As we checked in and got directions to our mountain cabin, we were told we might encounter bears on the property.
Don't feed them, we were warned.
OK, we said. Got it.
Not long after completing a 600-mile, nine-hour road trip from Chicago, we followed a winding road to an area just west of downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn., the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The cabin was perched next to a steep, heavily forested slope that that had been spared by the devastating 2016 fires. While my wife and I lugged our bags into our rustic vacation home, our three young kids excitedly explored the bedrooms, pool table and hot tub.
About 15 minutes later, we decided to go out for some pizza. Stepping onto the front deck, we spotted a flash of black on the far side of our minivan: a black bear and her two cubs. We froze.
The mama bear rose on her rear feet and slipped a claw under the car door handle. The automatic door slid open. She leaned into the back seat and started rooting around.
My shock subsided long enough for reality to sink in: There was a bear in our minivan. A bear. In our minivan!
She scooped out a box of granola bars and a bag of cheese sticks that we'd inadvertently left in the back seat. She and her cubs started to chow down on the driveway.
Smarter than the average bear, indeed.
I'd heard somewhere that one way to scare off a bear is to make a racket. So, adrenaline pumping, I clapped my hands. The mama bear gave me a look like, "Really? Is that all you got?"
I set off the remote panic button on my car keys, and the horn started honking. This spooked the cubs, which scurried up some nearby trees – to the delight of my kids, now watching the spectacle from a window inside the cabin.
I remotely closed the van door and locked it. Soon, the bear family lost interest and ambled away.
A few minutes later, we nervously examined the car. There was mud smudged on the door handle and on our back seat. But, fortunately, the bear did no lasting damage.
Down the road at the convenience store, we told our story to the guy behind the counter.
"Yep," he chuckled. "They do that."
Apparently, you have to keep your car doors locked around these parts. The things they don't teach you in Chicago.
In fact, this behavior has been documented in bear country before. A seven-year study published in 2009 in the Journal of Mammalogy analyzed 412 black bear break-ins of cars at Yosemite National Park in California. The researchers there found that the bears preferred to get into minivans over other types of vehicles, with SUVs coming in second.
The likely reasons? Minivans carrying young children were most likely to emit the odor of food from spilled drinks and loose french fries stuck behind booster seats. Also, minivan owners were more apt to leave food stashes in cars.
This sounds like a pretty accurate description of our Kia Sedona.
The study also reported that researchers had observed "car doors bent open, windows on all sides of the vehicle broken, and seats ripped out, all of which appeared effortless for bears."
Black bears, of course, are icons of the Smoky Mountains. Their fuzzy faces are ubiquitous on billboards in Gatlinburg. Every store carries bear-themed souvenirs, from cute plush cubs to almost life-size bruins carved out of logs with chainsaws.
Before our road trip to Tennessee, we told our kids there was a chance we'd see a bear. But we tempered it. I've been to enough national parks over the years to know that spotting charismatic megafauna like bears and elk is hit-or-miss.
The day after the close encounter at our cabin, we were driving around the verdant valley of Cades Cove, one of the most scenic areas of the park, when we came across a logjam of cars. In national parks, that usually means someone's spotted wildlife. We got out and scanned an open field. Out there, someone noted, a few football fields away, was a mama bear and some cubs. With binoculars, we could spot the top of her head poking above the high grass.
We got back into our minivan. The one the bear had been in.
According to the National Park Service, there are about 1,500 black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Smaller than the more imposing grizzlies out West, black bears can be up to 6 feet in length and 3 feet high at the shoulder when standing on four feet. A typical male weighs about 250 pounds in the summer. Adult females are smaller, weighing slightly more than 100 pounds – about the size of a Saint Bernard.
Black bears can run at speeds up to 30 miles an hour and are capable of climbing trees. Attacks on humans are rare, but they have occurred, so park officials recommend that visitors stay about 50 yards away from a bear, if possible. And they sternly warn against feeding bears. Bears that become accustomed to getting food from humans lose their natural fear, rendering them even more dangerous. Unwittingly, our granola bars and cheese sticks were part of the problem.
For the rest of our stay, we kept the car doors locked and checked for bears each time we headed outside the cabin. We enjoyed the hot tub on the deck but opted against using the outside grill for fear of attracting the apex predators.
We did have a few more bear sightings in our Gatlinburg neighborhood, including a mama and two cubs down the road feasting on findings in a bear-proof trash container that hadn't been properly secured.
Another time, we observed a bear with a cub just outside the cabin, approaching our minivan. The bear rose up on her hind legs, tried the door handle and found it locked. They quickly moved along.
The last day of our trip, we opened a journal left in the cabin with notes written by previous guests. There was an entry from someone who'd been there a month earlier: "Bear got in our car! Keep doors locked! Enjoy stay."
The word "in" was underlined twice.
(John Biemer is a freelance writer.)