Category Archives: Camping

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.

Trail Report: The Foothills Trail

With the COVID-19 issue making a long thru-hike impossible at this time, I thought it might be nice to look at a possible, shorter option to consider once restrictions are lifted. The scenery is reminiscent of the southern AT, but with the lower elevations, the hike is possible at any time of the year. Between the climate, a distance that doesn’t require a resupply and no shelters to congregate in, this trail would be a good, possibly “safer” choice, no matter when life starts getting back to normal.

The Foothills Trail runs from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park, both in South Carolina. In between, the path meanders through Sumter National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, land protected by Duke Energy Corporation, and Gorges State Park in North Carolina. While the “hills” aren’t as high as some of the Appalachian Mountains, they are often just as steep. The elevations encountered run from just over 1,000 feet to the highest point in South Carolina, the peak of Mount Sassafras at 3,554 feet.

Every year thousands of people start hiking north from Springer Mountain with every intention of walking to Maine. Sadly, most do not make it. Amazingly, a significant portion quit the trail in the first 100 miles. Some were woefully unprepared and some didn’t realize that thru-hiker life just wasn’t for them. For these folks, a solid “shakedown” hike may have saved their AT attempt or, at least given them the knowledge to not disrupt their life for a walk in the woods that only lasted a week or so.

Part of my background involves being certified as both a personal trainer and a running coach. One of the more useful concepts I took away from that education was the Specificity Principle. Basically, the concept is that the most useful training is directly tied to your goals. Do you want to be a marathon runner? Your base training should be mostly running long. Want to be a better hitter in baseball? Worry less about lifting weights and spend more time in the batting cage. It’s a pretty simple concept but one that best prepares both your body and mind for your goal task.

Based on this principle, what would be the best training for a long backpacking trip on the AT? Why that would be a not quite so long backpacking trip. Specifically, what type of backpacking trip? Why one that in many ways mimics the AT. To that end, I would suggest trying the Foothills Trail that runs mostly in South Carolina with some time spent in North Carolina.

Why Hike the Foothills Trail?

The Foothills Trail is a great hike for a number of reasons. The southern Appalachians are scenic, with plenty of rivers, waterfalls, and some great views. In many regards, much of the hiking is indeed reminiscent of the southern AT. This shorter hike can very much help prepare you for the conditions to come on the AT and let you see what the challenges are, before making that life changing commitment to thru-hike. The 77-mile length is a great test that took me five days to complete, hiking in late February/early March.

Terrain

Do not let the lower elevations fool you; this trail is not easy. Per my GPS watch, I covered a total of 78.8 miles between the trail, a short detour, and wandering around campsites. Walking from Oconee to Table Rock State Parks, elevation gain was 15,433 feet and loss was 14,913. This worked out to an average change in elevation of 385 feet/mile. The AT, as a whole, averages a change of 237 feet/mile. At one point “Heartbreak Hill” climbed at a rate of 1,600 feet/mile. For me, the real heartbreak was giving all that climb back over the next half mile, then doing it all again. That is some great training for the PUDS (pointless up and downs) on the AT.

The footpath itself is well constructed and well maintained. The occasional flattish stretches are a joy to walk, but there is no getting around the power of gravity on the hills.

Even in the damp spring, I was able to rock hop any creek that wasn’t already bridged.

Getting There

The trail can be hiked in either direction, though starting at Oconee State Park puts off the biggest and steepest hills until the food bag has lost much of its weight.

Oconee State Park from Atlanta: take I-85N to US 76W to US 28W to State Park Road.

Table Rock State Park from Ashville: take I-26S to US 25S to SC-11S to park entrance.

Shuttles can be arranged through both local outfitters and a list of volunteer drivers. Both can be found at the Foothills Trail website. Overnight parking is available at either end by paying a $5/night parking fee.

Water

Like much of the southern AT, water is plentiful. There are numerous streams, impressive waterfalls and a large lake along the route. The Foothills Trail Guidebook points out all water options and I rarely carried more than a liter at a time. As always, filter any water before drinking it.

