The spring came first. I’d never done water filtering before, and I’m a giant dork, so I was excited to try. I also apparently drink five times more water than everyone else. (That’s probably due to being an endurance athlete in the South?)
Campsites seem to be far and few between. No place was flat enough for our tents. We were allowed to camp at large, but it has to meet certain criteria. So, we trudged on, keeping our eyes on the sides of the path for viable spots to camp for the night. We wanted to camp by six to have plenty of time to cook and everything before dark, and so we could get a little extra sleep.
As we meandered into Jenkins Gap, we saw the aftermath of a forest fire, and the incredible growth that sparks from the ash.
It seemed like it had been a while, that the forest had had time to recover. I made a note to research how long it actually had been. And I’m amazed to learn that it had only been five months since the forest blazed. Five months, and the blackened trees all had sprouting babies at their roots, the forest floor was covered with bright green and lush growth.
The colors were the reverse of my memories of spring time in Amish country – those freshly plowed fields with black soil like thick piled velvet, and the rows of emerald buttons – tiny plants sprouting green and glowing against the humus.
This was more like the forest from a fantasy novel. It had the same glowing green, but that was the backdrop, instead of the highlight. Sunlight flooded the area because there were no treetops left to canopy the trail, and the bright green blazed with new and rampant life. The black, twisting trunks and branches of the trees left behind were the embroidered accessory at this point. It was lovely in an eerie way.
We were back up on Jenkins past the fire-lines when we finally found a campsite. Exhausted, ready to sit down and take our boots off, we started setting up our tents on the flat space… until we noticed the adolescent (meaning only about 150 lbs instead of 300) black bear circling our campsite. (He’s circled in the photo, apparently I suck as a photographer when faced with bears.)
Now, after retelling this story a number of times, I can honestly say that DuctTape is the best at relaying the imagery, the curiosity of the bear, our fear, the wonder of getting that close to a great big wild animal. He wasn’t hostile, we were merely recognized as a source of food.
We clanged our hiking poles together and shouted until he was convinced we weren’t going to make him a sandwich. Shaken, we figured we needed to get dinner done and those bear bags hung as quickly as we could to deter further visits… until he meandered back around from the other direction.
Again, we made a bunch of noise and refused to feed him. Again, he wandered off. This time, we decided that we weren’t going to be able to sleep there. Not with a bear snuffling around while we huddled in our tents. So, we took down the tents and crammed stuff back into our packs.
While we are in this process, a few guys hike past on the trail. We warn them of the bear, they warn us in turn of “the biggest bear I’ve ever seen” further up the trail (which only makes me think there’s a mama to this teen). They also say that there are “a whole bunch of tents” further along, meaning a viable campsite and safety in numbers. They estimate it is “about a mile” further up the trail.
Then, a second adolescent, this one with a white streak on its face and snout comes sniffing around our site. We repeat our clanging noisy “drive off the bear” routine, and this one is bold. He gets close to us – like 10-15 feet away from us. Most of us dive behind a fallen log, still shouting. ChoirGirl manages to get the bear to leave us alone. Honestly, in my panic, I barely remember that. I just remember relief, and picking up my wonky, poorly packed pack and taking off down the trail. DuctTape says ChoirGirl did it. I believe her.
Fueled by fear and adrenaline, we march down the trail at lightning speed, barely noticing the hill we’ve climbed until we are winded at the top of it. Nervous about the mama-sized bear, we sing at the top of our lungs down the trail.
What do we sing? “The Littlest Worm”. Aw yeah, breaking out the Girl Scout tunes for the super intimidating “swallowing a worm” story to scare the bears away. I think it was oddly comforting, though. And the call and response nature of it really lends itself to hiking.
In the end, we hiked about 2.9 miles (those guys didn’t know how far back they saw those tents!) We crossed the Skyline drive, and a few of us were considering waving down someone to help us get somewhere populated. The bears were scary. We were beyond exhausted. We had had enough.
DuctTape and I scouted ahead, and we found the tents! We found two troops of boy scouts, actually. And the knights in wicky clothing took our packs, promised to find us a site to camp, and sent us back down the trail to urge our little group to hike just a little bit further. Without my pack, and fueled by hope and safety and the promise of finally sitting down, I jogged down the path, and it felt glorious. I really need to find a way to do more trail running.