Category Archives: Appalachian Trail

What about bears?

A variation of this article first appeared on TheTrek.co

Hiking through Glacier National Park, my wife Michelle and I had already seen multiple bears that day. Michelle had a more than healthy respect for the animals. I, on the other hand, was complaining that I still had not gotten a really good picture of one. Just then, she whispered, “Bear!” and quickly started moving away from the cute ball of fur (black bear) that had run right past us. My mind registered only, “Hey, a cub!” as I pulled out the camera.

Seconds later, from a distance I heard a shout of, “Keep walking!”

I then realized my folly and started laughing at my own stupidity. From an even greater distance I then heard, “You’re not taking this very seriously!”

I thought to myself, “No, I guess I’m not,” then finally began to leave the area.

As with most bear encounters, we lived to tell the tale, but were we really in any danger? Should backpackers and thru-hikers be worried about bears while on the trail? I resolved to find out.

Black Bear or Grizzly?

For starters, there are two very different species of bears living in the Continental United States. Much less prevalent and with a smaller range is the grizzly bear (U. a. horribilis). Grizzlies are found in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone area and north) as well as the Bitteroot Mountains. Most U.S. bears are black bears (Ursus americanus). Any bear you see on the AT will be a black bear. While in theory, Grizzlies could be at the very northern edge of the PCT, there has only been one verified sighting in the northern Cascades this century. So, it’s a safe bet that if you see a bear on the PCT, it will also be a black bear. That being the case, let’s concentrate on black bears.

Not all black bears are black

Black bears are spread throughout the U. S. with populations in 41 of the 50 states. The total population is estimated to be around 750,000 in North America. An adult typically weighs between 125 and 500 pounds, though there’s a captive male living at the North American Bear Center that tips the scales at close to 1,000 pounds.

If you’re hiking the AT or the PCT, chances are you will see a black bear at some point. There are an estimated 30,000 bears living in California and an estimated 1,500 just in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When on these trails, you are in the bear’s home. Some of my most exciting moments on the trail involved bear sightings but, is it dangerous to share the woods with them?

Dangerous?

Statistically and relatively speaking, the answer is a resounding no. From 2000 to 2019 there have been 9 deaths by black bear attacks in the lower 48. Of those, 3 involved either feeding a bear or joining one in a cage. Counting those in the wild, it works out to roughly one death every three years.  By contrast, just last year there were 20 people killed by lightning (a low year) in the U.S.

In an average year, over 3,000 people drown.

Over 36,000 die annually in motor vehicle accidents

In 2017, 89 people were killed in the U.S. by bees, wasps and hornets.

Typically, between 30 and 50 people are killed each year by dogs. (Also known as “man’s best friend.)

Heck, according to the Washington Post, in a six year period through 2017, over 250 people had died while taking selfies. (if someone died while taking a selfie with a bear, I’m not sure which list they ended up on.)

To get some specifics, I spoke with Lynn Rogers, the Founder and Board Chair of the North American Bear Center. He has been studying and working with bears since 1967. It may come as a bit of a surprise to those that have grown up reading about bear attacks in outdoor magazines, but black bears are actually a rather docile species under most circumstances. In fact, Rogers stated that black bears are reluctant to even defend their cubs from people. “The greatest misconception about black bears is that they are likely to attack people in defense of cubs.  They are highly unlikely to do this. In fact, there’s never been a documented case of anyone being killed by a black bear defending her cubs”

Momma with cub waaay up a tree.

Grizzly bears react completely different to threats to their cubs and are the cause of this, and other misconceptions. The fact is that few people differentiate between the two species, but lumping them together results in unwarranted confusion and fear.

A black bear’s typical reaction to meeting a hiker on the trail is to turn and run. Even those that act more aggressively with vocalizing or slamming their paw to the ground are doing so out of nervousness. Slowly backing away will give the bear the space it wants.

So, if you see a black bear on the trail, what should you do? Per Rogers, “Basically, enjoy it.  We like to make ourselves inconspicuous to watch them longer before they discover us and run….We have seen a lot of advice to avoid eye contact and avoid running away, but we have been unable to find any instance where doing these things has precipitated an attack.  Fearful people usually tell us ‘I ran one way and the bear ran the other.’”

All that being said, there is still the rare black bear that is aggressive and will attack a human. Rogers estimates that these bears are literally one in a million. In addition, bears that are exposed to people (like those that live near trails) are even less likely to be aggressive than those that live where they rarely see a person. Despite the “one in a million” odds, attacks happen.

Dealing with that “rare” bear

If a black bear appears aggressive, the National Park Service recommends the following:

If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, Change your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. Act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Talk loudly or shout at it. Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear. Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.

If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked, Separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.

If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey, Fight back aggressively with any available object! Do not play dead!

