Bears Up Close and Personal – This is Not a Theoretical Discussion
There are few topics that get people as worked up about on AT Facebook and other discussion boards as the topic of bears. Honestly, discussions of subjects as inconsequential as Top Ramen vs. Maruchan Ramen can elicit some pretty antisocial behavior, so any topic has the potential to get nasty. However, in my experience, bears and bear-resistant food storage are topics that are explosive. So with that acknowledged, I am going to share a recent experience I had on the AT and how I feel about using bear-resistant methods to avoid problems. Please, let’s not be explosive. I am just sharing my experience and my reaction to that experience. I am not telling anyone what to do.
Nuisance and Aggressive Bears are a Human Creation
Bears are naturally fearful of humans. However, the desire of bears to follow the standard American diet of high calorie, low nutrient, carb- and fat-filled food is no different than what we find in ourselves. Left to their own devices, many Americans opt for fast food and chips over a salad or fruit. Bears seem to be no different.
So when bears learn to eat human food, and I am an admitted on-trial lover of Top Ramen, Breakfast Essentials, and Snickers bars, they are no different than we are. Cheap food is addictive. However, bears only learn about cheap food, or any human food, due to human error, right?
Ground Hog Creek Shelter
In October, my friend Loren, and I did a section hike from Standing Bear Hostel, just north of GSMNP, to Roan Mountain, TN. On our first night on the trail, we slept at Ground Hog Creek Shelter (Mile 248.8). Guthook had a couple of comments about aggressive bears but the most recent was from August, 2 months earlier, so I assumed that the bears had moved on. Since someone was already in the shelter, we set up our tents, social distancing in the age of COVID, and chatted up the 3 other guys who were sleeping in or near the shelter.
Around 10 PM, all hell broke loose with yelling and flashlights shining all over the shelter area. Since I am totally deaf in one ear and use a cochlear implant, I really did not understand what was going on. I assumed it was either teenagers with a case of beer descending on the shelter, that happens when shelters are close to roads, or bears had arrived. In either case, I figured that was literally nothing I could do, so I put my hearing ear down against the stuff stack I use for a pillow and went back to sleep. Silence is bliss!
Apparently, so I learned the next morning, there were four bears, two adults and two cubs, that stalked the shelter area from 10 PM to four AM, sniffing around and growling from time to time. The incident started with the bears jumping on the shelter picnic table, just a few feet from the guy sleeping in the shelter, and taking the stove and pot of two cousins who were out for a week-long section hike. So big human error in leaving food scented things out and not hanging them on the shelter’s bear cables.
Loren, on his first night on the AT and second night of backpacking ever, told me in the morning that a bear had pressed against the side of his tent and growled. Quite the introduction to the AT, huh?
From Guthook, these are some excerpts from comments made in November 2020, the month after our incident:
- “Still a lot of bear activity,”
- “Bear experience we don’t want to have again. Mama and three cubs began stalking us at five pm for food,”
- “At least four aggressive bears that are not scared of any amount of people.”
Why I am Carrying a Ursack Major XL in 2021
Some shelters have bear cables or boxes, but many do not. I have learned to be pretty good at hanging a bear bag. I use the bear bag kit from ZPacks but really you can easily assemble your own. The PCT Method is what is recommended as the best method to hang food. You can find many YouTube videos and websites that explain this technique and, in my view, all backpackers should know it and use it. Watch the video, it is simple as pie, right? Well simple as long as you are able to locate that perfect tree that seems to be featured in every video. Now, back to reality, try to find that perfect tree as you walk into camp, exhausted, as the sun is setting and every good branch is taken or, and this happens more than you might guess, there is no perfect or close to perfect limb.
This is my plan for my 2021 flip-flop thru-hike. I will still bring my bear bag kit and plan to use any provided bear cables or other available methods to properly store my food, stove, and toiletries at those shelters than have them. When there are no bear cables, poles, or boxes, I will hang my food using the PCT method unless I cannot do it. In that case, I will use a Ursack Major XL. Essentially it is my third option for food handling, but my experience has proven to me that this is a necessary precaution. There will be many shelters or campsites with no cables and no limbs, perfect or otherwise, for hanging your stuff, I promise. In addition, the use of bear-resistant containers is encouraged by the National Park Service, National Forest Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. They are experts at what is the right approach to bear management or at least know a whole lot more than I do.
I Want to Save My Food and Save the Bears – We all win!
It is very likely that the bears who seem to chronically stalk Ground Hog Creek Shelter will eventually be euthanized (that is polite talk for being killed). What is sad about this is that bears are a natural part of the eastern forest. Humans make bears aggressive through bad food handling practices. We go out onto the tail for a nature experience, right? So why are we so resistant to carrying something to help maintain exactly the thing we are there for – a nature experience?
A Ursack Major (5 days of food) or Major XL (7 days of food) are just around ½ pound. That seems like a small sacrifice for even a gram weenie like me. OK, it raises my winter base weight to 11 pounds, but it is doing my part to coexist with nature and have a safe and enjoyable thru-hike. It is a personal choice, but there are compelling reasons to protect yourself, your food, and the bears. Think about it.
By the way, the feature picture for this post is a shot of Ground Hog Creek Shelter, I think.
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