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Experiences Outdoors

A Bear Walks Into Camp

Or, Our Experience On The Appalachian Trail Overnight, And What We Learned

Ever since I read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk In The Woods, I’ve wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. So last year, my brother Jason and my brother-in-law Matt, hiked a short section from Woody Gap to Neel’s Gap along the Georgia Appalachian Trail

It was a short 9 miles or so, up to the stunning views from Blood Mountain…

View Near Blood Mountain
Foothill of Blood Mountain

We were hooked.

But none of us was (or is) in a life position to hike the whole thing. But we decided to keep section hiking in Georgia.

This year, we planned a 20 mi overnight hike from Neel’s Gap to Hogpen Gap and onwards to Unicoi Gap.

We didn’t quite get what we bargained for (including a bear).

Here’s what happened and what we learned…

To start with – we were all a bunch of novices who really had no business camping overnight. We didn’t have the gear, the planning, the know-how.

But how hard could it possibly be?

Every friend of mine who camps has this consistent, amazing experience and raves about how great it is.

The one thing everyone says is – “don’t over-complicate it.”

Besides we had all read that famous portion from a Walk In The Woods where Katz is hurling toilet paper and trail mix down the mountain trying to lighten the pack.

So we went about under-complicating it.

“Tents? Who needs tents?! It’s not supposed to rain, so we’ll bring hammocks!”

And so on and so forth. But on the actual trip.

So, we got a really late start Friday afternoon – for lots of reasons, but whatever. We figured we’d just make up the mileage (we were going to hike 20 miles over Friday/Saturday from Neel’s Gap to Unicoi Gap).

We left the Walasi Mountain Center at Neel’s Gap at about 4:30pm. It was rainy and wet, but whatever. It would clear (or so said the weather.com).

We hiked about a mile when we came upon some rather interesting botany.

Marijuana On The AT
Is This What I Think It Is, or an imposter?

Our first premonition was that the water source where we needed to fill up so that the water could decontaminate over night was dried up.

We had bought some Chlorine Dioxide tablets (and were pretty proud of ourselves). But they wouldn’t quite work without contaminated water. Whatever. We’re in high spirits..and have lots of fluids anyway (like 80 oz each – way too much weight).

Side note – where do Thru-hikers get enough water? Tell me in the comments.

We hiked about 3 miles and came to the most beautiful campsite ever. It’s on top of a mountain.

It’s got a view, some firewood already ready, logs, perfect space for hammocks (the weather said 10% chance that night, and some friends of mine said hammocks were the way to go if you already had a lot of weight).

It’s 6pm. Broad daylight. We put up hammocks, I go throw a rope for a bear-bag 40 feet from camp. We haven’t opened our packs at all.

Camp Near Neel's Gap
There’s A Bear In The Bushes

The 3 of us go walking around for firewood. My brother is about 100 feet from camp, me and my brother-in-law are right around camp, coming back into the clearing with the hammocks.

Then we see (about 20 feet from us) a bush move. We look and see Jason in the distance.

Then at one moment, I see a huge, black, furry mound.

And Matt says “Nate, that’s a bear.”

And I’m like – “…………..that’s a bear. Um. I’m good at running. Shall we back away slowly?”

We motion to Jason – who has a straight view of him, and has quite an exclamatory reaction.

Matt has thankfully read up on what you are supposed to do with a black bear (bunch together and make noises and talk). So Jason circles around to us, and we start boisterously talking and clapping while the bear hangs around – watching three idiot freaked out humans sing and clap.

No One Ever Said That There Would Actually Be Bears.

I mean, sure everybody says that there are bears on the AT.

But it’s like one of those things in theory. Kind of like warning labels.

I know 5 people who have thru-hiked the entire AT. No bears.

I know people who go camping every other weekend, and never do any bear protocol stuff like putting ALL your stuff in a bear bag 80 feet from camp.

I’ve seen campsites that we past that had Snickers bar wrappers in tree trunks.

No bears.

I mean they are there, for sure. But never right there.

This camping deal got real really fast.

There is nothing – nothing like having a wild bear walk into your camp in daylight and watch it rooting around in the bush not 10 feet from you.

Back to the story.

