So, in preparing for the AT, I’ve done quite a few things:
Gear List? Check.
Practice Hikes? Only a couple so far but check.
Bear Encounter Strategy? Check
Bear Encounter? Check?
Last week, at around about two in the morning, I was sitting on the steps of a cabin by a lake in Pennsylvania, enjoying a nightcap joint before going to sleep, and I heard a noise from the woodpile. The woodpile right next to the trash cans in a bear proof box. What could it be I thought? Well, judging from the sound, just a little shuffling, I thought it might be raccoons, or a possum perhaps. So I smashed my filter into the glass ashtray and started towards it. Walking over barefoot across the gravel. Picking my feet up a little gingerly on the freezing, sharp rocks and watching my breath come out in the first frosty flush of fall.
I got closer to the trashcan and saw utter carnage. Bags of trash torn open, their desecrated corpses lying amongst the rocks. So I began to pick up some trash, only to turn the corner and find myself snoot to snoot with a black bear laying in two bags of garbage about two feet away from me. Something like the sound that a hippo being strangled would make escaped my lips and I threw my arms out and puffed myself up as big as possible, yelling for my life.
Luckily for me, those years of Boy Scouts had paid off;I continued yelling at the bear while backing away. I judged it about 30 foot between me and the house, should just be able to make it. Unfortunately, I’d walked outside in my bare feet and took an epic slip just as I tried to turn. So now I’m high, on my ass, and sitting in front of a black bear that’s coming to its feet thinking to myself, “I am about to become an edible for a bear.”
I Bruce Lee’d to my feet though and ran the only few feet I had left, slamming the door behind me and locking it, like that would help. Taking deep lungfuls of air and looking at the scrape on my arms and feet, I counted myself lucky and then smoked another joint to calm me down from the shock after the first one. From the adrenaline high though I didn’t sleep until the next day.
To my surprise, I felt encouraged by getting through that encounter with a bear. It made me feel confident that if something serious were to happen on the trail I’d know what to do and my Eagle Scout skills would not have deserted me entirely, even after 3 years in New York City. But it was a good hard check on how seriously I should take my hike in terms of safety and of paying attention to what I’m doing.
This past week I also put up a post on an AT FB group about the dangers that this winter might bring. Farmer’s Almanac says that it’s going to be another brutal winter, and on top of a six thousand foot mountain in the Smokies in the middle of February, it’s going to be the ass-ugly end of cold. And not just cold. Wet, snowy, drizzly, mucky cold. The type of cold that can turn into serious danger if I’m not careful. When I was hiking Carrountoohil, a small mountain in Ireland about 3500 feet tall, in January, I didn’t make sure I was prepared enough and ended up with a slight case of hypothermia.
I’d met a guy at the Black Sheep Hostel in Killarney, and decided to hike it together, so the manager of the hostel dropped us off at the trail start and we’d figure out our own way back. It had been about 60-70 and rainy that week, and slightly windy. We figured we’d be ok, and I was pretty well bundled with hat, scarf, gloves, fleece, jacket, base layer, but as we started up further and further, and started climbing up a long stretch of boulder to boulder scrambling, the wind picked up more and more, and the clouds swirled a little around the top. As we got higher and higher, the rocks got more slippery, and more cold, and so wet, tired, and worn out. As we got to the top, we celebrated our hard earned victory by crouching out of the wind in the half collapsed priest’s retreat. On our way down, the wind would not relent. And we felt our hands and feet growing colder, and number, and less useful for gripping handholds. Although we were out of the snow that had been buffeting us in the wind gusts at the top of the mountain, we were entirely soaked through with the damp, and the trip down was much colder now that we had lost our burn from the morning.
Our already frozen, cut, and numb hands now got the job of keeping us from getting sucked away from the trail by the wind. We made our way back out of the valley and the mountain though, watching the clouds thickening up at the summit of the mountain. Although we were able to hitch a ride back with two perfectly kind older women, by the time I was peeling off my dripping socks and shirt I was shivering. A steaming shower, a long hot meal in front of a roaring fire, and then a long nap brought things back to comfortable, but I’m not sure how pleasant the long walk back from the mountain would have been trying to get a ride and just hoofing it. I will be perpetually grateful to those two women who picked me and my hiking partner up, and saved us the walk back.
Though I’ve had my fair share of dealing with problems in the woods, it’s still too easy it is to mess up. That’s what separates good hikers from bad ones, and great outdoorspeople from dead outdoorspeople. Every safety instructor ever and their mother warn you not to get complacent and slack off. And it really is true, especially when you’re a day’s hike from town. No one loves a safety lecture, so pay attention to what you’re doing and where you are, it could mean all the difference. And always be on the lookout, in case someone else needs help as well.
When we get complacent that we know what we’re doing, that’s when you get into trouble. When you don’t take the challenge seriously, and think that you’re better than your environment. That you’re better than nature. In getting ready for the AT, it’s been interesting looking back at a couple of times where without being a little luckier, things may have ended much worse.