Rogers recommends carrying pepper spray, (The small containers designed for dog protection are plenty strong.) He has tested the spray extensively on black bears. If a bear does act aggressive around you or your food, pepper spray solves the problem quickly and safely. When hit with the spray, the bear “doesn’t go away mad, it just goes away.”

Studies have shown pepper spray has a higher success rate at stopping aggressive bears than even a gun. In addition, no one needs to make an accurate shot under duress. Just keep spraying. If you accidentally hit your fellow hiker, no permanent damage. Plus, the bear is not killed, but has learned a valuable lesson to fear humans. One note of caution, pepper spray is a chemical irritant to be used on the bear. It is not a repellent to be sprayed on yourself or your gear. Apparently bears like the smell and have been known to come into camp to roll on tents that have been sprayed.

Despite the extremely low odds of attack, it is still very important to continue to protect your food from black bears, whether through use of a bear canister, a bear locker or cables where available, or bear bagging everything that smells like it could be food. Doing so protects the bear as well as yourself. Bears are smart, resourceful animals that learn from experience. If a bear successfully gets food from a person once, it will try it again, quickly raising the odds of a conflict between the bear and people that it now sees as a food source. Bears that have been rewarded for interacting with people quickly become “problem” bears. Relocation of problem bears is expensive and has a low success rate. Quite often, the decision is made to eradicate the problem bear. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear.

NPS photo   Creating problem bears in the “old days.”

Some additional rumors to put to rest:

There is no evidence that menstruating draws any additional interest from bears.

Black bears are not always black. They can be brown, cinnamon, and rarely, even white.

There have been no studies to show that, if attacked by a bear, crapping oneself will deter the bear.

Bears will go anywhere they can find food. Don’t help them become problem bears.

Black Bears are neither the roving monsters they are often portrayed to be, nor are they cute teddy bears to attempt to feed or take a selfie with. They are wild animals trying to survive and mostly avoid humans. If we treat them as they are, both us and them can safely coexist.

Featured image courtesy of the North American Bear Center.

Goodbye to the AT

Day 7. After a good night’s sleep I ate breakfast with a couple guys in their 50’s that were test hiking to decide if they could handle the AT. They had hiked most of the LT before and said I’d love the northern section other than a few specific climbs. We talked a bit about gear and they were entranced by my $8 canister stove w igniter. After eating I packed up quickly and was walking by 7 am. Looking at the map the morning looked to be a rough one. The trail climbs 2,400 feet in just over 4 miles to top out at the Killington. The grade up the mountain turned out to be very smooth dirt. Easy on feet. Good as they are sore. The area was also toad central and they were acting as if they owned the trail. None hopped out of my way. At most they might walk a few steps to the side.

Killer view from Killington
Killer view from Killington

The climb up Killington was tough but doable as the trail wound up the mountain. Just a couple short scrambles over boulders. After passing the trail to Shrewsberry Peak, the trail got nice n smooth, even somewhat flat the rest of the way to the peak. After a few photos at the top, it was time to start dropping in elevation again.

If any purists are still reading this, prepare to be upset. I was soon once again following blue blazes, but this time on purpose. The Shelburne Pass trail was the historic LT and AT up until 1999 and is a more direct path to the Inn on the Long Trail than the new route. To follow the “new upstart” official LT to the Inn (and my next re supply box) I’d have had to walk farther and add a mile of road walking. My thought at the time was, “That ain’t happening.” Since I’m an old guy, it seems fair to walk the old route. HYOH.

Inn on the Long Trail. A welcome sight and great spot to relax
Inn on the Long Trail. A welcome sight and great spot to relax

I arrived at the Inn at about 12:30 for a ten mile day. My resupply box was actually there! Happy day! No more microwave Mac n cheese cooked without a microwave. The Inn is a neat, rustic old place and I got a room for the night. Had plenty of time to clean up, do laundry and arrange my new supplies. An Irish pub on site had Guinness stew, giant burgers and cold beer. Made for a productive afternoon.

After the burger settled, time to try the stew. More than a little better than freeze-dried.
After the burger settled, time to try the stew. More than a little better than freeze-dried.

My schedule had me taking the next day off. The weather said go, but my feet said stay. The decision was put off until the morning.  Dropped off a couple extra items into the hiker box. Noticed some big bags of oatmeal and instant potatoes. They looked like the food Dave and Paul were trying to palm off on me way back on my 2nd night on the trail. They also got a resupply at the Inn and must have decided to lighten the food load right away.

Breakfast was included with the room and I got an omelet, sausage, hash browns, toast and OJ. Should hold me for a couple hours. The weather called for a beautiful day followed by days of rain. It would be tough to leave a nice Inn and walk out into miserable weather. The decision was made. Skip the zero day and head out while the getting was good. I hit the trail about 8 am.

