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Staff photo / Erich Bell photographed in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, in 2017.

Erich Bell was a bear-sized man, who gave hugs that matched his stature.

"For anyone who knew Erich, I am sure that you would give anything for a big, burly, crushing bear hug from him," says Brandon Beavers, who met Erich while learning to rappel.

"That he was loved by so many was not a fluke, but a reflection of the teddy-bear [energy] he gave off to everyone," says William Shrewsbury, Erich's friend, former roommate and owner of On Rope 1.

Erich was an avid outdoorsman, a caver, paddler and wildlife rehabilitator — almost always accompanied by his adventure sidekick, Polly, a trained emotional support Chihuahua. He was also a combat veteran of both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, who spoke openly about his ongoing battle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In October, after decades of fighting that current of stress, Erich died by suicide. While his death leaves a void in the outdoor community, his spirit lives on in the wild, mysterious places he loved so much and in the memories of those who loved him.

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Contributed photo / Erich Bell, a volunteer with local wildlife rehabilitation organizations, gives a bottle to a young raccoon.

"My favorite memory of Erich was the morning of April 13, 2020. My home, which is where For Fox Sake [Wildlife Rescue] is built, was directly in the path of the tornado, and we had major damage, especially to the animals' pens. Everything at For Fox Sake was reduced to rubble. I was consoling my kids and trying to make sense of my soaking wet home the morning after the storm, and Erich suddenly showed up at my door and went straight to the back and started cleaning up rubble. He didn't even have to be asked."

Juniper Russo, executive director of For Fox Sake Wildlife Rescue, Chattanooga

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Photo contributed by Kelly Smallwood / Erich Bell prepares for a vertical caving trip in Tennessee. "It was a tight entrance, and you had to be on rope to get into it. As Erich squeezed through, his beard got caught in the rappel rack. It was an intense moment for him after that, he started putting [his beard] in a bun," says Kelly Smallwood.

"While working as the store manager at On Rope 1, Erich came in one day and asked if it was possible to make a harness for [his dog] Polly so that he could rappel with her at Bridge Day that year. Carolina, my wife, took up the challenge and made a harness so comfortable that Polly didn't like it when Erich would take it off. We also made her a coat to keep her warm, with lifting handles, so that he could carry her through deep water while caving. One funny picture showed Polly up ahead of him in a crawl, patiently waiting for him, as he squeezed his larger-than-life body through a particularly low crawl.

"When Erich moved to Knoxville to accept a new job, we sent him a case of Kraft Tangy Italian Spaghetti as a house-warming gift. He had a particular love of this all-in-one-box meal that he really enjoyed and would often cook while he lived with us. It was the first time I'd ever eaten it, and to this day, we still think of him when making it."

William Shrewsbury, owner of On Rope 1, Chattanooga

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Photo contributed by Kelly Smallwood / From left clockwise, Kelly Smallwood, Jennifer Denton, Lenore Cawthorne, Alicia Nelson and Erich Bell snap a selfie following Ladies Night Dinner, a regular event to which Erich was the only male invited.

"There are quite a few of us female cavers here in Tennessee, and we do some caving during the week after work. Erich used to be — a lot of times — the only male who would venture out with us after work. He was also the first male we allowed to come to our Ladies Night Dinners in Chattanooga."

Kelly Smallwood, Chattanooga

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Photo contributed by Brandon Beavers / Brandon Beavers (top) and Erich Bell "hang out" in Fackler, Alabama.

"Erich and I trained together in vertical caving. We have rappelled the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia together, climbed Whiteside Mountain together, 600 plus feet. Erich even had a custom harness made for Polly the adventure dog so that she could rappel with him. Erich loved loving more than most. Erich hated hate more than that."

Brandon Beavers, Chattanooga

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"I met Erich in 2010 at a big competition of all the Southeastern wildlife schools called Conclave. He was competing in archery. It was raining, and I held Polly in my raincoat so they could still see each other while he competed. Life is less bright without him here. "

Kristen Black, Louisville, Kentucky

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Photo contributed by Jules Miller / Erich Bell and Polly raft the Hiwassee River in 2012. "It was my first time rafting, and [Erich] was nice enough to take me," says Jules Miller.

"Erich was geocacher, and that's how I met him and Polly. I remember he brought some climbing equipment to a cache [in Austell, Georgia,] that was up a tree."

Jules Miller, Hiram, Georgia

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Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster / Erich Bell, with Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue, releases a female red-tailed hawk, which had been found two weeks prior on Highway 153 after being hit by a car.

"The first time I met Erich Bell, he knocked on my front door thinking he was at a songbird volunteer training. I opened the door, and there stood this bearded giant of a handsome man with this little dog, Polly. When I told him he was at the wrong location, he apologized but gave me his phone number to call if I needed help with anything. He always made himself available to rescue or release birds of prey for my raptor rehabilitation program."

Alix Parks, co-founder of Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue, Chattanooga

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Photo by Lindsey Leigh Graham / Erich Bell and his emotional support pet, Polly, "bellyak" on the upper Nolichucky River in 2014.

"We referred to ourselves as the 'squad.' Erich, Jennifer Denton and I were always together, caving and having fun. I had lost contact with Erich and Jennifer, and when I heard that he had passed, that rekindled mine and Jennifer's friendship. Erich would be so freaking happy if he knew that we had reconnected. He will forever be in our thoughts!"

Lenore Cawthorne, Chattanooga

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Don't Wait. Reach Out.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can also find a list of additional resources at speakingofsuicide.com.

 

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