Just three weeks after Loonie and I were up at Spence Field Shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an AT thru-hiker sleeping in his tent outside the same shelter was bit in the leg by a black bear. You can read more about the incident here. The man was able to get free and retreat to the safety of the shelter but the bear later returned and tore up the same tent, as well as another. The injured hiker was carried out on horseback the following day and transported to a hospital to be treated for his injuries. The park service closed the shelter for precautionary measures (which is all too common) and waited to see if a bear returned. If one did, they would tranquilize it and determine, through DNA analysis, if it was the animal involved in the attack. The park service has since euthanized a large bear (approx 400 lbs.) and later determined it was not the bear involved in the attack.
I suppose we could go back and forth all day long about what should or shouldn’t have happened with respect to how the park service handled the situation. I don’t know that they had much choice but I’m not qualified to give an educated opinion on that aspect of the subject. It all does sound strikingly familiar to what happened last June to the teenage boy who was attacked while sleeping in his hammock along Hazel Creek. A bear was euthanized after that incident and, as it turned out, it was not involved in the attack. Again, could the park service have handled the situation any better? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: it is not uncommon to find food and trash left behind in the shelters, at the backcountry campsites and along the trail. Loonie and I, along with another couple, were the last ones to leave Spence Field Shelter on the morning of April 19th. We took a quick look around to make sure we weren’t leaving anything behind and to gather up any trash that might be lying around, which of course there was! Low and behold, on the bench attached to the side of the shelter, the one intended for preparing your food, there was an entire bag of food someone had left behind. We could have done any one of the following:
- Leave it where it was
- Hang it on the provided cable system
- Carry it out
We opted for number two in this instance as we figured that someone would likely return for their much needed food and not appreciate us carrying it out. If said person(s) had given up on their hike and decided to leave the food behind, then unfortunately we were leaving the burden of carrying the food out for either one of the park’s ridge runners or a volunteer trail/shelter maintainer. I do feel bad about that but I didn’t want to take the chance of walking off with all of someone’s food. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t want to leave it laying down next to the shelter as a handy snack for the next bear to come along.
There was food and trash left behind at all four shelters we visited on this past trip (three of which we spent the night at) and we’ve seen it in the past at most shelters and backcountry campsites. We typically try to carry out what we can. And it’s not just the shelters and campsites. On a three day trip back in 2013 that Loonie, my nephew and I took, which included a stay at Icewater Springs and Mt LeConte shelters, we encountered four college-aged guys out doing the same exact trip. It was obvious from the gear they carried, their mannerisms, the way they talked, etc. that they had done little, if any, backpacking. But that’s okay. Everyone has to start somewhere and they were having fun and enjoying being outdoors. They came into Icewater Springs before we left on the second day. We watched as they got setup. They were carrying items like whole cartons of shelf stable milk, cans of tuna, boxes of macaroni and cheese, entire boxes of snacks. One of the guys had carried in a heavy single burner propane stove and fuel cylinder like you would use when car camping to cook with. They were carrying a LOT of stuff and a LOT of weight. We left and headed to LeConte via The Boulevard Trail. It was surprisingly quiet up at the shelter. We were the only three there that night. No one came in after us and we didn’t notice anyone heading back towards the AT the next morning. Just after leaving the shelter the next morning, here they come. Right off the bat one of them says “Hey, did you see all of that trash someone threw off the side of the trail down there?” He was pointing back towards where they had just come from. We hadn’t seen a thing the day before. The trail was in great shape. So we moved on. Sure enough, about thirty minutes later, strewn all down the side of a hill just off of the trail were the empty shelf stable milk cartons, tuna cans, macaroni and cheese boxes, etc. Down the hill my nephew and I went to collect it all. We filled a 13 gallon trash bag full of those guys trash and hauled it back to Newfound Gap. We could have reported the incident to the park service and, in hindsight, I suppose that’s what we should have done. But I could just see it turning into one of those he said-she said kind of things.
