I made my final "shakedown hike" last night. That's where I go spend a night in the woods with the exact load I think I'll be taking on the AT just to see if I forgot anything. I hit the trail mid-afternoon and headed to a place nearby called Shining Rock Wilderness. The place is named for a mountain called Shining Rock, which is known for a giant pile of bright white quartz near the top, which can be seen for many miles.
On the way to Shining Rock, there is a saddle known as Flower Gap. It's a few hundred feet of grass and blueberry bushes on an open area between two small mountains. You can look west out into the Pisgah National Forest, or east into Asheville and the surrounding area. It's one of the prettiest areas on the hike and it's the spot where a bear stepped on Katie last summer.
We were planning a three day trip to Cold Mountain with a friend and the three of us camped at Flower Gap on the first night. The plan was to leave our tents there, hike to Cold Mountain on day two, return to our tents that night, and hike out on day three. On the morning of day two, Katie tapped on my tent and said, "I have bad news, and I have worse news." I knew immediately what both pieces of news were. "A bear got into our camp last night, and now we have no food."
"How do you know it was a bear?" I asked as I climbed out of my tent.
"Because it stepped on me in the middle of the night!"
We roused our friend and walked to the tree where we had hung our food the night before. The bags were shredded and all that remained of our food were tattered bits of foil, one Clif bar the bear had somehow missed, and a pack of sugar-free gum. This would not fuel three humans for two more days, so dejectedly we abandoned that trip early and walked back to the car.
I've been back to Shining Rock and Flower Gap numerous times since, but mostly in the winter. The memory of that event was not at the forefront of my mind as I ate my dinner last night. I was camped about a mile away, and had carried my food and some water to this spot to watch the sunset. It was lovely. The temperature was in the 50s and aside from a strong breeze it was perfect sittin' weather.
Once the sun vanished the temperature started to drop a bit and that breeze became a bit chilly. I had my pack stashed in an area out of the wind, and was standing by it putting my things away when I saw a large black shadow emerge from the darkness about forty feet in front of me. It had the bulk of a small cow and moved effortlessly, gliding through the dark making no sound. It took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing. Large dog? No. Small cow? Don't be ridiculous. Bear? Shit. Bear.
It definitely saw me, and I'm sure that the still open pouch of steaming beef stew residue was setting off every alarm in the thing's giant head. We both froze and stared at each other.
Now, I've been hiking for over twenty years, and both of my bear encounters are in this story. I know from reading and hearing it again and again that black bears are timid and will usually flee first. You're supposed to make a lot of noise so that's what I did. I raised my arms above my head and shouted, "YAH! YAAAAH! GO AWAY BEAR!"
This bear either did not speak English or had not read the same books I had read, because instead of fleeing, he cocked his head like a curious dog and did the opposite of fleeing, which was moving closer to me. I've seen this act before, he seemed to say. Your pitiful cries are no match for my powerful claws. You smell like food.
The bear closed the distance to about twenty feet and I yelled again. The sun was gone and only the moonlight remained. I continued yelling and flipped on my headlamp. This new light source confused the beast and he stopped his advance. One more yell and I backed away until I couldn't see him through the trees and then I began walking briskly along the trail for the next ten minutes, stopping often to listen for grunts and growls behind me.
I reached my camp after another ten minutes, passing two other campsites along the way. I warned my neighbors of the bear sighting, we all hung our food from the highest branches we could find and retired for the evening.
When I awoke this morning, despite having hung my bag, all of my food was gone, as were my neighbors' supplies. All that remained were cracked branches, coiled rope and a huge pile of empty wrappers and boxes, pockmarked by jagged teeth and covered with drool. One group said they came face to face with it while trying to hang their food. Their leader told me, "I shined my flashlight into the trees and saw two green eyes coming toward me so I threw my food bag at it and ran back to our tents!"
Thankfully no one was hurt, and the worst of it was that we all had to hike back out to our cars this morning on empty bellies. Bear: 12, Humans: 0.
Oh, and the good news is, other than that whole bear thing, the shakedown hike was a success, my gear feels great and I'm ready to go live outside for a while!