The bear walks down to where I had started to string up the bear bag…pulls down the limb and starts inspecting the bag (it’s empty). Pulling down our rope and ripping the bag to shreds looking for free marshmellows I guess.

Meanwhile, we hurriedly talk/watch him/pull down hammocks – don’t bother packing up – just holding everything in our arms while we back down the clearing toward the trail – talking, clapping, etc until we get to the AT.

We then start hoofing it down the mountain until we can stop and re-pack.

There, at a rock outcropping, we had no idea if bears tracked you, but we figured we were safe for now.

I then remember earlier that a sign right at Walasi-Yi had behooved us to call the Park Ranger to report bears.

The sign was really particular about it – like it was super-important.

Well. I didn’t write down their phone number – but I figured it was important enough to call 911 and apologize and ask to be redirected to the Park Ranger (I figured they were all working together anyway).

As a side note – I never, ever abuse 911. I think I’ve only used 911 once in my life to report a wreck.

Lesson learned: 911 doesn’t care about your little bear run in, so don’t bother them.

Here’s how the conversation went…

Dispatcher: “This is 911 are there any injuries”

Nate: “No there are no injuries. We are safe. But we ran into a bear, and the sign said that we should report it, so I am”

Dispatcher: “Ok, no injuries. What is your location?”

Nate: “We’re on the Appalachian Trail a couple miles East of Neel’s Gap”

Dispatcher: “I don’t have that – is that a road?’

Nate: “No, it’s a footpath that goes from US Route 129 to State Route 75 and farther. We’re a couple miles east of the Walasi-Yi Center”

Dispatcher: “So how did you hit the bear? Did you hit it with your car?”

Nate: “I’m sorry. No, we are walking, and were approached by a bear. We scared it off, but we saw the sign that said we should report it. I don’t have the Park Ranger’s phone number, so I’m telling you”

Dispatcher: “Oh. So you just like saw a bear?”

Nate: “Yes. We saw a bear and wanted to let the Park Ranger know”

Dispatcher:  “Ok. Umm. Sure. What’s your name and phone number?”

Nate: “Nate Shivar at 706-296-2853.”

Dispatcher: “I’ll let them know. Thanks, goodbye”

The most bizarre 911 phone call I’ve ever had. Felt totally embarrassed. Do not bother the Baldwin County 911 people with bear sightings. Apparently it’s on the same level as a possum in your trash.

The trip continued to go downhill from there in more ways than one.

It was getting dark rapidly – so we ducked into this campsite. Set up hammocks, and ate in the dark – careful not so much to even spit near our camp, lest we attract the bears.

The fire didn’t work – much too wet. The pages of my notebook just helped to boil the water inside our supposed kindling. Whatever.

We then bundled our food up in a bag and threw it down a hill into a briar patch (since the bear had our bear bag), and spayed it with bug spray to cover the scent of our buffalo wings and marshmellows.

Then doused ourselves with bug spray, and getting one last swig of water.

We set our backpacks about 30 feet from hammocks, and retired (at like, 9pm) – still assuming that there were like 60 bears roaming around our camp checking out our stuff – now that we knew that there were actually bears.

But whatever. We put our hammocks in a triangle fort formation, and had a milk jug ready and waiting to be used to freak out the bear army.

We slept from about 10pm to midnight, when we woke up assuming it was 5am…it wasn’t. It starts to drizzle. It stops. Starts, stops. No sleeping.

Heat lightning starts up. No sleep.

Then, at 2:30am – the bottom drops out. Just a downpour. Cold, huge raindrops. The hammocks are soaked through (supposedly water resistant).

We’re cold, wet, can’t sleep. It’s a full-on downpour.

We don’t have a tent. Still freaked out by the 80+ imaginary bears surrounding us waiting to snuggle us with us after chowing on our Jet-Puffed Marshmellows, we “storm the camp.” Literally. In a downpour, we decide we have to go get this 10ftx10ft plastic tarp currently by our bookbags (aka, Bearland).

Jason is blind (no contacts), I’m drowsy, and Matt can’t see 2 feet in front of us with our bedroom flashlight and the total downpour. We were really looking and sounding like scared idiots to get our 10ftx10ft plastic tarp from Matt’s pack.

