I was 19. I had saved up enough money to buy some decent equipment (for the time). I headed off into the Smokies for a 5-day solo trek.
My first bear sighting was on the trail to Mt. Sterling. It was crossing the trail 100 feet ahead of me. I pause briefly while it wandered off. It was a cub, so that made me nervous about mamma’s location.
I arrived at Mt. Sterling and pitched my ultralight tent at the foot of the fire tower. More precisely, I tied one end of my ridge line to the tower. I had a freeze dried dinner. Sadly, I cooked in camp because I didn’t know any better. (Hey! I was 19 and it was 1989.) A couple of kids who had just graduated high school hiked up before dark. They climbed on top of a CCC shack and spread their sleeping bags on the roof. They’d heard there was a bear on Mt. Sterling and they were hoping to see it.
It got dark. I went to bed in my tent… at the foot of the fire tower.
I awoke to the sound of ka-click, ka-click. It was the sound of a bear’s claws climbing the fire tower stairs. (People occasionally tied off their food from the fire tower.) I shouted something clever like, “Hey! Get out of here!” As he came running down the fire tower, I thought, “Whoops! Bad idea. I am at the foot of the stairs.” He brushed my tent on his way off the tower.
“Hmmm… This isn’t good. It is only 9 P.M. This could be a long night if he comes back.” Fortunately, I’d hung my food using the Park Service’s recommended method of running one line between two trees and using a second line to suspend the food over the middle of the first line. I climbed onto the CCC shack roof with the high schoolers. We’d used a log as a ramp to get onto the roof and we pushed it away, so our bear wouldn’t have easy access.
The roof sloped enough that my nylon sleeping bag gradually slid down my foam pad. After this happened a few times, I removed my shirt, I lay directly on the pad, and used my bag as a quilt. The friction between my skin and the pad was enough to keep me from sliding off.
The next morning, when we climbed down from the roof, we found several muddy paw prints at about 5-6 feet up on the walls of the shack, so someone had been considering joining us.
I spent night 2 in an AT shelter. This was back in the days when they had bear fences and you can bet that I made sure the gate was closed. I had the shelter to myself.
On night 3, I set up my tent in a frequently used camp site. I was careful to wash my dishes well away from camp. Ditto for spitting out my toothpaste. I went to bed at dusk.
Just after dark, I awoke with a feeling that something was wrong. I turned on my penlight, looked around, and found a bear facing my tent, about 10 feet away from the door. I shouted and he ran off. I dozed off.
Maybe 10 P.M. or so, I awoke to what sounded like someone scuffing his shoes across carpet. “That can’t be right. There isn’t any carpet around here,” I thought. It was the sound of a bear sliding down a tree. And he had a friend at the base of the tree.
I yelled. They glanced at me, but were not impressed.
I climbed out of my tent, and ran in their direction – screaming and yelling and waving my arms (and my penlight). When I got about a dozen feet from them, they looked at me like I had a problem. I thought about it for a moment and concluded they were right. I had a problem – not them. So I backed off.
They went up and down the tree a few times, with me shouting and throwing sticks now and then. I wasn’t interesting, but the food on that line sure was.
I mentioned that I use the 2-line method, with one horizontal line between two trees and a second vertical line thrown over the middle of the first, and used to hoist the food up. One of the bears was up a tree that the horizontal line and he would pull on the rope and release it. It was clear he was trying to break it. I’d invested in good line and it held. I was feeling pretty good about my hanging at this point.
Then, the bears and I noticed that the pack was swinging. Bear number 2 went up a nearby tree, while bear number 1 continued to play catch-and-release with my horizontal line. The pack swung in a wider arc. More catch-and-release. Wider arc. When it swung near the tree with bear number 2, he reached out and peeled the side off my pack and the food back tumbled out.
The bears ran off with my food. I could hear them quarreling over it about a hundred feet away. I remembered hearing that bears were never really aggressive unless you fed them and then you quit. I hoped they’d understand that I didn’t really feed them.
Since they’d run off, I used the opportunity to scout around the site for some rocks, in case they came back for dessert. I was thinking, “If they got only half my food, I can finish the trip on half rations and make it back to my car.”
I sat down with back to a tree and my pile of rocks to wait for sunrise… maybe 7 or 8 hours away. I turned off my penlight, to save the batteries. I dozed off.
Crack! I heard a twig snap nearby. Flashlight on. 2 bears about 10 feet away! I shouted and threw a rock, and they backed off to about 20 feet. I sat down and turned off the light.
I listened as they crept closer. When they were about 10 feet away, I’d jump up, shout, throw some rocks, sit down, and turn off my light. We repeated this dance all night long. (Duracell batteries rock!) I considered running down the mountain in the middle of the night, screaming in a total panic. I rejected it as not an improvement on the situation.
At dawn’s first light, I shouted and threw all my rocks. They backed off to about 30 feet. I ran over to the line holding my pack, cut it with my pen knife, and the pack came crashing down. (I didn’t want to take the time to untie the rope, with the bears nearby.) I dumped out my stove fuel, threw a match on it, and I had a big enough fire to scare the bears off a little ways farther.
I threw a few sticks on the blaze and assessed my situation. Claw holes in my water bottle. The only food left was 2 packs of instant oatmeal. The side of my pack torn open. Time to bail.
I gathered my belongings, tied them to my pack frame and hustled a couple of miles down the trail to the nearest dirt road without stopping. When I reached the road, I started to remove my pack to take a break. I heard something move behind me and I pulled the pack back on and ran another mile down the road. Eventually, I flagged down a passing pickup truck and got a ride to campground run by a Cherokee couple. When I telephoned for help, the operator asked me to repeat my request for a collect call several times because I was hoarse from screaming at the bears all night long. While I waited for a ride, the woman gave me a bacon sandwich and wouldn’t accept payment!
Don’t ever let anyone tell you bears aren’t smart. Don’t ever let anyone tell you bears aren’t a risk.