On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner (Part 2)

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I pitched my tent at the Browns Gap campsite, only about 20 yards from the AT. Then unrolled my sleeping bag, and tossed it inside the tent, along with my nighttime needs: flashlight, foam pillow, some fresh clothes, my journal, and a yellowed copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

I set up my stove on a flat rock, and found a bigger rock to use as my dinner chair. Quickly got some water boiling, dumped in my packet of Ramen noodles, and hunched over the pan with my spoon poised. Then I heard a noise behind me.

Turning around, I saw a young woman come sidling down the trail, swinging two trekking poles. She either didn’t see me, or decided to ignore me, because she continued toward the road crossing a half mile away. It was getting near twilight, and I wondered if she’d be able to find a decent campsite, since I hadn’t seen much between here and Dundo Picnic Grounds several miles back.

Ramen noodles ain’t gourmet, but, for me, it was a feast. I’d covered over 17 miles that day, and I was as tired and sore as a pack mule. I also had some serious chafing on my inner thighs due to sweat-soaked underwear. After supper, I hung my bear bag high up on the log beam, and scrubbed my skillet, using just my fingers and a little water. I packed my skillet in my backpack, which I leaned against a tree. The skillet had a slight residue from the noodles. But I wasn’t too concerned.

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Summit of Blackrock Mountain

I smeared some antiseptic lotion on my thighs, then crawled into my tent. Too tired for Huck and Jim, I waited for darkness to fall while laying spread-eagled on my back. Then clicked off my flashlight as a multitude of insects began their nightly symphony.

It was a long while before I fell asleep. I was buzzing from the day’s activities, and one alpha cricket kept an incessant screeching for hours on end. But eventually I fell into a deep, deep slumber.

At home I wear earplugs. They help me sleep more soundly. But I promised my wife I wouldn’t use them out here in the woods. So the sound that awoke me was loud and unmistakable.

Still spread-eagled on my back, in the midst of some weird, cozy dream, my eyelids suddenly shot open. “Oh, boy. That’s no cricket outside my tent.” It was a combination of sniffs, snorts, and grunts. Beastly and guttural. And it was right outside my tent’s mosquito netting, which was at my head. Later, I remember thinking it sounded like a gigantic pig. But there were no wild pigs in these mountains.

I listened to the snorting for a few seconds. “The only animal around here that could make those baritone notes is a large bear,” I thought.

I recalled something I’d read about loud noises helping to scare off bears.

“HEY, WHAT’S GOIN’ ON!!!?” I yelled in a shaky voice (not expecting a reply).

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Ursus americanus

There was a spooky silence for about a second. Then what sounded like a locomotive crashing through the brush. Then silence again.

I lay still for about five minutes. I turned on my flashlight and glanced at my watch: 3:02 a.m. I think I was more sleepy than scared. The damn bear had awakened me from one of my best sleeps in days. But, eventually, I strapped my flashlight on my head, unzipped the netting, and stepped into the clearing.

I first checked my backpack, which was about 30 feet from my tent. “Looks ok.” Then I walked a short distance to the right, over to the bear beam. I shone my flashlight into a void of blackness. “Bear bag undisturbed.” Everything seemed fine. The cicadas continued their rhythmic drone. But there were no other sounds.

I ducked back into my tent, but not before pulling out an old fishing knife that was buried in my pack. I knew I’d probably never use it, but it gave me a sense of security. Didn’t help much. I remained wide awake until the first rays of sunlight

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I’m not sure why the bear got so close to my tent. Certainly he smelled me and my sweaty clothes and skin (if not the antiseptic lotion). Maybe he was attracted by my skillet. I hadn’t used soap on it, but it was still fairly clean other than the slight film on the surface, and I’d stuck it deep into my pack. He may have smelled my bear bag. All foodstuffs were wrapped in either plastic or foil. But supposedly a bear can detect human food from up to a mile away. So who knows?

I felt like a zombie from lack of sleep. But I knew that once I hit the trail, I’d be ok. After packing up my gear and chomping on a Pop-Tart, I looked around for telltale signs of my nighttime guest. The only evidence was a small patch of dirt that looked like it may have been clawed up. It was about 20 feet from the head of my tent. Hard to believe I was that close to the beast.

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Valley view from Big Meadows

As I started down the trail, I had a humorous thought: “It’s too bad I never saw him. We might have hit it off.” I wasn’t more than a hundred yards from my campsite when I heard the now-familiar crashing sound. I looked to the right and glimpsed a large, black form pounding through the undergrowth, over the hillside. He turned his head, once, then disappeared. I gripped my camera tightly for about five minutes, hoping he’d peek over the hill. But he never did.

