Day 47 – Bears

We have been warned about bears pretty much consistently by every Ridgerunner, park ranger, and other experienced person along the trail for six weeks now. We diligently hang our food bags (even though it’s really hard sometimes to hang on a high branch), and use the bear containers or bear cables whenever they’re available. One time we used a very secure back door to a trash bin to keep all our food. Mice were our primary concern at that shelter.

These videos show you how much work it is to hang food bags, which for some reason we call bear bags. Ironic, isn’t it?

Sometimes a Shelter area will have bear cables, which make it much easier to hang the bags well. They are on pulleys and have handles to pull them up and down, with clips to hold them in place. Bears haven’t figured out the pulley system yet. Look closely and you can see the cable system in this photo after a freezing rain.

I have to admit most the time I think I’m hanging my food bag to keep the mice from getting my food more than worrying about bears. Still, all those past stories of bears dragging hikers out of their tents because they had a candy bar in their pocket come back to haunt me as dusk settles and I snuggle into my sleeping bag.

A couple of days ago we were near an area closed due to aggressive bear activity, and when we stopped to pick up a friend’s mail drop at a nice hostel and campground, we decided we would just camp there. It would be 7 miles before we were completely out of the bear zone and we didn’t want to hike that far after 4 o’clock.

A fellow thru hiker, Smoke, decided to hike on and made it to the outer edge boundary of the Bear zone. He was the only one camping at his campsite, and in the middle of the night he heard something large moving around his tent. It became pretty plain it was two bears circling his tent and looking for something to eat. While he frantically googled what to do about bears, they continued sniffing around until they found the source of the smell that lured them to his site.

It was his food bag, which was not too close to his tent and hanging in a tree about 10 feet off the ground and a few feet from the branch and trunk. He thought he had done a pretty good job of hanging his food bag, but in the morning it was gone – not a trace of the bag, the food in it, or even the rope he used to tie it off. The bears had snatched it all and taken off.

Although there was much consolation that they just took the food bag and didn’t bother him, he was about 17 miles from a road. His guidebook listed a barbecue place that would deliver meals to that road crossing, so his plan was to hike as hard and fast as he could and make it by dinner, order two meals to be delivered and hike on to Damascus the next day, another 21 miles.

Fortunately for him, there were trail angels at that highway who had tons of food, fed him well, then gave them a lift to town where his dad could come meet him. He must’ve been doubly lucky, because his dad had already planned to come meet him the next day and wasn’t too far away. Many dollars later, he had a new food bag, cook stove and food, and his dad was bringing him back where he left off just as we were enjoying the same trail angels’ generosity the next day.

We all quizzed Smoke about how he hung his bag, where he was, and what it sounded like. You can believe we are much more careful to hang our food bag according to protocol now.

I’m glad we hung our bag so well that next night, because although nothing happened on the forest service road trail where we were camped, two other friends who camped right on the trail had bears prowling around their tent that night. They didn’t have their food bag stolen, so I guess we are becoming better at hanging food bags!

Day 21 – Shelter in a Storm

Many of my fears came true over the last three nights. My worries of hard rain and wind, followed by freezing temps, while in the Smoky Mountains far from a road or help came true.

Friday started fairly warm and partly sunny as we left Fontana Dam at 1782′ elevation and headed into Smoky Mountain National Park with Millie’s Ridge Shelter as our destination 12 miles away. At 4582′ elevation, the weather can be much colder and by the time I arrived there at 4:00, the rain had begun again and the cold and wind were coming.

The Smokies have extra rules about camping: thru-hikers must give up space to registered section hikers at the shelter, yet they MUST stay in the shelter unless it is full. So, thru hikers go to the shelter and wait to see if section hikers come and kick them out. (Some section hikers don’t carry a tent because they know they have a guaranteed space at the shelter.) If kicked out, a thru hiker can pitch their tent nearby, but only at a shelter site. Most of the time it works fine, but when the majority of AT thru hikers start in March/April, it can be a problem.

As I arrived and looked into the shelter for Blue Jay, the RidgeRunner there, who assists hikers and enforces rules, told me the shelter was already reserved fully, however since bad weather was coming it might turn out some would not arrive and I might have a space. It wasn’t likely, as about seven thru hikers were ahead of me in line for a twelve person shelter. He did not want us to pitch a tent as the shelter wasn’t sure to be “full” yet.

The rain was coming steady and the last thing I wanted was to wait a few hours – without setting up a tent or eating – to find out if I was in or out of the shelter. A couple men were setting up tents anyway, but when another hiker told me Blue Jay had gone ahead 3.1 more miles to try for that shelter, I decided to hike on in the rain, too.

I made it to the Russell Field Shelter and there was space for me at the moment. Seven section hikers had reserved, but only two had shown up and it was just past 6:00. Thirteen total people were in a twelve person shelter and they were willing to squish together to make room if a couple more showed up. I was excited to be inside because the rain was pouring down hard minutes after I arrived. I cooked, steam-baked muffins for a few hikers, and was about to sit down and read trail notes at dusk when a couple hikers walked in the shelter drenched. They were quickly followed by another three. These were the five remaining reservations and it meant I was out in the rain and dark to pitch my tent. Did I mention the temp had dropped into the low forties by then?

Some of the other hikers asked if they were the section hikers and before I could digest I was about to be booted out, the top row of people split up and moved over to each side as tight as they could and asked if the five could fit in the space they created. They said sure and I was able to stay in and stay dry! It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to panic about going out in the downpour to put up my tent. The next morning one of the men said many of us had expressions of shock as they walked in and we realized how many of them were arriving so late. You can believe that was true!

