There are nearly 900 miles of hiking trails within the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Appalachian Trail leads us through the 70 miles that bisects the eastern and western halves. This seemingly direct route violates the meandering philosophy of the AT: if there is an gorgeous view or interesting landmark on that mountain way over there, then by golly, we’ll just point our brown ribbon of paradise that way and check it out. Instead, we charge through the Smokies. Up mountains, down into gullies, and right back up again. I’m pretty sure the heart rate monitor on my Fitbit stopped showing numbers, and began telling me to seek medical attention.
About halfway up a 3500 foot climb, I ran into Carl. He is a former thru-hiker, and a Ridge Runner that has worked for the Park for over 13 years. Ridge Runners patrol dedicated sections of heavily trafficked areas of the AT to help hikers minimize their impact on the environment, and respond to wild animal/hiker encounters. I had seen Carl on each of my previous trips through the Smoky’s, so I wasn’t surprised to see him strolling down the trail with his ultra-light pack, on his way to the only campground on the AT in the Smoky’s at Birch Spring Gap.
I dropped my pack in order to show him my Smokies permit, but he stopped me before I had a chance to get it out.
“Where are you heading tonight?” he asked without preamble.
I had ambitious plans, hoping to reach the shelter 17 miles from my starting point, but knew that there were two other closer shelters to stop at if I was too tired.
“Unfortunately, Russel field shelter is closed because of bear attacks and Spence Field shelter (where I planned to stop) has also seen recent bear activity. You might want to stop at the Mollies Shelter (the closest of the three, and an ego-deflating 11 mile hike) unless you’re sure you can make it all the way to Spence Field. and if you get to Spence, be sure to hang your whole pack on the bear cables,” he said.
I had heard the same stern bear warnings for several years, and hadn’t one yet. I was probably even less likely to see one now that hiker volumes were so high, so I gave him my best diligent citizen nod and shifted conversation. We talked about the increased hiker volume this year, I tried to pry juicy hiker gossip out of him (no luck), and I started paying full attention again as he mentioned chances of another snow storm over the next few days at higher elevations. I better get hiking if I want to get through the Smoky’s before the next storm.
We both felt the push to get where we needed to go for the night and went our separate ways. I passed by 2-storied, open-faced Mollies shelter several miles later and knew that I had enough gas in my tank to make it all the way to Spence Field shelter, especially with the encouragement of the Pet Shop Boys jamming through my earbuds.
I stopped long enough at Russel Field shelter to appreciate the crime scene ambiance. Several signs were attached to support posts: Shelter Closed, Recent Bear Attacks! There was even a motion sensitive camera aimed at the shelter. All that was missing was the yellow crime scene tape and chalk outlines of unfortunate victims. I thought: the “bear attack” was probably just a bear that tore through a hikers food bag. I hiked on, knowing I only had a hand full of miles to cover before reaching my home for the night.
I was in a full hiker-trance. Clip-clop, clop-clip. I was lost in pleasant daydreamy thoughts, superficially enjoying the cool breeze and lush greenery, while Nirvana provided the rhythm and mood. Then this fuzzy black teddy bear bursts out from behind shrubbery that draped over the Trail. It was about 5 meters in front of me and waddled furiously away (along the Trail) for another 5 meters before finding a break in the vegetation so that it could scramble to and up a tree. The whole scene was over before I realized that I had just seen a bear cub.
I stopped. Where’s Mom? The trees and vegetation were too thick. I couldn’t see the cub any longer, but knew that it was in front of me and near the Trail. I stood still for several minutes, knowing that if I moved forward, I could potentially be placing myself between Mom and her cub (which is apparently a bad thing), and there was no way I would voluntarily take one step southbound on the AT. After about 10 minutes of silence, I felt like I’d communicated that I had no interest in pursuing the cub, and kept walking.
I’ve often told people that if you don’t have a picture, it didn’t happen. This is especially true with bear encounters, as I’ve heard some amazing stories, almost always involving bear cubs and overly protective mama bears, that would undoubtedly go viral on YouTube if they actually occurred. I would be very reluctant to mention it here were it not for the handful of other hikers that shared variations of mama bear/cub sightings at the shelter that night near the same location. And unfortunately, a man was attacked in his tent by a bear at the Spence Field shelter recently. I guess there really are bears on the AT.
Shortly after, another cocky guy was strutting on the Trail.
I was a bit less surprised by the wild turkey because I spent several minutes chatting with one of his family members last year at the same location. I tried really hard not to think about how delicious a slow-roasted turkey would taste, but I think he probably sensed something sketchy in my admiration and slowly waddled off the Trail.
Finally, just a mile or two away from the shelter, I stopped listening to music and started paying attention to my neighbors. This guy could either smell the Trail Mix on my breath or he wanted to show off his cool home. Either way, he squeaked good-naturedly at me while I walked up to admire him (her?). He/she seemed so content with his place in the world. Loved it.
I arrived at Spence Field shelter to see a cluster of familiar wild animals (you would call them hikers), and we swapped stories about all the wildlife we had seen that day. As I finished reviving a freeze-dried dinner, several does wandered over to the grassy patches near the shelter. They didn’t move away as I slowly approached, and like the chat with the squirrel earlier, I settled in near them to just observe and appreciate the simplicity and contentedness of their lives.
This was an amazing day. I reached my hiking goal, and had so many close encounters with beautiful animals, I felt like Tarzan.
I hope you’ll forgive me for including a few additional gratuitous animal pics, but I can’t resist…