Looking back, I’d probably invaded his feeding grounds earlier that night, and he was waiting for me to leave the next morning. The homemade bear beam was there for a reason.

So I did see him. And, he saw me. He was an adult bear, and black as the previous night’s darkness. He was the second bear I’ve seen in the wild. I saw one in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado in 1983, while hiking with a friend. But that encounter wasn’t nearly as, shall we say, “intimate.” Now I can claim to have seen wild bears on both sides of the Mississippi. Could there be a grizz in my future?? Do I want one in my future??

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Three days later, on Labor Day, I arrived at Skyland, the end point of my hike. I met a lot of nice people between Browns Gap and there: Rob and Paul at rain-soaked Hightop Hut; the couple from Charlotte whom I met at Big Meadows Campground; Katie and her “pack dog;” not to mention the Honeymoon Hikers and Jackson. The Shenandoah AT around Labor Day sees many visitors, which is good in some ways, but bad in others. With the popularity of books and movies like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are taking to the woods and trails. It’s great that folks are shedding the shackles and manufactured pleasures of the cities and suburbs, and finding some spiritual peace in places “where things work like they’re supposed to work.” But where there are crowds, there are problems. The trail litter I saw each time I approached Skyline Drive is ample proof. Not to sound preachy, but hopefully the Millennial Generation will use their smartphones to protect the wild places better than my generation and my parents’ generation did.

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At about 7 p.m. outside crowded Skyland Lodge, my driver Dubose Egleston Jr. pulled up, his yellow pickup plastered with signs advertising his shuttle service. I loaded my gear in the truck bed and hopped in front. Dubose was interesting. Short and pudgy, he talks with a sometimes incomprehensible Southern accent, and as if he’s chronically short of breath. Dubose relishes conversation (and Coors beer), and at one time he served on the Waynesboro City Council (“Ah never talk ‘bout national politics. Gits ya into trouble. But ah’ll talk yer ear off ‘bout local and state politics”).

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Dubose has been shuttling hikers for 13 years, and estimates he’s hauled several thousand of them. On our drive back to Waynesboro, he told me about some of the more memorable ones: the guy he picked up at the airport who wore a three-piece suit and penny-loafers, and planned to buy all his gear at Wal-Mart (“He gave me the creeps”).

Also, the mysterious man who carried nothing but a white duffel bag (“He never said what was in it, and I never asked. He was creepy, too”). And the guy he called “Rambo,” who wore full camouflage, a handgun, and a knife the size of a bayonet (“He looked like he was goin’ into battle. We didn’t talk much. Just ‘bout the weather”).

I told him about my bear encounter at Browns Gap.

“Ah shuttled two young women from Wisconsin one time,” he said. “They were real ‘cited ‘bout hikin’, but tole me the only thing they were ‘fraid of was bears. They had convinced themselves they were goin’ to be attacked by a bear.”

I laughed.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

“I said ‘Lemme get some gas here, an ahm goin’ to set you straight.’ After ah got back in my truck, I tole ‘em ‘Black bears ain’t the same as grizzly bears. They don’t attack people.’ I said ‘There has never been a bear attack on humans in the state of Virginia.’”

“What did they say?” I asked.

“You’d a thought ah lifted five pounds offa each of their shoulders!” he said. “They were so relieved to hear that. They practically threw their arms around me. Ah don’t know what it is, but somewhere ‘tween the Midwest and here, people get this notion that black bears are vicious man-eaters. It just ain’t true.”

I asked Dubose if he heard from them after their hike.

“Yep. They couldn’t git over what ah tole ‘em ‘bout bears. After they got home to Wisconsin, they sent me a big block’a cheese. That was nice. But ya’ll take a look at me. Cheese is the last thing ah need.”

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On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

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“Aren’t you worried about bears?” (my boss)
“Oh no. Now I have to worry. Aren’t there bears and wolves in those mountains?” (my mom)
“Why do you do these things to me?” (my wife)
“Are you gonna pack a sidearm?” (my friend Dave)

These are a few of the reactions I got this past summer when I announced that I’d be doing a solo hike through Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s something about camping in the woods that scares the bejeebers out of people. It might be the stories we read as children: Hansel and Gretel, Peter and the Wolf, Where the Wild Things Are. Later on came feature films: The Wolf Man, The Night of the Grizzly, The Edge. Be it bears, wolves, cougars, giant venomous snakes, bloodthirsty bats, witches, goblins, headless horsemen, Texas chainsaw killers… dense, dark forest has become a metaphor for danger and fear.

