It’s not a moment Eric Zumbrun will soon forget.
Zumbrun, a 59-year-old Holston Gases employee from Falling Water, had just crested a hill on a thrill-ride at a Gatlinburg theme park last month, when he spotted three black bears — an adult female and two cubs — about to cross the track ahead of him.
Zumbrun was on the slower, uphill leg of the Rail Runner ride — part of Anakeesta, a 72-acre adventure park in the Smoky Mountains resort town — when the bears appeared on Aug. 22.
In a video made by a bystander, which has since gone viral with millions of views on the popular TikTok social media app, the bears can be seen crossing the track on an apparent collision course with the Rail Runner car.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Can I stop this thing?'” Zumbrun said. Since the car was being pulled uphill and was out of his control, the answer to that question was “No.”
“The next thing [I thought] was, ‘Can I get out of this thing?” Zumbrun said.
A quick glance down at the multiple straps holding him in the car convinced Zumbrun that Harry Houdini himself probably couldn’t have extricated himself fast enough to make any difference.
In the meantime, onlookers had begun to take videos of the encounter and sensed there was peril at hand.
“I would be freaking out,” observed one witness, whose voice can be heard on the TikTok video.
The website Bearwise.com was assembled with help from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and tells what to do if you encounter a black bear.
If you encounter a black bear in the woods:
* If you see a bear before it notices you: stand still, don’t approach and enjoy the moment. Then move away quietly in the opposite direction.
* If you encounter a bear that’s aware of you: don’t run; running may trigger a chase response. Back away slowly in the opposite direction and wait for the bear to leave.
If the bear approaches, follows or charges you:
* Stand your ground.
* Back away only when the bear stops its approach.
* Make yourself look bigger by raising your arms and jacket, and/or standing on a rock or stump.
* Yell “Hey bear” loudly.
* Get your bear spray out of the holster and into your hand. Remove the safety latch.
Carl Scarbrough, a friend of Zumbrun’s, had been ahead of him on the Rail Runner ride and was standing at an overlook nearby when the bear encounter unfolded. He said the ride had been briefly paused minutes earlier when staff saw bears in the vicinity.
“I saw the mother bear and the two cubs coming out,” Scarbrough said. “… I thought to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s coming down the track. I saw the whole thing happen.
“I had been strapped in one of those cars five minutes earlier. I thought, ‘I would be getting out of there.'”
For his part, Zumbrun, a former Eagle Scout, said he tried shouting at the bears, then quickly second-guessed himself. What if the bears were startled by the shouts and froze on the tracks, he thought? That’s the last thing he wanted to happen, Zumbrun said.
Too, had his car clipped one of the cubs, Zumbrun knew the adult bear’s response might have been swift, and well, energetic.
Thankfully, just as the situation looked bleak, the bears all scampered across the track and were out of danger by the time Zumbrun’s car crossed their path a few seconds later.
An official at the Anakeesta moutaintop park said the bears in the video are frequent visitors to the park. She said Anakeesta is only a stone’s throw away from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“It is not uncommon to see a family of bears in our park, or in Gatlinburg, the gateway city to the national park,” said Michele Canney, vice president of sales and marketing at Anakeesta, which opened in 2017.
Canney said the park’s staff has been trained extensively by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to deal with bear-human encounters, and, in this instance, a manager on patrol [off camera] was actually nearby on an all-terrain vehicle monitoring the bears as they crossed the tracks.
“This particular bear mom, Ana and her cubs, are frequent visitors, so the staff are familiar with their habits,” Canney said.
A TWRA spokesperson in East Tennessee, Mime Barnes, said there are no state laws requiring wildlife barriers at Gatlinburg attractions because the national park’s boundaries are so vast. There are sometimes local ordinances against feeding bears, she said.
For his part, Zumbrun — who was on a weekend getaway with his wife, Tammy, and their friends Carl and Krystal Scarbrough — at least has a good story to tell from the trip.
“It happened so fast, I’m just glad they got out of the way,” he said.
Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected]