Shenandoah Nightmare: Bear Poles Are the Bane of My Existence

It was hike naked day. And it was cold, wet and rainy. We had just got back on trail after my beloved parents had dropped us off — when better to strip and run into the woods?! We got a half mile from the road into the forest when I promptly dropped my pack and announced: “Well, I don’t care if you are — but I’m stripping!” And took off all my clothes and strapped my pack back on. Lovechild did the same behind me, and our fanny packs were the only thing that gave us a slight sense of dignity. We were nudists! Our naked bodies were embraced by the forest — ah to be one with nature again, our skin uninhibited by the fabric jail of clothes, my body finally a perfect temperature for hiking, the rain eliminating any chafe, the thrill of hiking bare assed by poison ivy and over spiky, slippy rocks.


Hike naked or die!

We signed our Shenandoah passes in the nude, a perfect entry into a national park. Just up trail, I saw the green pack cover of another hiker. He was fully clothed, an older man who seemed vaguely military. Oh god, I thought. I turned to Lovechild and grinned. We were going faster — we had to pass. I hiked up quickly behind the poor guy and said hurriedly as I passed, “My apologies! Happy hike naked day!” And he put a hand to his forehead and begrudgingly wished us a happy hike naked day — which I was surprised at. If I saw someone’s bare ass whip by me, I’d laugh out loud! It’s not every day you get a trail full of nudists!

Yes, it is sideways, I am simply too tired to figure out how to fix it.

Rain on our parade

Hiking naked in the rain is super fun for about thirty minutes. And then it becomes hell. My chafe came back on my upper thighs. My mind was preoccupied with preventing myself from slipping at all costs. Every rocky descent became maddening and terrifying — that could be the rock that gives me a giant scar on my ass, I kept thinking. It became less freeing and more freezing. The wind whipped around us as we passed in and out of tree cover. The small meadows were the worst. The leaves pushed backwards on trees, rain pelted us, and I folded my arms across my bare body in an attempt to keep it warm. I was steadily turning red like a sad lobster. But it was hike naked day! I thought. Clothes are bad! And then a half mile later, I pitched my pack on the side of the trail, grabbed my clothes from inside and put them back on — hopping all over the place in the process in a strange anti-nudist ritual. Suddenly, with clothes on, I was speeding down the trail without any thoughts of falling and remarkably warm! Who would’ve thought — clothes make you faster and warmer. (But they’re still less fun.)

If this didn’t say I’d make it I was going to have a mental breakdown because of the rain!

Bear poles suck!

Hot take: bear poles are the worst bear proofing invention I have ever encountered. Bear poles work by providing you with a long hook on a stick that you lift your food bag up on to hook it on one of the hooks. I barely had gotten my fresh and heavy resupply on it last night. I realized with growing dread that I had hooked my food bag on the one hook that was bent directly upwards, crooked and extremely difficult to get your bag off of. I tried reaching up to it. My arm muscles were already tired and had diminished after two months of hiking. The pole wavered in my grip. I tried hooking the food bag — but every time I did, the hook refused to let go of the bag. The rain continued to come down. I began to hold the bear pole hook thing like a javelin and thrust it at the metal hook above me. I was getting my food back godamn it. Lovechild watched from the shelter, perturbed and laughing quietly. Finally, after one aggressive jab — I got it! And that wouldn’t be the last time I struggled…

I took this as a sign I’d make it to Katahdin.

Difficulties Eating

For the next three days, it rained. I started to spastically dance down the trail at times and scream loudly to my music to spite the weather. When I got to camp in the evenings, I was too cold to do anything except curl inside my zero-degree sleeping bag and eat my sad, cold soaked mashed potatoes and shiver. I was in a perpetual state of wet darn toughs and a soggy sports bra. The elastic band of the sports bra aggravated the skin on my abdomen and back until it became a red line of chafe. My thighs weren’t much better.

I began to realize the importance and difficulty of eating on trail. I didn’t feel hungry as much anymore when I hiked — I just felt like the world was ending. Everything would go wrong: I would trip on all the rocks, my headphones would slip out of my ears, and I felt extremely low. I would sit down with a harrumph and an existential sigh next to Lovechild when we stopped to filter water. Day hikers and thru-hikers would pass me smiling, and I would wonder why I felt like I was literally fighting for my life going up a hill. I felt like the apocalypse was happening, and these people were just smiling through it! It felt like the hardest trail ever — as though I was slogging through on a planet where the gravity was set to 10,000 pounds. It turns out I just wasn’t eating enough.