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American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The reality, of course, is that our cities – and increasingly, our suburbs – are far more dangerous. But humans can’t seem to shake certain embedded fears. And of all creatures in the woods, nothing seems to worry people more than bears.

Bears are big. An adult American black bear (Ursus americanus), averages 125-550 lbs. Its cousin, the more aggressive grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), averages 400-790 lbs. Some freak grizzlies grow even bigger. Both species are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. But a grizz standing on its back feet can reach over nine feet in height, and can take down large mammals such as bison, moose, elk, and caribou. His claws can grow to four inches in length.

Also, although extremely rare, bear attacks do happen. The most infamous occurred in Glacier National Park on the night of August 12, 1967. On that night, two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were dragged from their sleeping bags by two hungry grizzlies… unbelievably, in separate incidents nine miles apart. Their bodies were eventually located by searchers. Helgeson hung on for a few hours before succumbing to blood loss. Only portions of Koons’s body were found.

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Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus)

But horror stories like this occurred back when little was known about bear behavior, and campground bears were still feeding at open-air garbage dumps. The two grizz that killed Helgeson and Koons were later tracked down. One had glass imbedded in its molars, and the other had a torn paw pad, probably from stepping on broken glass. Wildlife officials speculate they were in extreme pain when they attacked.

But I didn’t need to worry about grizzlies when I began my hike. The only grizz in the lower 48 are in Yellowstone and in small pockets of Montana and Idaho. However, there are a lot of black bears along the AT, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, which has a number of public campgrounds (“Hey, hey, hey Boo-Boo, do I smell a pic-a-nic basket?”). Like many people, I was hoping to see a bear on my hike. But I never thought I’d share my campsite with one.

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I started my hike at Rockfish Gap, outside Waynesboro, Virginia. The first day I covered six miles, some of which found me slogging through a relentless rainstorm. I camped near a large cairn at the top of Calf Mountain. It was a good campsite, right next to the trail, with good, flat stones for setting up my campstove, and enough tree branches on which to drape my soggy clothes.

I got an early start the next day. Watered up at a spring near the shelter halfway down the mountain. While filling my canteen, I met a hiker coming from the shelter. She was a middle-aged woman who was trekking 100 miles to Manassas Gap. She called herself “Owl.” Hmm. Shouldn’t she be hiking at night??

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Scenic overlook at Sawmill Run

At the base of Calf Mountain at Jarman Gap, I officially entered the park. It was at a fire road near a huge gnarled tree, maybe the oldest I’d see on the entire hike. Later, at Sawmill Run Overlook, I gobbled some trail mix and provided a curious spectacle to a few tourists who were cruising along Skyline Drive.

Then at Turk Gap, I met my first thru-hikers, a college-age couple who’d started way up in Maine months earlier. They were headed for the Springer Mountain trailhead in north Georgia. They represented the “advance guard” of southbound thru-hikers, and they had the lean, muscular look of swift, veteran hikers. Surprisingly, they gave off no odor, and they also looked really clean and manicured – even the man’s red beard looked shapely.

Near Riprap parking area I met a young woman. She was an emergency nurse from nearby Charlottesville, out enjoying a sunny day hike. Then I lunched at the edge of the parking lot, where I met another solo day hiker. I would bump into him again, the following day, at Loft Mountain campground. His name was Jackson, and he was a high school senior from Richmond, Virginia. He was just bouncing between campgrounds, doing short hikes on the AT, and squeezing in some summer kicks before the school year started. Nice kid, long blonde hair, really laid back. I noticed his truck had a plate that said “Don’t Tread On Me.” I wondered if his parents might’ve named him after exalted Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

As I approached Blackrock Mountain, I started to get really thirsty. Also, worried, since I only had a few drops left in my canteen. Two years earlier I’d hiked the AT through Georgia, and I’d crossed a lot of mountain streams and springs. But Shenandoah was extremely dry. Climbing the straight ascent up the side of Blackrock was taking a toll.

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Summit of Blackrock Mountain

Help came in the form of two more thru-hikers coming down the mountain. They were a married couple, the “Honeymoon Hikers.” They’d already done a northbound hike on their wedding honeymoon, and were now hiking southbound. Amazing! Mr. Honeymoon told me the summit wasn’t far ahead, and after that it was smooth sailing. He said Dundo Picnic Grounds was only a few miles ahead, and it had a water pump.

Blackrock Mountain summit was aptly named: huge, dark boulders stacked a hundred feet high, like a scene from Planet of the Apes. I rested on one of the rocks, then savored a smooth downhill trek into Dundo Picnic Grounds. At Dundo, I replenished my water at the pump, and took a refreshing sponge bath. There were lots of picnic tables here, but the only visitors were an elderly couple enjoying an early supper at one of the tables. Before exiting the grounds, they circled their car over to the water pump and kindly offered me some granola bars and bananas.

