Day 9: Bear Encounter

Appalachian Trail May 15, 2012 • 6 min read

Conditions: 70s, Mostly Sunny
Distance: 10.7 miles

I woke up in the middle of the night to what sounded like a cat scratching the back of a couch. A really big fucking cat. I knew it was right outside the shelter. At first, I told myself it could be raccoons. I knew it wasn't raccoons. I heard a food bag fall to the ground. Once I heard the crushing of metal pots, I knew it was a bear.

The other hikers were still sleeping. I calmly woke them up, asking who had a mess kit in their food bag. The north-bounder claimed it. I said, “I'm pretty sure a bear just got it.”. The south-bounder stirred into action and aimed his MagLite at the tree. It was difficult to see through the mountain fog. Adding to the mystery. But his food bag was definitely gone. There was nothing he could do. He complained about losing the expensive stove inside his mess kit. Then he went back to sleep.

I still had a bag in the tree. Although hung much higher, the bear now knew the tree had food. I thought about going out and raising or moving my food bag. Without seeing the bear, I didn't know its size or if it was just one bear. Fear set in and I stayed in the shelter. I laid there alert.

Shortly after, I heard the bear climb the tree again. Its claws sounded massive, scraping off bark on the way up. I grabbed my flashlight and shinned it towards the tree. Still unable to cut the fog, I couldn't see the bear but heard it retreat. Fortunately it was timid. We played this game for the next hour. Final the bear remembered it was a bear. My little flashlight was no threat. It continued to climb the tree. Finally in what sounded like a lunge off the trunk it got my bag. My food poured to the ground like a piñata. The bear fell as well. It hit with a thud and scrambled off. Must have hurt its pride.

The bear returned periodically taking food. It was 5:00am. I decided I would get up at first light. Around 5:40am the sky brightened enough to cut through the fog. I finally could see the bear. At roughly the height of a grey hound dog and husky (like a bear) it was likely not full grown. I made enough noise getting up for it to retreat. Knife at my side I went out.

The bear had punctured my bag towards the bottom. You could clearly see two claw marks. The punctured bag couldn't handle the weight the bottom ripped clean off. Dumping my food to the ground for easy picking. The bear took everything good: crackers, flat bread, tuna packs, summer sausage, peanut butter, candy snacks. In the process it stepped on most of my dehydrated meals, popping their seals. In the end, I salvaged 3 dehydrated meals, a few packs of oatmeal, and some candy. Enough for about a day and a half without skipping meals.

It's demoralizing. There might have been more I could do. But for the most part, you're helpless. Vulnerable. I remember playing Oregon Trail as a kid. I'd always laugh when receiving the notification:

A bear took 5lbs of food in the night.

I'd think “Yeah right!” Well little Jashon, it happens.

I now had a decision to make. I would cross another town in 10 miles – Wesser, North Carolina. I could resupply with 3 more days of food to finish the planned trip. Or I could get off the trail and head home early.

Everyone in the shelter was awake. The sun was out. Had it been raining, my decision would have been clear. I made the last of my oatmeal. Figured I'd eat hearty and try to make it all the way to town for my next meal. I picked up the trash from the bear and hit the trail early.

Hiking alone, I thought about my time on the Appalachian Trail. Why was I here? To experience the trail. Did I accomplish that for myself? I had experienced weather, wildlife. physical and mental challenges, nature's beauty, and fellowship. 3 more days on the trail wouldn't add more. It was time to go home.

Knowing my hike would end soon, I took my time. I crossed two mountains before descending into Wesser. The early morning sun provided some great views. I took side trails to the tops of each peak. Surprisingly, I had cell phone reception at the top. I called my parents and told them of my new plan. My Mom would drive down after lunch.

Copper Ridge Bald - Appalachian Trail

I struck up conversation with each hiker I passed. Telling them of my bear encounter. I sat on the edge of The Jump-off for some time. I looked out over the 2,500ft decent into the valley. I watched the clouds make shadows across the green mountains. I listened to the birds and the wind. What a view.

The Jump-off - Appalachian Trail

The trail dropped down to 2,800ft into a river valley. Elevation hadn't been this low since Neels Gap on Day 3. The decent was painstaking. The trail was narrow, muddy, and sometimes nonexistent. Runoff from all the rain must have eroded the trail as it flowed down into the valley. I could hear the road. But the trail switched back so many times it was still far off. I decided to stop for lunch. I needed water anyway.

“Bones” and “Shifty” weren't too far behind. Interested to hear about the bear they stopped and had a snack with me. They had camped farther up the trail and missed the bear story. I had stopped and told them I was hitting the trail early. But only mentioned the bear. They had thought I was joking. Only a mile from town they pushed on. Rumors of the good pizza at NOC kept them moving. I told them I'd catch up with them later.

The last mile into town was pure mud. I considered sliding down the ridge on my back to save energy. Ridiculous. I crossed the road into town and found a bench outside the shop. The north-bounder who's mess kit got crushed napped on the adjacent bench. He had reached the same decision as me – home. We hung out most of the day while waiting for our rides. The two college hikers came off the trail. I bought a six pack and we all had a beer together on the river bank. The water was cold. Some of us put our feet in to help with the swelling.

We wished each other safe travels and parted ways. I got pizza with the north-bounder. His ride pulled up shortly after. I asked if they'd give me a ride to the highway. It would keep my Mom from having to drive the mountain roads. We coordinated meeting at a gas station off I-40. We arrived around 9:00pm. My Mom suggested we stop for the night. I couldn't. Excited to be homeward bound, I drove through the night just to sleep in my bed.

~ Bootstrapper – 1001

Jason McCreary - Appalachian Trail

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