We discussed previously that the AT is dangerous for 3 reasons thus far- You Can Go Insane, You Can Die, and You Can Catch Stuff. I’m sure everyone is already packing their bags in eager anticipation of joining us on the trail. Well here goes the 4th Reason:
4. Stuff Can Catch YOU
There are a lot of humbling realities as a novice on the AT. Some are pretty benign– getting passed by a hiker twice your age carrying twice your pack weight as you head up a hill sucking wind like its Mt Everest when in fact its not even over 2000 feet; stopping to take pictures of millipedes before you realize they are EVERYWHERE; having flannel pajamas in your pack on a group hike with REI (hypothetically speaking of course). But the most startling reality for me has been realizing how close to wildlife you are at all times.
As I meander down a nice soft unpacked dirt trail with a cool breeze cutting through the trees and an amazing undergrowth of ferns and other greenery bursting around me, I feel at peace. I’m quite happy. It’s one of those moments when I stop and say “I wish I could live right here”. Maybe there’s even a little brook following along next to me, providing me with nature’s soundtrack as I take it all in. In such a setting I would likely stop, overcome with the beauty of the moment– this calls for a snack break. Of course this is that glorious opportunity where there is a perfect log up against a rock basically creating a lounge chair for you to enjoy while you rest. Nature continues its chorus– birds chirping, woodpecker doing his thing, maybe a squirrel bounding through the underbrush, a few bugs flitting around just to remind you they are there. Pretty awesome right? We’ve all been there.
Except we failed to realize one thing, at that moment, surrounded by beauty, you are probably closer to dying than you ever have been in your life. You think this little nook is an oasis that only you know about? Sorry dude. THIS is Where the Wild Things Are.
I’d like to see a statistic on the exact number but I have to figure that at any given moment on the trail you are within 20 feet of a rattlesnake, 50 yards of a black bear, and 1 foot of a deer tick. Essentially there vectors of death around you at all times. That’s not to say they are all hunting you at every moment, waiting for their opening. In fact none of them probably WANT to see you. Well except the tick, he REALLY would like to make your acquaintance.
But that’s the situation. I was hiking in Shenandoah National Park on a quick overnight (trip report coming) in June. This was my first time on the AT in the warmer months. As I was hiking along I kept seeing giant poo’s in the middle of the trail (I realize I talk about poo a lot, sorry). Being the good German I am, I inspected said poo… from a distance of course. (PS- Germans still utilize toilets with a shelf on them so that the depositer can examine the depositee for health standards assessments).
I also like to spend time on the trail attempting to play Man-Tracker. It is a great distraction that promotes looking down at the ground (a natural focus while hiking on the East Coast). Based on some pretty careful, CSI level analysis, I determine that the poo hit the ground moving at a swift pace in the direction of travel dictated by the trail. This meant it had to be a dog, bounding down the trail ahead of its master.
Continuing along the trail I saw more specimens every 50 yards or so. Wow, I thought, this poor dog must be having a rough day. This was of particular note because the poo was increasingly thin and then I could see it was full of what looked to be nuts or berries. “Dogs don’t eat nuts or berries” I posited. Then I recalled our old Springer Spaniel, Chelsea. She defied the concept of “dogs don’t eat” because this dog ate, everything. If I were walking Chelsea on the trail one would not be remarking on berries and nuts but couch cushion buttons. So I relented, maybe this dog just got a bit excited at the all-you-can-eat buffet nature provided her.
My concern for this mystery dog only increased as my hike went on. The poo would continue for the next 15 miles. “What is this dog’s owner doing?” I questioned. “Is he not seeing that his dog has to be on the verge of dehydration or death?” Then the thought struck me, it is actually IMPOSSIBLE that this was one dog. That dog would be dead if it had diarrhea for 15 miles straight. Further there was so much poo that said dog would actually have had to stop, eat MORE of the berries and nuts to continue on. No, no, friends… we were definitely dealing with a SUPER dog, a giant breed like an Irish Wolfhound only with an extra stomach… that loved nuts and berries. Or it could be two dogs. Yes that was it. I refused to alter my dog theory.