Climate and Weather

First wildflower of the season – March 2.

The Foothills Trail is not significantly farther north and generally stays 1,000 feet or more lower than the AT does through Georgia. Nearby Pickens, South Carolina, averages a low of 30 and high of 52 in January. By watching the weather, the trail can be hiked in late fall, early spring and even through the winter; perfect for that decision-making tune-up hike. Rainfall totals 53 inches annually and is spread evenly through the year. Snow is rare and typically doesn’t last. Even on Mount Sassafras, less than 9 inches of snow falls in a typical winter.

During my hike, there was a cold snap that brought nighttime temperatures down near 20. Even with that, the days were pleasant.

On the other hand, summer hiking can be hot, humid, and buggy.

Camping

Overlooking the upper reaches of Lake Jocassee.

This is one area where the Foothills Trail and the AT differ significantly. There are 262 shelters on the AT. Other than one small “emergency” cave, there are none on the Foothills Trail. Bring the tent or hammock. There are a number of great spots to camp, though, many designed and built as Eagle Scout projects. Nearly all have flat spots for tents, a fire ring, and a nearby water source. Quite a few have benches and provisions to bear bag your food. I hit the jackpot camping along Lake Jocassee. Gorges State Park maintains campsites with sand tent pads, grills, and picnic tables. Within the national forests, camping is permitted throughout and there were no fees at any of the locations I camped.

The other main difference is that in early spring the Foothills Trail is not crowded with campers. I camped alone at 3 of 4 locations and actually went two full days without seeing another person.

Resupply Options

As a training hike, be prepared to carry all the food needed for the trip. It is possible to cache supplies near a road crossing, but it complicates logistics significantly. Think of the trail as a “short” 100-Mile Wilderness.

Summary

If you’re not sure if you really want to hike the AT, consider the Foothills Trail as a test. If you want to train for an upcoming AT attempt, keep the principle of specificity in mind and try a training hike on the Foothills Trail. Or, if you just want to get out in a beautiful natural area for an early or late season hike you can complete in a week, try the Foothills Trail.

Plan on spending 4-7 days on a well-designed, well-maintained, well-marked trail through some gorgeous, yet challenging terrain. The hike is not unlike the southern AT. The difficulty is similar. The surrounding forests and streams will seem familiar. The white blazes are typically easy to follow. The main difference I found was the lack of other hikers. If you finish this trail wanting more, there’s a good chance a successful AT thru-hike could be in your future.

Of course, for me, the best part of the trail was the seclusion and lack of shelters, so I’ll continue to hold off on the AT for now.

For additional planning information, check out the Foothills Trail Conservancy. In addition to a helpful website, they have created the official map of the Foothills Trail and a Foothills guidebook. At 7 ounces, the guidebook is a tad heavy, but includes maps and turn-by-turn directions in both directions.

Trail Report: Traverse Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

At a Glance: Lakeshore Trail

Length: 43 miles
Location: Part of the North Country Trail, the path is located within Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Trail Type: Out and back or shuttle
Scenery: Northern Forests, massive sand dunes and the park’s namesake rock cliffs

Trail Overview


Pictured Rocks is the setting for the Lakeshore Trail. The path runs the length of the park, approximately 43 miles and is often within sight of Lake Superior and its spectacular shoreline. Sharing tread with the North Country Trail, the trail is generally well marked and moderate in difficulty as it travels between views. Those with issues with heights should note that the trail, at times, is located right on a cliff’s edge. Camping is by permit only with options located five miles apart or less.

Terrain

The route generally stays well above the lake, though dropping down to the waters edge on occasion. Hiking is generally moderate with a few steep climbs. Some mileage back from the lake travels through poorly drained forests. On a spring trip, waterproof boots turned out to be a good choice.

Getting There

For most, head north through Michigan, over the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula. From there, take U.S. 2 west to 77N to 28W to the town of Munising . Those coming from Wisconsin and points west can take 28E through the UP. The Munising Falls Visitor Center is located at 1505 Sand Point Road in Munising.

