Bears. We don’t like to admit it, but they’re out there. Personally I prefer to think of bears the least amount as possible. I know that they exist and I always hang a bear-bag whenever I overnight in the backcountry, but more because it’s just what you do than out of actual fear. I like to solo hike whenever I have a free weekend, and occasionally I get inside my own head at night when the woods seem to really come alive, but I’ve never seen anything even remotely close to a bear. Until recently.
A few weekends ago I was overnighting in Eastern Tennessee’s beautiful Frozen Head State Park. If you’ve not been before I highly suggest a trip down that way. I arrived late and was only intending to hike in 3.7 miles, so I checked the weather and hastily started shedding some extra weight from my pack. The ranger I registered my car with told me it was a pretty intense hike up, so I decided it would be best to lose any extra weight I could spare.
There were not any water sources to speak of along the trail, so dropping a water bottle was out of the question. Since the temperature was only supposed to get down into the high 50’s with no chance of rain, I decided to shed the weight of my cold-weather gear and my rain gear. The sleeping bag I had with me was rated to 40 degrees so I felt confident that I would be comfortable for a single night in the woods. All together I probably only saved myself 6 to 7 lbs of weight.
Stephen Beach in Frozen Head State Park
The hike in was beautiful, but as the ranger had promised it was a tough 3.6 miles, gaining me 3,600 feet in elevation. I made it to the top of the mountain and found a fire tower that was open to hikers. I climbed up, rolled out my sleeping pad, and fell asleep in the warm afternoon sun. When I woke up an hour later it was to the sound of thunder off in the distance. I decided to keep an eye on the storm and make my freeze-dried dinner of curried chickpeas while I had the chance to enjoy the sweeping view of the valley below.
My phone reception was pretty poor up on the mountain so I abandoned trying to look up the weather myself and called a friend to have him check it for me. Surprise! The forecast had changed dramatically. There was now a 60% chance of rain and a low for the evening dipping down into the mid 40’s.
This was distressing news as I had left anything that could be useful to me in less than perfect weather back at the car. After talking it through with my friend on the phone I decided staying on the mountain and risking hypothermia wasn’t worth it. I finished my dinner, said one last goodbye to my panoramic view of the eastern Tennessee mountains, and picked up my pack to start my trek back to the car.
Before I even hit the trailhead it started raining. I pulled out my map to see if there might be a quicker way back to the car, and to my astonishment, there was! Instead of walking around the outside of the mountain on my way down, I could hug the inside and cut my trip down to 2.7 miles, almost a full mile less than my hike in. So I dug out my headlamp and hung it casually around my neck before starting my way down the trail.
By this point it was already around 7:45pm and it was getting dark. Scratch that, it was already dark. Any light I had been enjoying on top of the fire tower was long gone.
I made another regrettable decision at this point, and that was to NOT use my headlamp just yet. I could still see enough to be safe and I knew that if I used my headlamp I would give myself night blindness to everything else around me. I wanted to be able to see the woods on either side of me as much as possible.
After about 45 minutes of quick paced and aggressive hiking I came to a very steep point in the trail. It was enough of a grade that I decided to lean back and let myself slide down rather than tackle it upright and risk a fall. I sat down with my butt on my heels and started to scoot forward, focusing all my attention on my precarious balance. When my controlled fall through the dark came to an end and I hadn’t ended up with a mouthful of mud, I felt quite proud of myself and even started to self congratulate until I noticed I wasn’t alone. There, at the bottom of the hill, maybe 4 feet away and looking directly at me, was a black bear.
Let’s pause here and take a momentary side trip. Imagine, if you can, the biggest dog that you have ever seen. Now imagine you’ve found yourself accidentally trapped in that dog’s backyard, where it feels well at home and you have never stepped foot before. It might sit there for a moment, sizing you up and decided which limb would be the easiest to rip from our body. It might hop right up and bound over, teeth bared, happily ready to disembowel you. Whatever this imaginary dog’s response might be to your intrusion, we can all agree that the end result would probably be the same: severe bodily harm, if not death.
Now throw out that image because WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A BEAR! A wi