Hours later I would be sitting in camp with the thru-hikers that stopped with me at the shelter for the night. As we ran around the best topics du jour- stoves, titanium vs aluminum, cutting down on food weight, etc I was eventually reminded of my previous query. “Gentlemen!” said I. “Lend me your ear for I have a puzzle for you to solve. You of great experience and I of paltry knowledge implore you to answer a riddle that has plagued me for a score of miles today. Today on the trail I encountered multiple piles of remains, always in the middle of the trail, and always of like contents such that I have never seen ere.”
My audience, hot to the challenge, enraptured with my story replied “uh-huh“.
I began to continue, “My careful inspection of these remains could not yield a definitive answer as I am still as yet hoping to understand what manner of beast could produce such a clue. My can only postulate that my quarry was none oth…”
“It was a bear dude”.
“Yeah dude, bear”
“But surely you must be mistaken my good fellow, a bear cannot…”
“Berries and nuts dude, that’s what they eat”.
Immediately I was set back. No mammoth Irish Wolfhounds. No sick, beleaguered man’s best friend. Bears. LOTS and LOTS of bears. EVERYWHERE. That was when I realized even though I feel alone on the trail at times, I am NEVER anywhere near alone.
Really all you need to know about bears can be gleaned from the movie Great Outdoors. If you haven’t seen it please do so this evening. It is a staple of 80’s comedy and outdoor enthusiasm. The short version is that there is a killer bear that torments John Candy in between Candy’s other hilarious exploits. This movie was significant to me for a few reasons– it was the first movie I remember seeing in theaters, it was the first time I saw a woman in a bra, and it was the beginning of many years of fearing of bears.
Candy’s nemesis is known as “the bald-headed, killer bear of Claire County”. Apparently there are gigantic Kodiak grizzly bears in Illinois. What’s more, it’s behavior more resembles that of a bad 80’s stalker villain than any actual bear, much less an AT black bear. Nonetheless, at 8 years old my perception was that this bear lived in “the woods” and any time I was in “the woods” that bear would be there. With that basis of knowledge I armed myself with survival information.
In defense against bears, I highly recommend shooting bears in the butt with a elephant shotgun fashioned into a lamp. Just be sure to plug it in before firing. If that isn’t available, they can be lured away from any prey with either a Clark Bar or a Zagnut. Apparently all bears are from Pittsburgh. I wonder if cole slaw has a similar effect. Finally if that doesn’t work I’d take a note from the Simpson’s and employ a Bear Patrol. Word is they function with 100% efficacy. Similar to the ole Tiger-Repellent Rock, but I digress.
Okay so bears can catch you. Really they are described by most thru-hikers as being big raccoons. More interested in food than delicious sinewy you. There are other animals out there but I will save you my tongue-in-cheek metaphors about mountain lions and such. I will only direct you to Netflix to find the episode of Survivorman where he is stalked by a puma. Awesome.
However it is the least ominous of these beasts that is the most threatening. Bugs. Between the deer tick (Lyme Disease) and the mosquito (West Nile), your chances of catching a life-altering illness are
high worse than if you stayed at home. There are precautions to take but it’s always a concern. While on the AT you are basically trudging through the hot-bed of Lyme Disease.
You know how in the movie Outbreak they trace an Ebola-like virus back to some monkey in Africa. One monkey leads to all hell breaking loose and Dustin Hoffman getting very upset. Like Sphere upset, not The Graduate upset. In fact it’s so bad that they have to employ Donald Sutherland as a villain to emphasize that shit is really going down. Scratch that, it’s so bad MORGAN FREEMAN becomes a villain. FROM ONE MONKEY!!! Well imagine walking for 6 months in that monkey’s backyard. Except instead of one monkey you have BILLIONS (?) of tiny monkeys the size of a needle eye with literal heat-seeking missiles for hard-to-reach, sweaty, warm areas that you can’t visualize nor easily access nor desire to access with your hands.
Okay Lyme season isn’t in full bloom all six months but are you telling me that on October 1 you are going stop doing tick checks. It’s not like all the ticks have to head down to Del Boca Vista every winter. They are still there somewhere.
So there you have it. The AT is a dangerous place. I will do a full post on Avoiding Bears and Lyme Disease at some point. For now you are probably in the same place we and our mothers are… why on Earth would you WANT to do this… … … wellllll………. TBC