Why do I bother mentioning all of this? Because I believe WE HUMANS AND OUR BAD HABITS AND THE TRASH WE LEAVE BEHIND are probably the biggest contributing factor to the problems we are seeing with these unfortunate human-bear interactions. It sounds like the kid (who was traveling with his father) attacked last June followed all necessary precautions for traveling and camping safely in bear country. Same goes for the guy just attacked at Spence Field Shelter a few weeks ago. From what I’ve read, they took the necessary steps to stay safe. So, I think its safe to say that its the careless behavior of those who had gone before them that brought about this problem. I’ve seen over and over again now how careless people are about leaving food and trash behind at the shelters, back country campsites and alongside the trail. Bears are going to do what bears do. If there’s an easy meal to be had, they’re gonna go for it. And they’ll come back looking for more. Hikers drop their packs at the bottom of a fire lookout tower so they can run up unencumbered by the weight (very common at Shuckstack). A bear comes along and finds a quick and easy snack. Now he begins to associate backpacks with an opportunity for his next meal and bad things happen. A hiker forgot that she left an opened energy bar in her tent before she went to filter water. A bear finds his way to it and now he associates tents as a ready food source and then things like what just happened at Spence Field Shelter occur. Sound ridiculous? It’s happening all the time. Just ask the park service for yourself.
I won’t lie. I’ve left stuff behind myself. If you’ve hiked enough miles, at one point or another you have almost certainly left something behind by mistake. It happens to all of us. The important thing to remember here is that we all have to work together. Like they always say: “Leave it cleaner than you found it”. Just some thoughts:
- Before you leave a shelter or backcountry campsite, do a quick check and pick up and haul out any trash you possibly can.
- Should you find any food left behind and you suspect someone will be returning for it (like the whole bag of food we found), hang it using the provided cable system. Should that be inoperable and you’re not equiped to or unfamiliar with how to properly hang your food, carry it out. If its just some leftover items or scraps, carry it out.
- Continually scan the trail and pick up any trash you find as go. Carry it out.
- Do not prepare or eat your meals inside the shelters! Most shelters have a bench on the side or in front that is intended for preparing and eating your meals. Even better, prepare and eat your meals before or after you get to a shelter or campsite if possible.
- Make sure to hang all scented items before leaving your space, tent, tarp, hammock or whatever unattended. Preferably, scented items shouldn’t go into these spaces in the first place.
- Never leave your pack behind to go check out a landmark, water feature, etc. Where you go, the pack should go. Never leave it unattended.
- Preferably, pack all scented items in odor proof bags such as those made by Aloksak. This should reduce the chances of food odors spreading to the rest of the contents of your pack.
- Consider hanging your pack instead of just your food bag. Many frown upon this practice. Some people hate it when you hang your pack. You get to a shelter to find it completely full and tents are setup all over the place. The cables are full of food bags and its a struggle just to get one more bag up, let alone a heavy pack. When I hike solo, its not such a big deal – my pack, food bag and any contents I won’t be sleeping in or with weigh less than many folk’s food bags alone, so I will often just hang the pack. It’s problematic, though, when hiking with Loonie and we’re carrying much more gear and weight. Depends on how many people are there and how full the cables are.
I’m sure there’s a lot more that I’ve overlooked and could come up with. And these are just my thoughts on the matter. Do not take them as gospel. I accept no responsibility for what may happen to you as a result of what you read here. Always refer to the most current park policies, which you can find here. Reservations are required for overnight stays at shelters and backcountry campsites and you’re required to check off that you understand the park’s policies, so please be sure that you do.
You’re also probably thinking that it would require carrying a pack the size of a dump truck to haul back out all of the crap you’ll likely run across. All I’m suggesting is for each of us to do everything we can reasonably do to cover one another’s butts and preserve and protect this incredible park and the incredible creatures that inhabit it. I think there are a lot of hikers that would scoff at the suggestions I’ve just made, saying most of them are pointless and unnecessary. After all, they’ve hiked countless miles and have never had a problem. These are my thoughts specifically regarding Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a park of roughly 500,000 acres containing approximately 1,600 bears and visited by over 10,000,000 people each year. There’s a vast network of trails to put all of those visitors in close proximity to all of those bears and unfortunately most of those visitors haven’t the slightest clue about how their actions can affect everyone that comes along behind them. Maybe we don’t have to go to some of the extremes I’ve suggested outside of the Smokies but I think they might go a long way to curbing some of the problems we’re seeing inside the Smokies.
Maybe this whole long-winded diatribe was just a reminder to myself that I’m the one that needs to be more careful and that there are some areas I need to improve upon. I know that I need to lead by example and not let my emotions and mouth get the better of me, that’s for sure! I’ve been guilty of that on more than one occasion and that does more harm than good. I need to set a good example. Maybe everyone will have a more enjoyable…and much safer…hike!
Update: Check out this article for more info on the latest attack in the park.
“Think of all of the beauty still left all around you and be happy.” ~ Anne Frank
More to come….