From the Inn, the most direct route is to continue on the Sherburne Pass trail for just a short distance until hitting the AT. Then follow the AT SOUTH for about a mile to where the AT and LT split. At that point, it’s northbound on the Long Trail again, but the path is no longer shared with the AT. Early on the LT only trail has a nice dirt tread. Less wear and tear exposing the rocks and roots? Definitely less hikers on the trail through the day.

The trail had no big climbs or drops on that section, but it was a tough day. May have been because I was scheduled for a zero day. Weather was too good to skip, sunny and cool however, body may have been planning on the zero. Also, trail was a tunnel of green with no big views.

Not quite as comfortable as the Inn, but a welcome sight regardless.
Not quite as comfortable as the Inn, but a welcome sight regardless.

Arrived at Sunrise Shelter at about 6:30, completing a 19+ mile day. The shelter was empty when I arrived. Steam from England, Ben from Belgium and couple from California rolled in a little later. Steam had walked 19 like I did, the others 14, but all agreed it was a tough day.

Appalachian Trail or Colorado Trail?

If you’ve ever backpacked at all, you’ve probably thought about hiking the most famous long distance hiking trail in the world, the Appalachian Trail, or AT. Of course, that thought might have been, “no way in hell,” but you thought about it nonetheless.  I’ve thought about it as well. I’ve even gone so far as to do a little research on what hiking the AT would entail. Beyond a little Internet study I’ve read a couple books about hiking the trail. As of right now, my Kindle contains 24 books written by successful AT thru-hikers.

Luckily for you, there is no need to read that many books. While the writing styles and abilities vary considerably, the information in the book is surprisingly consistent. Nearly every book makes the same main points. Here’s my take on every book ever written about the AT.

  1. The author was woefully unprepared for the rigors encountered.
  2. The hiking was much more difficult than imagined.
  3. The shelters were often crowded, dirty and full of mice.
  4. Privies along the way can be nasty.
  5. It rained…. A lot. Plan on being wet for days at a time.

    View on the AT
    View on the AT
  6. At times, the mosquitoes or other bugs were unrelenting.
  7. There’s a significant chance you’ll get Lyme disease and/or West Nile disease.
  8. There are some amazing views, but much of the time you’re hiking in a “green tunnel.”
  9. Six months of hiking can get surprisingly difficult on a psychological basis; also difficult on any relationships back home.
  10. There will be tough times when it takes tremendous willpower to keep from quitting.
  11. It was a wonderful experience.

And these are people that finished. Not many books have been written by those that quit the trail. You have to wonder if their viewpoint would tilt more towards negativity.

As an alternative to what was starting to appear to me to be a 2,000 mile plus slog, I started looking at the Colorado Trail; 500 miles through mountains from Denver to Durango. For me, at least while I’m sitting in my warm, dry house, the Colorado Trail (CT) offers the challenges and benefits of a long distance hike while avoiding some of the hardships of the AT.

  1. Only about 150 people attempt the CT each year (compared to 3,000 on the AT), so crowds on the trail or at prime camp areas should be non-existent. (Downside – Don’t get hurt; you may be on your own. Fix that snapped femur with duct tape and a stick. You did bring duct tape, didn’t you?)
  2. There are no shelters to be disappointed in. (Downside – There’s no shelters to use for things like…..shelter. When it rains, you’re getting wet.
  3. There are no privies to be disappointed in. (Bonus – your leg muscles will get stronger from squatting.)
  4. Much less rain and bugs. (Hard to find a downside there, other than it may snow instead.)
  5. The highest point on the AT is Clingman’s Dome at 6,625 feet. The average elevation of the CT is over 10,000 feet. You’ll spend significant time above tree line with amazing views nearly every day. (Downside – There’s a lot less oxygen up there. At its high point, 13,271 feet, there’s  40% less air than at sea level. Also, when it does rain/snow that high, there’s typically lightning and you’re the tallest thing around.)

    Common view in Colorado
    Common view in Colorado
  6. The plan is to be done in 5 weeks. A long hike to be sure, but short enough to see light at the end of the tunnel during a bad day. (Assuming the bad day isn’t Day 2.) Of course, that’s still plenty of time to see how I look with a neck beard. Plus, at my age, that may even be enough time to grow a nice crop of ear hair. We’ll have to wait and see on that one, but I’ll let you know if I’m successful.

And, it would be hard to beat singing John Denver songs to myself as I hike in the Rockies; provided I can suck in enough air to do anything beyond panting and wheezing.

 “I guess he’d rather be in Colorado
He’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain…”

John Denver

While it appears the decision has been made, perhaps a test hike on the AT would sway me. Here’s how it went.