Freezing cold, we huddle together under the tarp. Then sit down on the ground, with the tarp sitting on us, and tucked under our butts. It downpours with us sitting there for 3 hours, then 1 hour of freezing drizzle – the kind where you hear the sheets of rain echo through the forest.

4 hours of huddling under a tarp letting in fresh air every couple minutes and getting attacked by Daddy Long Leg Spiders.

We make it to sunrise – eat breakfast (the imaginary bear army didn’t touch our food). Everything is soaked (including my (now) 20lb wool blanket that I absent-mindedly brought to keep warm).

Our 2nd AT Camp
Our 2nd AT Camp – Note The Tarp

We continue onwards up the trail. It’s uphill for a bit…then we get the views that make it almost worth it all, and keep you hooked on the AT no matter what happens…

Tesnatee Gap Vista
Tesnatee Gap Vista #2
Tesnatee Gap Vista #3
Tesnatee Gap Vista #4

From there it was downhill and really quite nice.

We walked through magical fairyland…

Appalachian Trail Daisy Field

And really enjoyed the morning, even though we were wayyyy behind on mileage.

We still hadn’t made it to Hogpen Gap. And we have no idea where you get water around here (minus the rain). And we were all about to fall asleep.

But onwards.

Then, we get to a road – which we expected. What we did not expect was that it was called Tesnatee Gap.

Nowhere in our research did we ever read about Tesnatee Gap.

Plus the sign said that we had hiked a measly 5.5 miles. We were even farther behind than we thought. It was 9:30am and we had planned to be picked up at 3pm at Unicoi. There was no way.

But we cross the pavement and find the white blaze – we come to a road an a sign that says “Hogpen Gap, 9 miles” – we had expected Hogpen Gap to be right there, then 13 to Unicoi.

We stop and try and figure it out. Even at a blistering pace – we couldn’t do 13 miles by 3pm (meeting time w/ Mom)…much less 9 extra, unplanned miles with no water, and soaked packs. So we bail right there.

Bailing At Testnatee Gap
Bailing At Testnatee Gap

We get picked up a couple hours later. Only to find out that the sign to Hogpen had been washed out – it was supposed to say .9 miles. Note to hikers – Hogpen Gap is right up the hill from Tesnatee Gap.

So we successfully went for an overnight 5.5 mile walk in the woods – and got a nice sampling of what camping and hiking the AT can really be like.

10 Lessons We Learned For Next Time (yes, next time)

1. There’s a reason people bring tents and/or sleep in shelters (get a hammock tarp). Assume it will rain.

2. Do bear research beforehand. And don’t go during bear season. It turns out that the section we hiked is commonly closed down during summer due to bear activity. Would’ve been nice to know.

3. Bring a trail map. That has elevations, water sources, and landmark names.

4. Don’t bring a blanket. See #1 and bring a waterproof, warm sleeping bag.

5. Bring an actual bear bag – not a Kroger bag

6. Grossly underestimate how much ground you can cover. You can always slow down and take in the views.

7. Assume everything will get wet. Everything. See #1

8. Have a better plan/skills to start a fire

9. Research what to do about water

10. Bring more and better flashlights

What I Expected On The AT
tl;dr

By Nate

I'm Nate Shivar - I live in Atlanta and love exploring the city, outdoors, books & Internet. Read about me, my Now page, or my work.

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3 replies on “A Bear Walks Into Camp”

Enjoyed reading your story. We were planning on hiking Woody Gap to Testnatee Gap in June. Already saw a bear when I hiked in the Great Smoky Mtn. Nat’l Park and it has scarred me for the past 20 years. Atleast there is a chainlink fence in front of those and you can lock yourself in. Our bear climbed up on the fence and started shaking it trying to get in. Fun, fun. Your story made me laugh as much as when I googled, how not to hike the grand canyon. Take a look at that one.

Thanks Susan – glad you enjoyed it! I hope your hike goes well in June – that’s a beautiful section of trail – lots of outcrops. Sounds like a crazy story for yourself in the Smokies! And thanks for the tip – I’m off to read that one about the Grand Canyon (which I definitely want to get to one day!)

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