A Bear Encounter on the Appalachian Trail – Guest Post

Categories:Appalachian Trail | Guest Post | Hiking | Trail Stories

I finished section hiking the Appalachian Trail last summer after only 14 short years! With all of the hype about the upcoming movie A Walk in the Woods, I’ve been inspired to write about some of my AT experiences. I recently shared an experience on how Bill Bryson’s book motivated me to begin my first section hike, but for this article I want to focus on something more specific. I want to share a close encounter I experienced with a bear in the great state of Vermont – or as thru-hikers called it – VerMUD!

One beautiful day in late June 2014 I woke up, had breakfast, broke camp and told Bill Ackerly, the ice-cream man, goodbye (that’s a whole other story) and began hiking north. A few hours into my hike I stopped to take a break on a picturesque rock outcropping. I had just finished a snack and was getting ready to gear up for the next leg of the section when I saw a black bear walk up the trail about 50 yards south of me. In my 14 years section hiking the AT I’ve seen many a bear, but usually only their backsides as they run off into the woods. This time was different – WAY different!

The bear spotted me and raised its head in the air as if trying to get a better whiff of the snacks I had just devoured. He (She?) then walked off in the woods and I thought that was the end of it; happy to finally get a good look at a bear. I started packing up when I caught of a glimpse of the bear through the brush just ahead of me. I immediately walked back down the trail (south) to where the bear had been standing earlier and by the time I got there he was standing where I had just been eating my trail snacks! This was the first sign that things were about to get very interesting.

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My blood pressure started to rise ever so slightly when I saw the bear was sniffing around exactly where I had been sitting 5 minutes before. She must have liked what she smelled because she looked at me and slowly started walking my way. Blood pressure rising quickly now, I began thinking “what should I do?” I’ve read a lot about how one should deal with these close encounters in the wild, but never had the opportunity to test it out first hand. I had a feeling this might be my opportunity!

I stood very still, didn’t look directly at the bear and started talking to myself. This didn’t phase the bear and she continued to creep my way. After she gained another few yards, I became downright scared. I then proceeded to ‘make myself big’ like all the bear literature says to do. I raised my arms above my head and began waving them around while yelling at the bear. This produced little response from the bear – it slowed its pace but keep walking towards me. Ok, “prepare to fight” I told myself.

I looked around and found some rocks on the ground. I picked them up and held them in my hands thinking what the hell is a little rock going to do to a bear. I secretly hoped I could luck out and get a good head shot on it, hurting it enough to run off instead of pissing it off and it come at me with a vengeance. During this moment I remembered I had a whistle hanging on my backpack and actually had time to drop my pack, grab my whistle and blow my brains out for the next 2 minutes while yelling and flailing my hands around to scare the bear. She wasn’t having it (I’m dead serious here guys, I’m not making this stuff up!). At this point I was beside myself. My plan of action was to throw the rocks hoping for a Hail-Mary in the bear’s eye and then prepare myself to fight the bear. I had some trekking poles I figured I could use to momentarily keep her away from me, but if it came down to it I would play dead as a last resort. I read somewhere that playing dead was a last resort for encounters with a grizzly, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to try with black bears.

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The bear was now only 50ft way. I was poised, ready, still shouting like a maniac, blowing my whistle and ready to launch one of my rocks when the bear nonchalantly turned and slowly walked off the trail. “Thank goodness” I thought to myself, but I was still on high alert. “Where is the bear?” “Is she going to circle around like she did before?” “What should I do?” were questions at the forefront of my mind. I ended up standing in that spot, poised for battle, for about 15 minutes. I eventually put on my pack and began hiking north again, but my blood pressure never really subsided. I was tweaked and in the middle of the woods thinking that the bear was going to jump out at any moment to get me or the yummy people food in my pack. I half thought about ditching my food bag as to decrease my chances of a bear attack!

I eventually reached the next AT shelter and lo and behold there was a big Bear Alert sign posted in the shelter. It said to be careful because there had been multiple bear sightings in the area. The bear encounter made a lot of sense, because most bears I’ve seen on the trail are afraid of people and run off quickly after being startled by humans. The bear I encountered must have been used to people, and more particularly, people food. I spent the rest of the day, and in fact several days, totally paranoid of the possibility of meeting up with another ‘friendly’ bear. I chastised myself for internally snuffing a hiker I had meet several weeks earlier because he was carrying bear spray. I would have given a million bucks for a can of bear spray in the days that followed my encounter.

So, there you have it. 14 years of hiking the trail and I finally got what I had been asking for. I wanted to see more than the ass-end of a bear as it was running away. After this encounter, I will be perfectly content seeing the backside of a bear running away.


Tommy is an avid hiker and outdoorsman. He writes sporadically on his personal blog and contributes to a Green T-Shirt blog. When he’s not spending time with his daughters or in the woods hiking, he’s probably sitting on a cushion meditating on the existence of life.


 

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