAT engagements include leading day hikes and giving nature presentations on topics like black bears in the Smokies at both Snowbird Mountain Lodge in Robbinsville and The Swag resort near Waynesville, where they serve as experts in residence.

There are an estimated 1,900 black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park — up from historical estimates of 1,600. That’s about two bears per square mile. They are “opportunistic carnivores,” Joel says, meaning that their diet — composed of about 83 percent vegetation — consists of a variety of foods: grasses and leaves, nuts and berries, insects and small animals. In the fall, they eat as much as possible to put on weight before retiring to den sites for torpor, which Joel defines as an “easily aroused sleep.” Contrary to popular belief, bears don’t truly hibernate. While body processes slow down during torpor, the decrease is not as dramatic as that of hibernation. During torpor, they like to wedge themselves into the hollows of dead trees, high in the air. Black bears are excellent climbers and spend a lot of time in trees throughout the year, often retreating upward when they hear or smell hikers in the park.

• • •

Joel and Kathy each developed a love for the outdoors while growing up on farms in eastern Tennessee, just a few miles from each other. Joel’s childhood home was minutes from the Tennessee River, and he spent a lot of time there, fishing and camping. Kathy helped care for the animals on her farm — the Border collies that her dad raised and the sheep and geese that he used to train the dogs to herd. While their families knew each other, Joel and Kathy were too far apart in age — 12 years — to have grown up together.

Joel went on to study education at Tennessee Technological University, and later earned a master’s degree in biology from Middle Tennessee State University. Kathy got both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering from the University of Tennessee. Both got experience teaching while in graduate school. Joel then taught field biology courses at the community college level, leading backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. Kathy did her first backpacking trip — 120 miles — while taking Joel’s course over the summer. During the trip, they began to get to know one another. The two bonded over their shared affinity for the outdoors, and later started dating. Joel describes their relationship as “a love story founded in adventure.”

In the early 1980s, the two started teaching noncredit classes with the Smoky Mountain Field School, a collaborative effort between the University of Tennessee and the National Park Service that aims to teach students about the flora and fauna of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The couple later served as directors of the program and are now its longest-running instructors.

“[Bears] are not to be feared; they’re to be respected and given the space that they require.”

After they were married in 1987, the Zachrys took a trip to Alaska and started leading group trips there. They began learning about bears for safety reasons. “They’re amazing animals,” Joel says. “They’re not to be feared; they’re to be respected and given the space that they require. Otherwise, they’ll put you out of their space.”

Joel’s work in Alaska continued when he became involved with the Montana-based Great Bear Foundation in the mid-1990s. Through that organization, which seeks to educate people about the importance of bears and how to live cooperatively with them, he spent parts of two summers on Kodiak Island, south of Anchorage. There, he observed bears and helped develop ecotourism programs in a small village. Later, he served as the organization’s president and as a board member.

Joel held the same two roles for Appalachian Bear Rescue, which cares for orphaned and injured black bear cubs while keeping them insulated from human contact to prevent attachment and desensitization to people. When the bears are old enough and well enough, they are released into suitable habitats near where they were found, like Great Smoky Mountains National Park — where hikers like Joel and Kathy might be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of them.

“I go in search of them,” Joel says. He enjoys knowing that the bears are aware of our presence, and he feels that humans have the opportunity to coexist with them. “They’re the symbol of wilderness,” he says.

• • •

While the Zachrys were leading a weeklong backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail and camping near Spence Field in the late 1980s, a mother bear and two small cubs appeared and circled the three-sided camping shelter. As Joel, Kathy, and the other hikers watched, the mother reclined against a tree at the edge of the woods, and her cubs crawled onto her belly and started to nurse. “They purred just like kittens,” Kathy says. “It was the neatest thing to get to watch.”

“She tolerated us because we weren’t a threat to her,” Joel adds. “She was very much aware of us and would have reacted very violently had we crossed a line there. But we respected her space.”

While camping at the same shelter on a different trip in the late 1980s, Kathy was washing herself near a creek. As she bent over the water to rinse her long, dark hair, she looked through her legs and found herself face-to-face with a bear that had come for a drink. By this time, she was experienced enough to stay calm and stand her ground, and the bear left.

These experiences were a far cry from that first close — and terrifying — encounter. As Joel explains, as long as you give bears their space and remain calm, the animals would rather avoid conflict with people if they can. “We are of no interest to them as a food source,” he says. “They’d rather not deal with us.”

Smoky Mountain black bears are excellent climbers and head to the trees for food, to get away from hikers, and for their long winter naps. photograph by Nate Bowery

That’s part of why Joel wrote Bears We’ve Met. He wanted to share his and Kathy’s experiences in the places they love, but he also wanted to clear up misunderstandings about bears and share the couple’s blunders so that others could avoid the same mistakes. Even so, he emphasizes that bears are typically forgiving of mistakes — there have only been two deaths attributed to bears in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

To avoid danger, Joel says to keep your distance — at least 50 yards. Bears can travel 44 feet per second at full charge, so at that distance, a bear can reach you in about three seconds. If you want to avoid them altogether, hike in groups — the greater noise and scent will alert bears more quickly to your arrival, and they’ll usually leave before you ever see them. When she’s asked how many bears they saw on a particular hike, Kathy often responds, “Very few. But how many saw us?”

Still, in the many places they’ve been hiking — throughout North America, the entire 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail, along many of the 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Joel and Kathy have seen their fair share. And they’re not planning on stopping anytime soon. No matter how challenging a hike may be, no matter how hot or cold or rainy, not long after they come home, they start mapping out their next trip.

The Zachrys just can’t wait to hit another trail — and, with any luck, have another (not-so-close) encounter.

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This story was published on Sep 21, 2023

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.