TOWNSEND, Tenn. — Bill Lea long ago absorbed Cades Cove and the Great Smoky Mountains so deep into his soul that even when he would go home to Franklin, North Carolina a part of him always remained behind.
“It’s where my heart is,” he said.
Soon he will have his heart and his home in the same place as he moves to Townsend to continue capturing the natural wonders of the mountains with his trusty Nikon.
There is a magical element to Lea’s images, whether it be a misty mountain sunrise or a snowscape or — his favorite photographic quarry — black bears being themselves.
If his pictures are small slices of reality, then he has a quick hand and a sharp cutting tool. The results of his patience and skill he publishes or co-publishes in books and calendars that allow visitors to the mountains to take a little piece home with them. He also conducts photo workshops to offer guidance to others in his craft.
Lea said that though he has “always loved the Tennessee side of the Smokies,” he has “no roots here except Cades Cove.”
Lea, retired from the U.S. Forest Service, also has developed a passion for the black bears that roam the mountains and has co-founded a nonprofit organization to support the creatures.
“There are so many myths about bears,” he said. “They are really intelligent, and they live lives based on food and fear.”
His theory is that a bear’s “whole life is based on escaping danger.” They are taught by their mothers, he said, to “be afraid of everything” and that escape, not confrontation, is their primary natural instinct.
Then one day their mother chases them “away from the only solid foundation” they have ever had. Her.
But the escape mechanism is working by then.
Lea said that humans often misunderstand when a bear is trying only to communicate. People mistake the behavior as aggressiveness.
He said that when visitors encounter a bear and encircle a mother and cubs to take pictures, they leave her no escape route. When she charges, most often it’s a bluff intended to tell the people to back off and let them be.
A bluff charge, Lea said, is one way they communicate.
He can quote statistics that indicate a person is 67 times more likely to be killed by a dog than a bear; 180 times more likely to die from a bee or hornet sting; 90,000 times more likely to be killed by another human and 160,000 times more likely to die in an automobile accident.
Truth is, Lea said, “Bears can live with people. People are less able to live with bears.”
One of Lea’s latest publications is a book of photographs he did in the Everglades. It is in the same size and format as the Cades Cove book he published several years ago.
In the Everglades book are fascinating images of gators, crocodiles, birds, panthers, plants and swampscapes that he admits take patience to capture.
He said he lay on the ground one day for nine hours trying to get just the right shot of a crocodile — and did not get it. He went back the next day to the same spot and lay there for two more hours before he got the shot.
Lea said he always shoots without a flash preferring to let nature provide the illumination. That requires him to be something of a meteorologist so that he knows when to expect optimal shooting conditions.
He loves early mornings, dusky evenings, rain and overcast skies.
Lea says he has been asked if he is not afraid being in the wilderness alone with bears close by. He says no.
“You know what scares me? Downtown Atlanta.
“And I would be much more scared shooting a wedding. I’m much more afraid of a bride than a bear.”