Seeing Bear along the Appalachian Trail

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

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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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Butterflies, bear shit and the miracles of hiking the AT

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AT, north of Neals Gap, near Blood Mt, GA
AT, north of Neals Gap, near Blood Mt, GA

Why We Hike

Hiking the entire AT from end to end—known as thru hiking—is hard. The trail stretches from Georgia to Maine. You carry everything you own on your back, walking up and down mountains and sleeping in tents or three sided shelters. It’s almost 2,200 miles–6 million steps–of rain, mud, heat, wind and cold. The running water is a stream. You go days without washing your hair. You eat raman noodles every night for weeks. Normal people (i.e. non-hikers) can smell you from yards away. It is hardship and deprivation of such magnitude that only religious pilgrims attempt anything like it.

Doing your first Two-Oh—a 20 mile day—is a right of passage. The southern end of the trail–where most people start–is heavy with switchbacks and elevation changes, so hardly anyone starts out doing big miles. Maybe you start with just 8 miles a day, taking all day to get from one shelter to the next. I had exercised very hard for four months to get up to 6. You start where you are and walk, day after day. If all goes well, you hike farther and faster, increasing your mileage each week, continually beating your previous “best day” record. And then one day, you do it. And by the time you hit flatter terrain in Virginia, 20 mile days aren’t so hard.

Testosterone Poisoning

Most of the hikers are male and fall into one of these two categories: young men and men in a middle age crisis.

The “young” are 18-24 year old boys, hiking before college or between semesters. They’ve been skateboarding or playing soccer and have enough energy to power a small country. Their mornings involve Pop Tarts and bragging about the miles they will cover. “I’m gonna do a Two Oh today!”  And they do. For a young man in the prime of life and health, working up to twenty mile days might take only 3 weeks of hiking.

I am jealous of the young.

DSC_0330The second type of AT hiker is the 45-50 year old man, grasping at his youth. He was a hiker or a Boy Scout back in the day. Maybe he even hiked the AT once, half a lifetime ago. Lately his walking has been limited to moving between his parking spot, work cubicle and the couch, beer in one hand and remote in the other. He still wears the same size pants he did at 30, but the stomach paunch makes it difficult to buckle them. He can’t breath and bend over to lace his hiking boots at the same time. But it isn’t just age that’s forced Mister Middle Aged Crazy to the trail. Something has left him at loose ends. Usually, it’s a rocky divorce. He’s been caught with the babysitter, his secretary or perhaps the boss’ wife. He’s been downsized at work (perhaps because of the boss’ wife). His children have lives of their own now and prefer he would just send checks and leave them alone. In short, he’s lost his youth and his bearings.

It is a quirk of nature that Mr. Middle Age Crazy–let’s call him Mac for short–still has all the testosterone of an 18 year old, but without the resilience. Under the effects of Testosterone poisoning he takes to the trail to find himself. “I’m gonna hike 20 miles today!” Mac proclaims one morning. But he shouldn’t. And he can’t. You can will your body forward, but only for so long. Hiking on knees that are gone and hips that are out may be a matter of pride, but it is also stupid. You do not “beat” the mountain. The mountain will continue despite your best efforts. Mac will be forced off the trail with injuries, probably before he gets beyond the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

I, however, do not fit into either category. I am a timid, measured hiker, not prone to taking on more than I can or should do. I am sane. Well, I’m not insane. I wasn’t doing 20 miles. I would commit to 8 miles, maybe 10 if I felt good. No big proclamations, no pushing myself beyond reasonable limits.

It’s Contagious

DSC_0327I had taken three weeks off work to hike the AT, solo. The trip was every bit as exciting and interesting as I expected it to be. More so. But it was also hard. Very, VERY hard. Walking trails while carrying a weight on your back is an activity the body of an office worker simply rebels against. But that is the nature of hiking. And there are so many hills! In fact–and they never tell you this in the guide books–the entire trail is up hill. Both ways. Science will eventually prove me right.

Morning is the time where all things seem possible. The day spreads out before you, large and luminous. It feels as though you have enough time and energy for anything you set your mind to. The excitement finally got to me. I got cocky. I stood around the others drinking my morning coffee and blurted out, “I’m hiking 12 miles today!”  I tried to will the words back in my mouth. The rest of the group just nodded politely like someone just past eighty and senile had commented on the weather or some other obvious fact. And since the rest of the crowd was “the young” that is probably what they thought of me. Had I imbibed in their wafting testosterone during the night? (If so, testosterone smells a lot like unwashed underarms and dirty feet.) Maybe I shouldn’t have had that third cup of coffee. The proclamation didn’t sound like anything to them. But to me it sounded like a promise, and there are no words so inexorable as a promise made to one’s own pride.

