Seeing Bear along the Appalachian Trail


There’s an old saying. When the gods want to punish you, they give you what you ask for.


I have camped in the Midwest and the east coast, so I’ve always been aware of black bears. I’ve read the books and I heed the warnings. I never have food in my tent. I pay attention when I’m hiking, looking ahead for danger. I even carry pepper spray in my pocket in case I come across a bear. Except that I never do. Years went by without ever seeing one outside of a zoo. At first I was afraid of the idea of coming across a bear. I was grateful when I got home from a backpacking trip without a sighting. But eventually, I got curious. I wanted to see a bear. From a distance.

So I was hopeful when I started the 70 mile section of the Appalachian Trail that goes through the Smoky Mountains. It’s the home of Smokey The Bear (is his middle name “The”?), so I was bound to see one! I kept a camera ready, just in case.

But it was my last night in the Smoky’s and I still had not seen a bear—lots of bear “scat,” even a steaming, fresh pile of droppings, but no bear. Although I had enough daylight to hike farther, I decided to stop hiking early and stay in the last shelter, just inside the park boundary to give myself one more chance.

DSC_0335That night, I shared the shelter with a middle aged couple from Wisconsin. The husband was the first to appear. Glenn was thrilled to find a woman in the shelter. He told me his wife was close behind, and that she not enjoying her very first backpacking trip. He was sure that she would be comforted by finding another woman on the trail. After 20 minutes she had still not shown up and I suggested that we go look for her. After a mile of backtracking, we found her. To say Melinda was “disenchanted” with hiking was an understatement of magnificent proportions. As a runner, she was in much better shape than her husband, but her muscles were primed for speed, not weight bearing. I hoisted her pack and quickly saw the difficulty. The pack was about forty five pounds. She was a small woman, weighing in at less than 100. It doesn’t take advanced mathematics to compute that this woman was carrying almost half her body weight. Her husband, carrying the same 45 pounds, was packing less than a quarter of his. Once we arrived at the shelter, we redistributed the weight, over the objections of her husband. After she had rested and rehydrated, she was in a much better mood. I tried to tell her about the preventative uses of anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen, but she would have none of it. “Pain medication is poison! I don’t put that stuff in my body.”

DSC_0325We each fixed our modest suppers and cleaned up. I pointed out the bear pole to hang food items and the latrine. We talked for awhile, but once dark comes, there is simply not much to do. Each of us crawled into our sleeping bags. The shelter was larger than most, with two sleeping decks. The couple took the upper deck, accessed by a short ladder. I took the lower deck to allow them privacy.

For the uninitiated, a “shelter” is a three sided, wooden structure with a slant roof. The fourth side is completely open to the elements. They are what is euphemistically called “rustic”. There is no electricity, no heating, no plumbing. If there is running water, it will be a nearly stream. There will probably be a section with a raised wooden floor for sleeping. The rest of the floor will be dirt. Few have even a fire ring since parks no longer encourage open fires. This one had none.

I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard a blood curdling shriek above me. Melinda was screaming that something was crawling on her. I’d slept in several shelters, so I calmly asked if she had any food with her.

“Yes. A power bar. I have a fast metabolism. I get hungry at night.”

“So do the mice.”

You could feel the pregnant pause. “Mice? Mice! Oh my God MICE!” I explained that she shouldn’t have food in the shelter. It attracted critters, like mice, or bear, or raccoon. “You need to hang all your food from the bear pole.”  The couple got out of their sleeping bag, crawled down the ladder in the dark, took their flashlight and stumbled to the pole. I was nodding off again when I heard them once again climbing the ladder to the upper level.

A very short time later, the scream started up again. “But I got rid of all my food!”  A few questions led me to toilet paper. She had a roll with her, “In case I need to get up in the middle of the night.” Toilet paper, I explained, was perfect bedding for a mouse nest. I told her to stuff a few sheets into a pocket and put the roll in the bag with the food. Once again they got out of the sleeping bags, down the ladder, stumbled in the dark for the bear pole, hang the offending item, then stumbled back in the dark, climbed the ladder and crawled into the sleeping bags.

The third interruption of the night turned out to be gum which she didn’t think counted as food, The mice thought differently. Back down the ladder again. The forth scream was toothpaste. Each time, out of the sleeping bag, down the ladder, a stumble with the flashlight to the bear pole and back again. After the fifth, I explained the concept of staying away from the walls of the shelter, since that is where the mice stayed.

012I honestly can’t tell you what the rest of the screams were for. I am a good sleeper. I put in my earplugs and pulled my fleece cap over my ears. I have the power to sleep through just about anything, particularly if I’ve programmed my mind that the normal sounds of alarm don’t mean anything. I’m sure that by that point she smelled of things that the mice wanted. They wouldn’t leave her alone now. I was vaguely aware that there were more trips down and up the ladder. I got enough of sleep. They may have gotten 20 minutes.

The next morning dawned. I heard the now very familiar sound of her movement. The only difference was how very slowly she climbed down the ladder, as if she had become an old woman overnight. I pretended sleep and watched her through narrow eye slits. She was definitely in pain. I saw her wince just from blinking. She straightened herself as best she could and directed a cold hard stare to her husband, who I can only imagine was cowering in fear above me.

She spoke in clear, clipped, authoritative tones. “Make coffee. Find ibuprofen. Then pack up and take me back to the car. Never, ever go camping again. Do. You. Understand?” He did. “I’m going to the latrine.”

As soon as she was out of sight, I got up quickly and began packing. I had witnessed enough “domestic bliss” and just wanted out. I was already deciding to hike a couple miles before stopping to make coffee.

But the next thing I knew, she was running back into the shelter screaming, “BEAR!”

You have to be lucky to see a bear. Is this enough?
You have to be lucky to see a bear. Is this enough?

I dove for my backpack, but she misunderstood what I was searching for.

“Do you have a gun?” she asked expectantly.

“Are you kidding? They’re illegal!” Always the practical packer, I added, “And do you know how heavy those things are?”

“But there’s a bear outside!”

“I know.”  I kept rooting through my pack. “I’m getting my camera.”

She was near hysterical. “A camera! But it’s a bear. What are we gonna do?”

“Well, the first thing you’re gonna do is pull up your pants.”

I hated to state the obvious, but her pants were around her ankles and her butt visible beneath a flannel shirt.

Later she explained what had happened. She went to the latrine, a composting toilet. These are rather open air affairs, affording the bare minimum of privacy. If someone is seated, using the facilities, you can see their head through the open windows. She had entered, dropped her pants and sat down to the business at hand. There being no reading material, she started looking about. First she turned her head to the left. Trees. Bushes. Leaves. Then she looked to the right, and came face to face with a bear. The bear, I surmise, was standing on its hind legs looking in. She swore it was so close that she could feel its breath. She ran, not bothering to pull her pants up. I have never seen anyone shuffle so fast.

DSC_0336I suggested that the latrine was a very convenient location for such a close encounter. “If I came face to face with a bear, I’d have  to change my underwear.” She was not amused. If I hadn’t ducked she would have hit me.

We did, in fact, go see the bear. The three of us huddled together and walked out of the shelter. The bear was young, maybe a year old, and he seemed well fed. He wasn’t interested in us or our food. He walked around a bit, completely ignoring us and then lumbered off into the woods.

I did have time to take one photo, which reminds me of all the photos you’ve seen of Bigfoot. There were trees and bushes, and this black, fuzzy blob between them. It’s a bear. Trust me.


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I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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