This is a story from my 2011 AT hike in the northern part of the Shenandoah National Park.
2011 was an exceptionally bad year for black bear activities along these ridges, but we didn’t know that until the following summer. There seemed to be higher competition for resources among the bear that summer, that much was certain.
We had already had our first three bear scares along the way. We had seen a black rump disappear into the brush on our first day. On our first night, we had two adolescents circle our campsite. By day three, you’d think we’d be a little more prepared.
We hiked southbound up a steep incline, chatting about books, mostly. On this particular leg of the trip, there were only four of us hiking together: three high school English teachers, and me.
One of the teachers had not yet had the chance to read the Harry Potter series. Earlier that morning, we had engaged in a lively discussion about which house each of us would be placed into by the Sorting Hat.
Those were the sorts of things you talked about when you don’t want to think about the weight of your pack or the steepness of the hill you’re walking up.
Suddenly, to our left, the blackberry bushes beside us shifted. Not just the shrubs, the slim young trees above them also moved. Accompanying the trembling brush we heard a big, deep, guttural growl. You aren’t supposed to run.
About a half-mile north of where we had heard the bear, we all stopped in a tight cluster. Gazing back up the hill, toward our campsite for the night, we all wondered if it was safe enough to pass through the bear’s territory now that we had woken it up and sent it further from the trail.
Blue Sky had a small can of bear spray, but of all of us, she was the most afraid of bears.
“Who wants to go first?” she said, holding the bear spray to whoever would take it. “You’re supposed to walk with your arm out, and have your finger on the trigger. Like this.” She looked like a Charlie’s Angel actress with a gun.
“Don’t look at me,” Ducttape said, shaking her short blond hair, “I’m a Hufflepuff.”
Blue Sky laughed, “Well, I’m a Ravenclaw, so I’m not going first either!”
I sighed, “Give it to me, I’m Gryffindor.” I took the can of bear spray, and led our team up the path. I had my poles in one hand, and the bear spray in the other, holding my arm straight and my finger on the trigger as Blue Sky had demonstrated.
(In case you’re wondering, I’ve taken a whole lot of Sorting Hat quizzes and I have always tested out as Gryffindor. I think this is because my inner adrenaline-junkie wins out over my brains. (I can admit that I tend toward the “brave and stupid” when it comes down to it.)
This is what happens when geeks go hiking.
Later, we decided that Choir Girl is also a Gryffindor. It makes sense. Choir Girl and I have been friends since we were four or five years old, and a good bit of the bravery and stupidity in our lives comes from our childhood games. “Let’s get ourselves really lost in the woods and then time how long it takes to get home.” She had also been the one who went after the bears circling our camp with her hiking pole leveled like a spear, so…. yeah.
Even later, right before we left the park to go home, we stopped at the gift shop at Big Meadows campground. They had this silly black bear hat that I needed to own. We took several shots of Ducttape hunched in the waving grasses of Big Meadows like the one above as a funny homage to the six different bear we had seen along the trip.