We knew there were bears up ahead on the trail to Abrams Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A mother and three cubs, reported hikers we passed on their way back.
All week long, trails had been closing due to what rangers termed “aggressive bear activity.” News reports said the bears were plundering just-ripening berry patches and cherry trees. You didn't want to get in their way.
But there was no question of turning back. The teen boys leading our contingent -- my son and four nephews -- picked up the pace. This was the last day of a family trip marking my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Encountering bears on the trail would put an exclamation point on an already memorable vacation.
Up ahead we saw a handful of hikers stopped along a ravine. As we approached, the mother bear suddenly crossed the trail to feed on some berry bushes just below – leaving her cubs slightly hidden in foliage above us.
“Never get between a bear and her cubs.” How many times had we heard that in the decades our family's spent exploring the Smoky Mountains? Now here we were, in exactly that predicament.
“She seems pretty chill,” one of my nephews said.
This bear was clearly used to humans. It wasn't paying any attention to us, despite the fact that at least half a dozen smartphones were aimed in her direction.
Happily, no one was trying to photograph her cubs. Still, you never knew. I grabbed my youngest cub and edged forward, just in case we needed to make a run for it.
“Be careful,” my dad warned. “Wild animals are unpredictable. We'd better move on.”
Nobody argued, though we couldn't take our eyes off the bear until it was no longer in sight.
Abrams Falls was spectacular, the most powerful waterfall we'd seen on five hikes totaling 21 miles and thousands of feet of elevation climbed. It emptied into a quiet basin where sweaty hikers were wading and even swimming.
We watched them wistfully, knowing we were on a tight schedule. It was well over an hour's trek back – and that's if we hustled.
This was already the most memorable Fourth of July ever, starting shortly after midnight with a cheesy but festive parade in the tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tenn. Now we had our bear story to embellish on the way back, with a cookout and fireworks still on the agenda.
We'd done more hiking than ever before on this trip, tried whitewater rafting for the first time, and most importantly, savored the memories of my parents' half century together. Earlier in the week, over cake and champagne after a celebratory dinner, we'd strung up 50 special memories in our parents' condo, one for each year.
I hadn't been able to put down on a card in fancy script what I'd really been thinking: How amazing it was that with their polar-opposite personalities, getting married young with all kinds of obstacles to overcome, that my parents had managed to not only persevere but forge a bond built on the one quality they both shared: a fierce family loyalty that rivals anything you'd encounter in nature.
The bears were gone when we came back down the ravine. But we'll remember them – and this trip – forever.