Bears are one of the top concerns of people considering a thru hike. On my 1,400 mile trek of the AT in 2015, I saw over twenty of them. Most times when you see a bear on trail, you’re lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of its backside as it scampers up and over the closest ridge. They are indeed out there, but with proper precaution and mindfulness, most ‘dangerous’ encounters can be avoided. In fact, most black bears act like giant raccoons. Sometimes, however, your neighbors on trail might not have the mindfulness or consideration to follow backcountry ethics practices, and bears can become a real problem.
It had been a long, hot, incredibly rocky day that included a visit to an amazing flea market in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, ripe with the best trail magic we had seen since Duncannon. Walking into the early evening, my hiking partner, Storybook and I decided to camp just before the spring at Wolf Rocks, near mile 1,283. Arriving at our humble little home for the evening, we crammed our tents into a tiny clearing across from a group of three overnighters whose tents, hammocks and tarps had taken up the entire six tent campsite. Daylight was fading quickly and I offered to get our water for the night and following morning, as she had already started building a fire. Shortly after we arrived, one of the overnighters belted out “Oh the spring is just an easy .4 up trail. Look up for the sign- you can’t miss it”. After walking for nearly 20 minutes, at my usual pace of around 3mph, I was concerned that I had missed the spring. Daylight was fading fast and I was sans headlamp after trusting the advice of my new neighbor, breaking one of the cardinal rules of long distance backpacking – NEVER trust an overnighter or daywalker for mileage estimations. I finally reached the spring, walking back in darkness over the sea of triangulated rocks that PA is so famous for, making it back to camp 45 minutes after my departure. After enjoying a nice dinner of curry and tuna and a fireside chat, we retreated to our tents for the evening.
The morning got off to a late start, and after packing up, Storybook and I began to boil water for our coffee and oatmeal and prepare our food bags for the day. I had just dropped my strawberry oatmeal packets into the boiling water as our neighbors started yelling across trail. Shortly after, Magellan we’ll call him, ran across to our campsite, panicked and out of breath. “There’s a…there’s a….a BEAR!” he exclaimed in a manner that suggested that the creature may also have been a ghost. “My wife and I went to get water, and well…I…..I left my trail mix out, and when we got back a big BEAR was eating it!”. I won’t share the thoughts that went through my mind at that moment for the sake of keeping this story friendly and PG rated. Moments later, we saw our neighbors, half-packed with gear in their arms running south down trail. At this point I stood up to examine the scene, fresh strawberry oatmeal in hand. As I took my first bite it appeared, lumbering slowly down the narrow corridor into our tiny campsite. I can say with full certainty that this was close to a 900lb bear- it was roughly the size of an overstuffed love seat. Days earlier we stopped in Hamburg, PA for a resupply and made our way to the Cabela’s headquarters, where the state record bear of 800lbs is on display in an exhibit. The bear that stood before us had at least 100lbs on it’s “little” stuffed cousin.
Stopping a mere dozen feet from me, both our food bags strewn about on the Tyvek I was guarding, the behemoth fixed its gaze upon the delicious titanium vessel clutched firmly in my left hand, sniffing the air. I reacted in the only way I knew how. See, in Southern Appalachia, there’s a mountain dialect that exists that’s incredibly effective in shooing away animals, mostly dogs, per my experience. “Git onnnn outta heeeeaahhh!!!” I yelled at the bear. The bear cocked its head and looked me in the eyes, as if to say “You know I’m a 900lb killing machine, right?”. “Gooonneee nooowww- GIT!” I yelled. To my surprise (and relief) the bear dropped its head, as if in shame of defeat, turned in place and started walking south down trail. Walking a mere 30 feet, our potential ursine assassin attempted to flank us, “sneaking” up on us through very light brush cover. At this point I began to address it as a person, like if you were calling out one of your friends. “C’mon dude- we see you! You’re not very good at this bear thing, are you?” I said loudly but calmly. The bear dropped its head, again as if it were somehow embarrassed in getting caught, realizing that the food in our camp was not going to be an easy score. We started to pack up, ensuring to remain calm and unhurried. The bear hung around in close proximity for nearly ten minutes, its focus now intent on the usual bear business of tearing up downed logs and overturning massive boulders in search of actual bear food. After what felt like eons, we were packed up and back on the trail, covering ground as quickly as our Chacos would take us, floating over the boulder strewn landscape I had traversed much more carefully in darkness the night before.
This situation obviously could have ended VERY differently. Being mindful in bear country can be of critical importance, but after you make it out of Georgia, many hikers start to get lazy about hanging their food and opinions start to vary. I chose to hang my food every night while on trail, if only for the sole purpose of ensuring that it was there the next morning, but also out of consideration for my neighbors and for the bears themselves. Heck, a guy I was hiking with (and camping far away from) for a couple months who just completed his thru hike used his food bag as his pillow for most of the trail without an issue with bears or other animals. On the other extreme, we met a ridge runner in the Smokies who told us a story of a hiker who had a bear run off with his full pack he had left on trail while taking a dig. All his gear was shredded, the contents of his pack strewn over a quarter mile across the ravine floor. The bear we met that day may very well have become a ‘problem’ bear from the carelessness of our neighbors. I suppose if any lesson exists within this experience, it would be this: if you choose to be lazy or inconsiderate (it is indeed a choice) be mindful of the effect that your choices may have on those around you. Oh, and stay away from the daywalkers.