The easiest way to walk the length of the park is to use the shuttle service provided by Altran, http://www.altranbus.com/backpack.html the Alger County Transit system. They are very backpacker friendly and run multiple trips per day between the Munising Falls Visitor Center on the west end of the park to the Grand Sable Visitor Center near the eastern end. The ride is $25 and the driver was happy to take me a mile past the visitor center so I could add Sable Falls to my itinerary. There are other stops available for shorter hikes. Overnight parking is available at either visitor center.

Why Hike This Trail

Hiking the Lakeshore Trail is a great way to see the tremendous shoreline of Lake Superior. In just over 40 miles there are countless epic views of rock formations, a lighthouse, options to stroll the lakeshore on both sand and rocky beaches, massive sand dunes and some quality time in the boreal forest.

As with nearly every National Park, wildlife take advantage of the protected habitat. Wolf and bear are spotted along the trail along with species specific to the northern forests such as the snowshoe hare. The park is also far enough north that viewing the Northern Lights is a possibility as well.

Climate and Weather

As with any far north location, weather can be an issue. I hiked the trail in mid-May and there was still snow on the trail in spots. Starting too much earlier would have been challenging on a heavy snowpack year like 2019. As the snow melts, it also leaves portions of the trail wet and sloppy. At the other end of the season, snow can fall as early as October with an average of 140” falling throughout the colder months.

Timing the hike also includes consideration of insects. Both black flies and mosquitoes show up soon after snowmelt and can be an issue through early summer. I was ahead of them for the most part in mid-May in 2019. Later in the summer, stable flies, deer flies and horse flies all make an unwelcome appearance and can inflict a painful bite. At times, long pants, long sleeves and even a head net may be required.

July and August tie for the warmest month with the average daily temperature range from 56 to 74. Freezing temperature are possible any month of the year. I brought a 30 degree bag and was glad I did.

By fall, the insect populations have dropped considerably. On the flip side though, fall is not always the best time to visit weather wise. The area is the 2nd most cloudy region of the US with much of the cloudiness coming in the fall and early winter. At that time of the year, air traveling over the warm lake hits the relatively cooler land and results in significant cloud cover, fog and rain.

Camping

The National Park Service maintains over a dozen backcountry camp areas on or near Lakeshore Trail. Each camp area has spots for three to six small groups. There are also some larger Group Camp areas. Most, but not all, have access to water, a toilet and a designated fire ring. The park’s Backcountry Trip Planner https://www.nps.gov/piro/planyourvisit/upload/Backcountry-Trip-Planner-2017-accessible.pdf lists specifics for each site.

Each site requires an individual permit for the night you plan to stay there. Spots can be reserved in advance through Recreation.gov. There is a $15 reservation fee for the entire itinerary, plus a user fee of $5 per person, per night. If the plan is to visit on a weekend during the summer, it would be a good idea to make those reservations well in advance.

Water Sources

Water is generally not an issue. You are walking along the largest freshwater lake in the world after all. In addition, the trail crosses a number of streams on their way to the lake. The water sources all appear to be relatively clear, but play it safe. Bring a filter and use it.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re looking for a 3-5 day hike with great scenery, simple logistics, an easy to follow trail and camp areas where water and a toilet are accessible, the Lakeshore Trail might be for you. For me, the rock formations are the most impressive I’ve seen this side of the Grand Canyon.

Depending upon when you go, biting insects and/or weather can be an issue, but with proper planning and equipment, the trail is well worth any aggravation encountered.

The National Park Service website has the information needed to start planning a trip to this amazing place. When I had specific questions on snowpack and trail conditions, the folks at the Munising Falls Visitor Center (906-387-3700) were extremely helpful.

Once the hike is over, if you want to see the Pictured Rocks from a different angle, there are both larger tour boats as well as kayak tours locally available. If you have the time, the views from the water are pretty impressive as well.