Over the weekend of July 30 – August 1, 2010, I went on a solo backpacking trip to the Tanawha Trail and across Grandfather Mountain. It was about my sixth backpacking trip this summer to train for the upcoming adventure in September with Will McElwee and his crew to Glacier National Park, MT.
The weather in the Piedmont and the mountains had been hot and dry for weeks, so I packed accordingly. Unfortunately, the weather chose that Friday evening to turn unseasonably cool and cloudy. I spent the whole weekend in heavy clouds, fog, mist and chilly air, so I barely had enough clothes. At home, Terri turned off the air conditioning and opened the cabin doors and windows.
The information board on the permit sign-in station at the trail head included a warning that a mother bear and two cubs recently had been sighted at the Profile Trail, on the other side of the mountain. Having never seen or personally heard of a bear on the mountain, I blew it off as a rare occurrence of animals passing through from one habitat to another. I suspected it was also an official statement to avoid legal liability to the State Park Service in case someone actually encountered a bear. I reluctantly hung my food in a bear bag both nights on the trail, feeling somewhat foolish for doing so.
The trails on Grandfather Mountain are really better suited for hiking than backpacking. Even though there are about 10 campsites scattered around, I rarely encounter another backpacker on the trail, nor see a campsite in use. Some places the trail itself is steep, slick and impassible to anything less than a determined scramble up or down an almost cliff-like face. Other places feature overhanging rocks and even a few completely enclosed cave-like enclaves that require taking off the pack to push through. And most places the trail is so over grown with foliage that a tall backpack (especially an external frame, like mine…) will catch every few minutes on a limb. This weekend the trail difficulties were exacerbated by the constant mist, so that every time my pack frame touched a limb or batch of leaves, I got a cool shower.
Friday evening I camped at the Creekside site on the Nuwati Trail. Due to the recent dry weather, the springs and creeks were the lowest I had ever seen on Grandfather. Despite the campsite name, the creek was gone, leaving only a few tiny pools. I was barely able to find enough water to pump into my canteens. The same was true at the Daniel Boone camp site the next day.
After climbing the Cragway Trail, Boone Scout Trail and Grandfather Trail, Saturday evening I camped at Alpine Meadow, between Calloway Gap and Attic Window Peak. It’s short mileage which is compensated for by some really rugged places to climb and scramble. The real excitement occurred Sunday morning.
Due to the drizzle, I was sitting in the door of my tent to fix breakfast. I had just cooked a pot of grits and was waiting for it to cool before eating it, when I heard a light “whoofing” noise out of my line of sight. I peered out and there was a medium size bear, about 15 feet way, peering at me. He (or she) looked to be a nearly full sized adolescent.
I could not imagine being in a more vulnerable position. I was stuck inside the tent, with the food in the doorway between us, smelling to high heaven with fresh flavor. If I ran towards the bear, then that increased the risk of getting between him and his potentially nearby mother, with the chance of a bigger fight. If I sat still, then the bear would likely come inside the tent with me.
I jumped out and charged the bear anyway, yelling “Git” and waving my arms. He wheeled away, but only a few feet. He kept circling back towards me, and I kept yelling and waving. Eventually he came towards the pot and got within 15 feet again. I grabbed the big rock I had used to drive in tent stakes the evening before and heaved it at him. Fortunately he dodged it. If I had hit him, then he might have bawled and brought his mother running to attack whoever was tormenting her cub, or he might have reacted aggressively himself.
After a couple minutes of surging adrenaline, I figured out that I needed to break camp quickly and get out of that site before there was a more prolonged encounter. I had another dilemma. What to do with the grits? It would take too long to eat them. If I dumped them on the ground, it would be educating the bears to molest people to get food. If I put them in the pack, it would be carrying the smell with me and increase the chance of a personal attack and the bear tearing up my gear. I ran out of the camp site, up the trail a few feet and slung the grits across a tall swath of tree limbs where hopefully the bears could not eat them.
Breaking down camp was an exercise in moving determidly fast, while trying not to tear up my expensive gear, and constantly looking over my shoulder to see what may be approaching.
Twenty minutes later I was a half mile up the trail at the next campsite called Cliffside. The two campers there called out to me that a mother bear and two large cubs had just left them. The bears rummaged through their camp site. The camper father was not molested. His 12 year old son had laid on the ground to “play dead,” and the cubs had pawed and swatted him, but did not injure him.
The campers said that the bears left Cliffside going up the only trail in the area, the same direction that I needed to go towards my truck. That’s just great, I thought. My only way out was to follow the bears. With a lot of adrenaline pumping and a much concentrated watching for more sign, I moved on up the trail, too. I assumed that I would be shadowing the bears all morning, which were likely going from one campsite to the next up the same trail, looking for food. It would be very easy for me or them to bump into each other again. Fortunately, I did not see them again. The bears apparently stayed in the woods to get to the other camps, because I never saw their paw prints on the trail.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. The only sunshine that I enjoyed was at the bottom of the trail, after I had passed all the views. I thought about Hank Perkins and Kelly Pipes, with their comments about the constant clouds hindering views in the Smokey Mountains.
Later the next week, in talking with the park ranger on the phone, I learned that there had been a half dozen other bear sightings on Grandfather over the last several months. But mine and the Cliffside campers’ experiences were the first reported direct human contact on the mountain. She agreed with me that it would be a good idea to carry pepper spray in the future. I also thought, and probably better to hike than backpack.