Now it was time to find a campsite. I was hoping for a nice, quiet, trailside site similar to Calf Mountain. But at Browns Gap, where Skyline Drive again crossed the AT, there was just an empty parking lot and a couple lonely fire roads that meandered into the woods. It was getting late. A few cars whizzed by on Skyline Drive. I started to clear out a primitive tent site near the parking lot. But it just didn’t feel right.

When all else fails, hit the trail. So I started up another incline. About a half mile up… voila! There, on the left, was my home for the night: a clearing, moderately used, with flat ground for my tent. And at the far edge of the clearing were two skinny trees, about ten feet high. A horizontal log beam was resting on two forks carved at the tree tops. It looked a little like a pole vault bar. Someone had built this thing to hang his or her food bag so marauding bears wouldn’t get it.

Usually, backpackers will seek out a single tree that has a high, horizontal limb on which to hang their bear bags. So this designer bear beam was really convenient. Surely this construction project took a lot of time. But why would someone devote so much time and energy to building it? Maybe a ranger built it.

Was Yogi or Boo-Boo in the vicinity??

(end of Part 1)

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A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

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(I submitted this essay to the NPR series This I Believe several years ago, after our dog Brownie died.  Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows how difficult it can be)

 

I open the front door and step onto the tiled hallway floor.  I grasp the brass doorknob of the coat closet, turn the handle, then reach in and shuffle the hooks on the coat rack.  Before draping my jacket over the wire, I hear a flurry of rapid clicking sounds on the porcelain.  By the time I hang my jacket, he’s lunging at my waist, panting heavily, gaping jowls and eyes afire.

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While he was alive, I never thought of Brownie as being my best friend.  He was the one, more than anyone else, who anticipated my arrival home. Sometimes, instead of accosting me at the coat closet, he’d rush into the den, and I’d hear his big paws thumping the carpet, in joyful harmony with the sound of his favorite squeaky toy.  Happy because I’d finally returned.

Brownie and I both loved to run, and he treated every evening jog like an exotic vacation. There were all sorts of smells to be investigated, squirrels to be corralled, fenced-in dogs to strut in front of, shrubs and street signs to be marked. As we approached home, I always felt refreshed, but also relieved that my exercise was over. I’m not sure how Brownie felt. But I have a feeling he’d delay even his evening meal to do it all over again.

One often hears the expression “unconditional love.” I believe that phrase was coined over a dog. Yes, children too offer love without condition. But eventually they mature, lose their innocence, and often grow distant. One time my temper got the best of me after Brownie became, shall we say, “casual” with the carpet. He patiently tolerated my yelling until I made the mistake of grabbing his neck fur. Then, only in defense, he let me have it (I still bear the scarlet letter, on my right palm). But only seconds later, he was nudging up to me, pleading for my love and forgiveness.

Brownie was an Australian Shepherd, or “Aussie.” This breed is very family-oriented and protective. Brownie was happiest when the whole family was together. He expressed his contentment by laying at the nucleus of our little circle in the den and licking the carpet. “Brownie, stop licking the carpet!” my wife would scold. It didn’t bother me. Perhaps this was his way of licking all of us at the same time.

We didn’t know Brownie had cancer until it was far advanced. One evening I led him out the front door on his leash.  But this time he didn’t prance in front of me.  The leash suddenly became taut.  I turned around, and saw Brownie sitting like a lump on the front walk.  Something was wrong.  “I’m leaving Brownie inside tonight,” I yelled inside to Lynn.  “I don’t think he feels good.”  As I walked down the driveway, Brownie gazed after me through the glass, his fluffy ears upright as if to say “Why aren’t you taking me with you?”  I walked slowly until I was outside his range of vision.  Only then did I start to run. When I returned home, he was waiting for me by the driveway.  While I stretched my legs on the grass, he ambled over to me, his head lowered. The vet later said that the moisture under his eyes was probably caused by a fever. But I don’t know.

So now I’ll be running alone. I knew this day would come.  But, as when a close family member dies, I never expected it to hurt so much. My partner, my compatriot – my best friend – is gone.

I believe that, even though I didn’t know it when he was alive, Brownie knew he was my best friend. That thin little pink line on my right palm reminds me. Strangely, the scar doesn’t elicit a bad memory. The brief anger I felt toward my friend – a very human moment of weakness – was obliterated by what transpired immediately afterwards.  Something far more powerful: Brownie’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

Canine Madonna