The next day was nice enough, but I was tired from 19 straight days of hiking and only made it 9.4 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter. The next one was 5.6 miles farther and I couldn’t do it in daylight, plus the predicted freezing rain and snow with temps in the teens seemed to be about to come true. I asked the RidgeRunner there if I had a spot and she thought I might. Many thru hikers ahead of me for that shelter were going on as it was only 3:00. I was willing to pitch my tent, but she advised me to wait. The low temp expected was 18 degrees and the cold was already setting in.

I made an early dinner and checked around 5:00 with the RidgeRunner to see if I could put on dry socks and go to sleep. There were three more section hikers expected, and we were already seventeen in a twelve person shelter, but she said okay as we had made room for all of us and two had come after me. Those two would be first out. By 7:00 the rain was beginning to freeze and two of the three other section hikers arrived. The last two thru hikers moved down to the bench in front of our sleep area because one left his tent in the last shelter by accident. No way he was going outside, nor would we want him to go. Even the dirt floor between bunks and tarp wall would be better.

At 8:30, the last section hiker to arrive wondered where his friend was and worried aloud because the friend had no headlamp or tent and it was dark. There was ice forming everywhere, on the bear cables, tree branches, and ground. Another hiker who was experienced in winter hiking took his backpack, cook stove, and headlamp out into the storm to search for the friend of the other hiker. He found him half a mile away where he was struggling to see the trail with his phone flashlight and about to give up and put his sleeping bag by a log and try to wait it out. It was hard to believe he thought that a better option than to continue looking for the path, as he would not have likely lived through it since the rain would have soaked him in his bag before freezing.

We had twenty in the twelve person shelter and a little fire burned through the night. Again, I was just fine after all.

Here’s the thing that struck me the most: several people DID set up tents and weather out the storm with no problem, both storms even. I was so scared to be out there, but the hiker I’m sharing a hotel room with tonight was one who set up her tent for both. She is a slower hiker and didn’t even check the shelter the second night as she knew it would be full. Her trail name is Mexican Mainer (from Mexico and lives in Maine). She believes the trail will provide what we need, and so far it has. Today I spent with her and we are treating ourselves to a night in the hotel since it snowed again at Mt. Collins Shelter last night, too.

I find it very motivating to see her just keep going until we are wherever we need to be. Maybe I won’t worry quite so hard about being out in the cold, rain, snow – or all of those put together – now that I’ve seen it can be done by someone a lot like me. There are almost 2000 miles to go. I’m sure to have another chance to weather out a storm.

Day 14 – Fear of Future

There are a lot of things I thought would be challenging on this journey. Steep climbs, having enough food, finding water, blisters, falling down the mountain, bears, snakes and deer ticks were on the list.

I didn’t expect to be scared though, and frankly I have been scared quite a bit. Since we started 14 days ago, there have been predictions of rain followed by very cold temps – in the mid-20s – for many nights. It has been worrying us as we plan our mileage and where we could catch a shuttle to stay in a hostel if the weather turned bad. That assumes there is vacancy, too. One night when we caught a night in a hostel several people were having trouble finding a place to stay and had to camp in the cold windy rain storm.

So far we have done alright. We made it through some pretty cold nights, like 29° with howling wind. We were in a hostel the night of the first bad cold thunderstorm and weathered it out in our tents on the next thunderstorm which had warmer temps. Unfortunately Bluejay (Karen) had over 2 inches of water in the corner of her tent after that storm. My tent was dry inside and very muddy on the outside from the splash of hard rain. It wasn’t cold so we were fine.

By the way, a warm day is when we don’t have on gloves to break down our tents or start hiking. Today was the first day I didn’t have my winter coat on when I left my tent. It’s often 50 to 60° later in the day hiking so that’s perfect hiking weather. It’s just when it goes down to the low 30s at night that it’s kind of miserable getting going in the morning.

So we check the weather with a special AT app whenever we have service and plan for how to get off the trail into a real shelter, like a hostel or hotel, if it’s going to be freezing rain or worse.

It was predicting rain all night tomorrow night turning to snow in the middle of the night and waking up about 25°. We are very scared of becoming soaked through our rain gear and tents and then having it turn very cold. I realized a couple of days ago that I was not focusing on the present moment, because I was worried too hard about the future. Just like life off the trail, when you focus on what might happen to you, you forget to enjoy what is actually happening to you.

On the other hand, we can’t ignore the possibility that we could be in real trouble if we didn’t plan well. So there is that fine line of planning for the future while enjoying the present that I’ve been running into my entire life. I decided I was going to quit fearing the future and just hike the hike I was on that day. Each night we check the weather and make a contingency plan. Then we camp and enjoy the next day. It’s worked for two days so far and as luck would have it the bad weather predicted for tomorrow night has pushed off.

Here’s the catch: just when I thought my new plan was going to work, we hear there’s a blizzard predicted for Saturday and Sunday in the Smoky Mountains. There aren’t any places to get off the trail two days into the Smoky Mountains, which is where we will be if we stay on our course. We are certainly not prepared to camp in a blizzard.

So I have had to renew my resolve to enjoy the day and not fear the future. It is a beautiful day down at Nantahalla Outdoor Center where I am writing this blog waiting for their restaurant open at 11 so I can eat a big meal before we hike 8 miles with a 3300′ elevation gain. It’s supposed to be so nice today, and I will put on sunscreen when I switch to shorts and T-shirt.

Cross your fingers that it does not blizzard on us, like it did for thru hikers in the Smokies three weeks ago. They were holed in camp shelters and visitor center restrooms as the roads closed and there was no way to get out for a day. I hope the hardest part turns out to be focusing on a great day and not making it through a terrible night. We will find out soon enough.

Passed 100 mile mark three days ago. WooHoo!