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Trailhead at Dawn
He stepped out of his Toyota Four Runner into the sound of nature. Just a few years ago, Charles “Chuck” Simpson spent his senior year in high school dreaming about the freedom of college and the adventures that lay ahead in his life. Now with his senior year at the University of Tennessee winding down, fall break signaled the start of his solo trip in the Smoky Mountains. Although the trip allowed him to build up his portfolio of photographs for his senior project, life was about to throw him a curve making an everlasting impact the rest of his life.
With months of planning and preparation behind him, checklists of supplies and careful checks of total weights of his pack should have given him more confidence than he felt at this moment. What have I forgotten? What could go wrong? Why didn’t I bring along a friend? As he softly asked himself these and more questions, only the trees and animals heard his unmistakably soft whisper.
The early morning hour allowed the droplets of dew to still lay thick on the beautiful grass. The small holes places sparingly within the multi-colored tree canopy enabled the bright sun to shine through. Shafts of brilliant light highlighted select branches, leaves, and groundcover. The main trail appeared well worn and completely covered with dead leaves from several seasons. The crunching of the freshly fallen leaves marked Charles’ every step. Autumn arrived in the mountains, and the trees framing the trailhead gave off a glowing, radiant light. Soaking in every bit of the moment, Charles removed his camera from the waterproof case and carefully snapped some pictures. He did not take these pictures for his school project, but rather to help him remember this trip. Little did he know that in less than seventy-two hours, he would encounter events that he would always remember without reference to any camera other than that in his own head.
“Four hours of hiking and nearly eight miles in,” he uttered to a passing squirrel.
He stopped at a stream moving rapidly due to the rains of the previous week. Removing his pack, he drank from his canteen and snacked on some trail mix. He carefully moved out onto some rocks in the stream, which permitted him to take some remarkable photos of the mountain range that rose on the other side of the stream. This reason inspired him to come on this trip. Not only to complete his assignment, but also to renew his love of hiking. His grandfather introduced him to nature at a very young age.
“The trees have been here long before us and will be here long after we are gone,” he used to tell Charles.
With many of his grandfather’s messages roaming in his mind, he closed his eyes and rested on the bank of the stream. The fresh, damp aroma of the plants seemed so strong he could almost taste it. As he sat in silence, a variety of noises came from the forest. Small creatures crunched the leaves while the wind caused branches to rub against each other. The refreshing sound of the water and the breeze rustling through the trees formed the perfect background music for a nap.
He first awoke thinking he just experienced a crazy dream. Upon hearing the second scream and the booming roar, he knew immediately that no dream occurred and he hastily jumped to his feet. Quickly lacing his boots and grabbing his pack, he began running up the trail toward the sounds he heard. After traveling about a third of a mile, he rounded a bend in the trail and saw the campsite. The site before him astonished him. The smaller of the two women shouted out to him, “Please help us!” The two women stood together squeezed between a large bolder and the base of a gigantic oak tree. They both held sticks in their hand. The small amount of cover and their weapons clearly posed no match for what stood between him and the women. A large black bear began hurdling in the direction of the women. Based on the conditions of the camp, it seemed fairly obvious that the bear was in search for food. The small tent lay in tatters and the packs fiercely torn about with the contents strewn across the campsite.
Numerous black bears live in this section of the mountains, but rarely do humans encounter them. Why this was taking place was still a mystery, but the potential outcome appeared much less mysterious. What the heck am I going to do? I am not in any place to handle this. What if the bear kills me too? But there isn’t enough time to call for help…I’ll have to do the best I can. Charles knew that if he did not take action, the lives of the women were in great danger. People who knew Charles would not have considered him to be brave, even in the slightest. He had never started a fight and never had to defend himself from attack. However, without hesitation, he crafted his plan of attack.
“Hey bear, over here!” he shouted as he began waving his arms and banging his pack on a nearby tree. The teachings of his grandfather flooded into his head quickly.
“Remember that the bears are as frightened of you as you are of them. You must make yourself look as big as possible and make as much noise as you can. If the bear does not stop his charge, you must roll up into a ball, protect your head, and play dead,” he pictured his grandfather telling him.
The bear stopped his movement toward the women and with a low growl, shifted his enormous head toward him.
He calmly said to the women, “Stay quiet and still. Whatever you do, don’t move.”
As he took a glance at the smaller woman, he noticed blood dripping down her arm. This likely happened due to her attempts to fend off the bear as it entered their tent. He quickly took his camera from the pack and turned on the flash. As the bear began moving in his direction, he began firing the flash. The flash was a state of the art high-powered strobe light. He originally purchased the camera in order to allow him to take photographs in the darkest of conditions. But now, he hoped for a different outcome.
He continued firing the flash while he yelled, “Go away, get outta here!”
His plan seemed to be enjoying partial success. The bear had slowed down but was still coming at him. Looking to his left, he spotted a rock slightly larger than a baseball. He grabbed the rock and hurled it at the bear, striking the bear squarely in the head. Next he grabbed a sturdy club-like branch and raised it in the air. He could not imagine the branch would do much good against the imposing bear, but it was his last weapon. He swung the branch and, at the top of his lungs, released a long, loud scream.
“Ahhhhhrr!” he screeched.
Amazingly, the bear stopped in its tracks and made a swift retreat into the woods. His heart was pounding and he was sweating profusely. He found his knees weak as he tried to jog over to the women.
“You alright?” he asked them.
The women, in tears, slowly rose from their protected position.
“My friend is bleeding badly,” responded one of the women very nervously. “Please help us,” she continued.
He ran back for his pack, looking quickly into the woods for any sign of the bear. His careful planning was now going to pay off, as he removed his small medical kit from his pack.
“Stay still,” he instructed to the injured woman as he began carefully examining the wound. “This might sting a bit, but I need to clean out the infection.”
He bandaged the wound while listening to the frightening story the women told him about how they sat in their tent as the bear began the assault.
“It all happened so suddenly,” said one. “We are so lucky you came along when you did,” said the injured hiker.
“We owe you our lives,” her friend added. “My name is Anna and this is Alaina.”
“My name’s Charles…you can call me Chuck,” he replied kindly. “Just glad I made it here on time. Bear attacks don’t happen too often ‘round here ya know. What are ya’ll doin’ in these mountains anyway?”
“We’re here for a camping trip,” Anna informed him. Some of our friends are heading up here tomorrow. We’re seniors at Auburn this year. How bout you?”
“Really?” Charles replied. “I’ll be graduating from UT this spring as well. I’m here workin’ on my portfolio for my senior project. I’m gonna be a photographer after college.”
The three new friends exchanged got to know each other for a little while long and then exchanged information in order to keep in touch. They organized as much of the camp as possible before they made their way about two miles down the trail to a forest ranger camp. At the camp, the ranger called in the bear attack and a small group of rangers went in search of the bear.
Upon hearing how Charles stopped the bear attack, the ranger stated, “that was quick thinking on your part. The flash frightened and confused the bear and likely saved all of your lives.”
The ranger mentioning his camera jogged his memory. Was I taking pictures while I was firing the flash? Charles asked himself this question and tried his best to remember. He quickly grabbed his camera and hit the menu button to review his most recent pictures. Sure enough, the camera had been set on “multi-shot” so each flash captured brilliant images of the immense bear as it approached him. These shots, coupled with the images he would take on the remainder of his trip, would not only earn him an “A” on his final project, but would also provide him with a lifetime of memories.
“Thank you so much for saving our lives. We could never repay you for this,” the women said as they hugged him before they departed in the park ranger truck.