Of the many reasons people visit the Appalachian Trail, getting the chance to see wildlife is a popular one. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park hosts over 10 million visitors a year, all hoping to catch a glance of deer, elk, black bears, turkeys, and all kinds of other fauna. While I have seen a few animals on my hike – salamanders, small snakes, a variety of birds and rodents – the wildlife viewing had been rather disappointing my first month on the trail. Just last week, my hiking companions and I were bemoaning the fact that we had not seen a bear yet. After all the hype surrounding bears and the Smoky Mountains, we had not seen or heard any sign of them whatsoever. But we were soon to find out that one should be careful what they wish for: you just might get it!
Several days ago, we were planning out our last few days of hiking in Tennessee before reaching the town of Damascus, Virginia. We had originally planned to camp one night at a shelter at Watauga Lake – a large reservoir and popular local recreational area. However, we later heard that the shelter was closed due to bear activity. News spreads fast on the trail, and we soon learned that a bear had come into the camp, went into a person’s tent (luckily they weren’t inside at the time) and made off with a food bag that had been secured on a bear pole. The U.S. Forest Service had closed off a 4-mile stretch of the trail to overnight camping due to this crafty creature, thus we had to extend our hike that day to get out of the area. We opted to camp just at the northern boundary of the closed section, as we had gone nearly 20 miles that day with some long climbs and warm temperatures. That was our first mistake.
After dinner came the nightly task of finding a suitable tree branch to hang our food bags from. One of my fellow hikers offered to let me hang my bag with his, which was nice in that it saved me the hassle of throwing a rope over a high branch (which usually takes me several awkward attempts) and getting everything secured properly. However, once our bags were hanging, I noticed that they were awfully close to the trunk of the tree. “Don’t you think a bear could climb the trunk and easily reach our bags?” I asked, feeling nervous. Given the fact that we had on several occasions hung our bags somewhat haphazardly over the past 5 weeks with no incident, he shrugged it off and said it would probably be fine. Given that we were all exhausted, the prospect of taking down the bags and rehanging them was not appealing. Despite my nagging gut feeling, I told myself it would be fine, and went on with the rest of my evening, eventually falling into a deep sleep.
Around midnight, I was stirred from my slumber by one of my friends saying to another, “Yeah, he’s right over there by the tree. His eyes are reflecting right back at me.” Immediately I was wide awake, knowing he was speaking of a bear. “Is there really a bear out there?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “Yeah, and he’s going after your food bags.” Oh no, I thought to myself, and a sinking feeling set in. I very gingerly zipped open my tent flap in order to peak my head out without alerting the bear. The night was dark, but the moonlight was bright enough to outline a dark silhouette sitting at the base of the tree where our food bags hung helplessly. The bear then became spooked by our ongoing hushed conversation, and scurried up the hillside behind the tree. We all peered into the darkness for five minutes, knowing he was still lurking close by. But after hearing or seeing nothing, we all reluctantly attempted to fall back asleep.
Not fifteen minutes passed by, and I heard the sounds of leaves rustling and twigs snapping, and knew that our friend was back. I unzipped my tent again and peered out in time to see the dark shadowy creature climbing with amazing speed up the tree. And then, to my horror, I could see his dark head reach over and grab my white bag! All of us began to shout and make noise, and successfully scared the bear off. All four of us got out of our tents together, with our walking poles in hand for defense, and assessed the damage. My friend’s food bag had been completely torn open and we found much of his food partially eaten and scattered along the ground. My bag, which is made of a sturdy, bulletproof fabric to resist damage by bears and small critters, had small punctures and bear slobber from where the bear tried to grab it, but was overall intact. I was so glad I made the investment to buy the “bear-proof” bag! Another hiker who had camped with us that day was missing his bag entirely. The bear had chewed through his line and made off with his bag, which not only contained his food, but also his dog’s food. We rehung my bag more appropriately and tried to get some sleep, as it was nearly 2am at this point. We continued to hear the bear (or multiple bears) for the next hour or so, but eventually we got some sleep.
The next morning, I nearly started singing my own AT version of the Star Spangled Banner – our food bags were still there! The rest of us who still had our food supplies all chipped in and donated food to the two hikers who lost theirs – another great example of the camaraderie that is characteristic of the AT hiker community. Luckily, we were only a couple of days away from the next town, where we could replenish our food stores. More importantly, we were lucky that only a couple of food bags fell as casualties to this bear that had grown all too accustomed to people as a food source. We all learned a valuable lesson that night. We had grown far too complacent and did not take bear safety as seriously as we should have. Now, we all hang our bags with great care and much further from our tent sites.
That is the tale of my first bear encounter on the trail. While I still hope to see bears again on the trail – from a safe distance – I never again care to see them after dark and around my tent or food bag! And now, my friends, I say goodbye to the state of Tennessee, and make my way through Virginia for the next 500 miles or so.
Until our paths cross again,