A Family Experience: Meeting up with Smokey the Bear
~ James Moore
There are many camping and hiking sites in the Great Outdoors. The wilderness beckons to one and all when the summer springs into action. Families finally get that vacation; they get to step away from the job and head out to enjoy the sunshine.
There is a place – a true camping adventure for adults and children – that should be considered when planning that vacation. A huge part of New Mexico’s history, this is one place that plays home to the most recognizable bear in the world.
It was in 1950 (May 4th, to be exact) when a forest fire erupted in New Mexico and became the focus of a nation. The focus of U.S. citizens was not generated because of the size or strength of the fire, nor was it about the monumental damages. The reason this forest fire became big news was because of an extremely adorable five-pound black bear cub named, Smokey.
Human error (a cook stove overheated and began casting sparks), created the mess. With the help of winds that were building to 70 mph, New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains fell under the threat of total destruction. Called the Los Tablos fire, it burned 1000 acres before fire crews brought it under control on May 6th. Unfortunately, a second fire then began believed to also have been caused by humans. This fire was almost impossible to get to; the mile of horrendous road was nearly impassable, and the blaze went down in history as the Capitan Gap fire.
May 8th brought more terrible winds during the battle and nineteen firefighters had to escape a rock slide while the fire burned over them. Just one day later, the realm of preventing forest fires grew into a serious national cause.
It was the discovery of Smokey, who was badly singed, that began to bring understanding across the nation that wildfires needed to be taken extremely seriously. People needed to be cautious and live by certain rules so that no campfires could cause harm to the surroundings.
Taking the family to the Capitan Mountains in New Mexico is a truly beautiful choice for a vacation. Camping, hunting, parks, and history that spans from little Smokey all the way to the best and worst days that Billy the Kid ever saw – this area has it all.
When it came to Smokey, a picture was taken as he was found clinging to a charred tree before a group of soldiers from Ft. Bliss, Texas, who had come to help fight the fire, took him down and saved the poor cub. Everything about Smokey became monumental – it was almost as if the entire nation came together around this one small animal.
At the time, New Mexico game warden Ray Bell, who had been flying over the fire, had heard of the burned cub and knew
medical attention was needed. The best vet was in Santa Fe; so Ray took his little, badly harmed passenger and flew him to the one place where he could perhaps survive with the right care.
Suffice to say, the pictures, the tragedy and the hope of Smokey literally captured the heart of every American. And learning all there is to know about him is a true adventure.
With fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, and a variety of other things to choose from in the Capitan area, it is also an extremely unforgettable day when you visit Smokey the Bear National Park. Finished in 1979, the Park was established to honor everyone’s favorite cub. Even though Smokey lived his 26 years in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. so that all his fans could see him, when Smokey passed away he went back home to Capitan. Here, is where everyone can find his story and have some honey at the hero’s grave.
Not only is this a ‘Graceland’ of sorts for the Smokey fan, but the Smokey Bear National Park also provides a ton of information on forest health, forest fires, wildland/urban interface issues, fire ecology, and more. From the history to the video presentations to an outdoor exhibit featuring six of the vegetative life zones found in New Mexico, this is truly a park that the whole family will have fun at – while learning more than a little something about being safe.
And just think…you can drive out of the beautiful Capitan Mountains carrying your very own little stuffed Smokey!