So I took off, first one out of the shelter in the morning. I am not a fast hiker and by noon absolutely everyone had passed me. Even the boys that slept in and left at 11am,  made up for it by jogging by me, cooking pots rattling. No matter, I told myself. Just keep moving. Twelve miles is not so far. I could do it. Not that I had ever done it before, but I was sure it must be possible. I kept moving forward and hour by hour added to my miles. My pace declined, exponentially. Any slower and I’d be moving backward. By 3pm I was dragging at a mile an hour and had completed, optimistically, only 9 miles. I was faced with yet another hill. My feet hurt. My legs ached. There was a pain between my shoulder blades that felt like a knife. A dull knife.

It was at this moment that I lost my sense of humor. You can hike with pain. You can keep going when you are tired or hungry or thirsty. But humor, or at least a good attitude, is the most important thing you carry with you. The loss of it can ruin a hike faster than bad weather or injury. At the time, I did not think of it this way. I merely thought, “Whose stupid idea was it to hike this stupid trail anyway?”

DSC_0326The fact that it had been my idea only made me spout colorful, unlady-like language.

I needed rest. There was a large fallen log alongside the trail, rolled up against a standing tree. This may not sound comfortable, but this is the woods version of a Lazy-Boy chair, since you can sit on one and lean against the other. My vision narrowed to just this one spot and its promise of rest. I stumbled forward, too tired to even remove my heavy pack. I sunk onto the log, asleep before I had leaned back completely.

We Are Not Alone

The sleep was deep and satisfying and I’ve no idea how long I stayed like that. After some time had passed, however, a tiny portion of my brain told me that something was wrong. Something was on my left ankle.

I hesitate to say that I was “conscious” of danger. If I had been conscious, I would have been afraid. I didn’t have enough brain cells engaged for fear. At first I didn’t react at all. I just hoped that those three noisy brain cells would stop bothering me.

But the feeling that something was on my bare legs persisted. It kept moving, creeping up my calf, first on the left leg and now the right as well. I woke up just enough muscles in one arm to try to brush it away with a hand. But it was right back. In fact, it was moving about, crawling past my knees, up my thighs. Now something touched my bare hands, lying in my lap. Eventually those three brain cells were screaming loud enough to begin waking up others. Their argument went something like this:  “You are out in the wilderness totally by yourself. No one–and I mean no one–knows where you are. By adding to your miles today, you aren’t on the schedule you sent to your friends and family. That schedule said you were camping a mile back, remember?  Something is crawling on you. So it just might be a good idea to open your eyes, just for a moment, to see what is about to eat you.”  It was a hard line of reasoning to argue with.

So I opened my eyes. I was completely startled and immediately awake.

I was covered in butterflies.

The butterflies were very distinctive, small black wings with a bold white stripe. There were dozens of them and they were crawling on my legs, my arms and flying about my head like a halo. You hear about this sort of thing and you think what a wonderful thing it would feel like, but you never expect it to happen to you. Well, it IS a wonderful thing. It feels like a miracle, like you’ve been sprinkled with magic dust. It feels like a blessing directly from God. I am not a religious person but this had divine revelation written all over it. Angels had sent a sign directly to me telling me that I was where I needed to be and all was right with the world. I was rejuvenated and did not so much walk, as float, the remaining 3 miles.

This attitude continued for days. Every time it would start to slip, whenever I reached the “Whose stupid idea was it to hike this trail” point, I would begin to see these butterflies and be reminded of my blessing. It always renewed my spirit and I kept walking.

Or at least it worked until the last few days when I entered the Smoky Mountains.

DSC_0324The Smokys are known for black bear. Up until very recently, the shelters along the AT had a chain link fencing along their open side to keep the bears out. At night the campers locked themselves into it. And the trails there have a special “hazard” that you don’t find in guidebooks. You hear about what “a bear does in the woods.” What I had not suspected was WHERE the bear did this bit of business. As far as I can tell, when the bears of the Smoky Mountains heed the call of nature, they walk to the Appalachian Trail and “go” in the middle of the path. In the Smokys one dodges the piles, walking briskly if they happen to be fresh and steaming.

It happened that this section of the AT also had lots of those little black butterflies with white stripes on their wings flitting about. And you always saw them in the same place:  congregating on the bear shit. A check in a flora and fauna book confirmed it.

As hard as I tried to avoid it, the conclusion was obvious. These butterflies are attracted to smelly things that don’t move much.

Being covered in butterflies wasn’t a miracle. It was nature. Butterflies, for all our romantic notions, are insects, like house flies or ants at a picnic. Clearly, I had been so sweaty and ripe smelling and moving so slowly that I must have seemed to as appealing as a fresh bear pile.

If there is a divine presence, an all-knowing One-ness, He’s got a sense of humor.

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