When I started eating more, I was warmer, happier, and bounced down the trail like a jolly green giant. If the jolly green giant was perpetually starving and struggling to eat (somehow at the same time.) Currently, I’m stuck in an atrocious cycle of weighing myself in town before a resupply, panicking at my decreasing weight, and then over resupplying with food — which makes my pack heavier and makes me burn more calories — which makes me lose more weight. It’s a positive feedback loop from hell! It’s difficult to adjust to consuming a ton of food. Off trail, I’m used to eating a regular portion side to stay in shape — and it feels odd to eat incessantly, but that’s what’s required to maintain the energy on trail. Eating the amount of food thru-hikers do is not normal — but neither is hiking 2,000+ miles. I’ve never been more aware of the impact of what I consume on my physical abilities. It’s crazy how a Clif Bar can stop the apocalypse from happening. I didn’t expect that adjustment before thru-hiking — so for anyone out there thinking about hiking — just get ready to consume!

Bear poles suck pt 2!

And finally, my last, most horrific experience with bear poles. We had arrived at a shelter just outside of the Shenandoahs, and just a few yards away from the shelter — there was my nemesis. Another bear pole. It jutted out of the ground like a middle finger, taunting me. After I finished a delectable dinner of cold soaked ramen and a dollar general tuna packet, it was my time to shine. I slipped away from the group of hikers I had been eating with, hoping to draw no attention to myself. My food bag was girthy, to say the least. I had over-resupplied again — it was at least 17 pounds, more than my base weight (subtle flex.)

I stumbled over to the bear pole with a lopsided gait, my food bag making me walk funny. It drew more perplexed looks from hikers than a wet fart. My friends continued talking around the fire pit — all was well, everyone had forgotten about the strange hiker with the massive food bag. I picked up the pole and began my first attempt at hooking my food bag. The pole itself was heavy and made my arms shake. I hadn’t lifted anything major (besides violently fist pumping up mountains) in the past 900 miles. I tried to lift up my food bag and lurched forwards because of the weight, almost stumbling into the pole. I started to laugh at myself. “Tiny hiker impales self on bear pole” — I could already read the news headline. I tried to lift it again, my arms shaking, and the food bag launched off the hook into the shrubs. By now my friends — as well as everyone else in camp — were staring. The conversations around camp had quieted, and now the attention had shifted to the deranged hiker cackling in the brush and launching her food bag around like a wayward violent piñata. I realized I was the entertainment of the evening. “Alright folks!” I yelled, “let’s seeee if I can get it this time!”

I began to lift my food bag again. It was starting to feel like I was Rocky and this bear pole was Apollo Creed. My arms shook. The hikers in the camp let out a mutual gasp in anticipation. I giggled. “Ohhhhhhhhhh…” The handle of my gargantuan food bag slipped over the edge of the hook. “I GOT IT!!!!” I screamed, about to victoriously raise my arms and revel in the splendor — when it slipped off the hook and slammed right into my face. “Ooooooooo…” The cringing chorus rose from the hikers again. I staggered backwards, adjusting my glasses, my face stinging, still laughing. The rest of the night I would get flashbacks of the bottom of a food bag careening towards my face. Very unpleasant! Someone offered help and I stubbornly turned them down. Now I was out for blood. This food bag was getting up there if it was the last thing I’d do (and if it dropped on my face again it very well might be!) This bear pole was my new Katahdin. I raised the bear bag again — this time even more cautiously. The crowd gasped. I shook. And finally… I hooked the food bag on the bear pole. It dangled there, the giant green forbidden fruit that it is, and would stay until the next morning. Hikers thanked me for an entertaining evening, and I crawled into the shelter, safe from raining food bags. Until I opened my Fanny pack and found a Clif bar. I was sleeping with that one!

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Comments 3

  • Grandpa Hodag : Jul 7th

    I feel the same about bear poles.

    I understand why the pole needs to be heavy steel. Bear.

    I don’t know why the accessories can’t by heavy, but lighter aluminum.

    Godspeed on your trek.

  • thetentman : Jul 7th

    I am still laughing. Great post.

    Consider a canister.
    I know that it will stop raining and that nothing ever really dries on the AT. I do hope that it stops before you lose your mind and your clothes disintegrate.

    Good luck.

  • Andrea Schempp : Jul 9th

    You are fabulous! Keep going❤️


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