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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Best Laid Plans...Get Eaten by Bears

"One of the best things about trip planning is having something on the horizon to look forward to and daydream about - makes the desk job a little more bearable. But as the saying goes, "even the best laid plans often fall through," and this week that aphorism slapped me twice like my pimp.

This week I'm headed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a 3-day, 3-night gear testing, GPS-mapping backpacking trip with good buddy Zack. The smokies pose a greater trip planning challenge than some other destinations due to the Park Service regulations therein: specifically that, like Yellowstone, Glacier and others, backcountry camping can only occur at designated sites and shelter, some of which require permits. I had several guiding thoughts as I analyzed the maps: First, my partner on this trip had never been to the smokies so I wanted to hit some cool spots as well as highlight the diversity of the landscape; Second, Zack's full-timer as a teacher at sea-level in Alabama rendered him mileage-shy and so I had to consider his plea for sub-ten-mile days. Upon identifying a trip that fit the bill with both Fontana Lake and Gregory Bald as scenic anchors I booked reservations for three sites in the southwest, "Twentymile" region of the park well over a month ago.

Original Itinerary

BUT, Friday afternoon I received a voicemail message from the NPS at the Smokies' Backcountry office indicating that my reservation would have to be cancelled as my destination for Sunday night, Sheep Pen Gap Campsite (#13), had been closed for an undetermined amount of time due to "aggressive bear activity." Two thoughts immediately crossed my mind: 1) Great, now I've got less than one week to re-plan, and re-reserve this trip, and 2) BEARS? COOL!

I worked quickly to identify no fewer than four additional 30-mile loop trips that did the Smokies justice: Cosby to Tri-Corner to Walnut Bottom, Elkmont to Double Spring to Miry Ridge, Chasteen Creek to Pecks to Cabin Flats, and Pin Oak Gap to Mt. Sterling to Petty Hollow. Each of these trips worked on 10 or fewer miles per day and offered great variability in terrain touching both lush, bio-diverse stream valleys as well as lofty mountain ridges. Monday morning at 8am I was on the phone with Buck at the Backcountry office rattling off campsite numbers and dates like I was relaying coordinates for a bombing run - ALL FULL, back to the drawing board.

I analyzed the five trips that had been shot down for any potential reversibility, knowing that Sundays are easier to score campsites than Saturdays - was it possible that I had a more popular site as my Saturday destination that could be swapped with my Sunday pick? Not really, mileage became the issue here and I didn't want to have a super-short first day and then have to rush to get out on Monday. But then I saw it: Cosby to Walnut Bottom to Tri-Corner and out via Snake Den Ridge. Mileage total is 29 with 10 and 10 Saturday and Sunday and 9 out on Monday. Stream bottoms and ridgelines galore! With my heart in my throat I called Buck back for the 3rd time of the morning and asked tentatively, "Hey, Buck it's Peter again - Is Tri-Corner open on Sunday?" He responded with a bit of a snort and, "I doubt it!" but then quickly rescinded his skepticism and rejoiced along with me as the reservation was locked and loaded.

So now all I had to do was satisfy my own curiosity: What happened at Sheep Pen Gap Campsite that required it being closed to Camping? I asked Volunteer Buck, but he didn't know. I checked on the GSMNP website under News, but found nothing. The campsite is listed as closed under the backcountry closures sections, but again no details. Finally I got ahold of Ranger Randy who was able to shed some light. Apparently the bears in the area had been conditioned enough by accessible human food that they were now taking things to a new level. Bears in the area were robbing tents in broad daylight and refusing to leave the site even with humans present and making a bunch of noise. A grizzly not being intimidated by humans is completely natural, but a Black Bear turning up its nose when confronted means one thing: habituation.

While Randy couldn't provide any further details on what had led to these bears being habituated,the duration of the closure, or whether the bears would have to be relocated, it was abundantly clear that my plans had been shut down due to the carelessness and irresponsibility of other backcountry visitors. So what can be learned from this:

1) Hang or store your food appropriately when in bear country. Bears have noses that are 2100 times more powerful than a humans and they are VERY motivated by their appetites. Don't leave anything that smells good laying around and certainly don't sleep with it.

2) Keep a clean camp. Learn and practice Leave No Trace Principles.

3) If you see a bear in the distance do not approach it. Keep wild things wild.

4) If you have a face-to-face encounter with a Black Bear do not run. Back away slowly, make yourself seem big and make lots of noise. The goal is to scare the bear away and that should not be difficult.

5) In the VERY rare event that you are attacked by a Black Bear, FIGHT BACK! Hit it with everything you can grab. Remember, you are 160,000 times more likely to die in a car accident that at the hands (er, paws) of a bear.

So now the plan is to explore the far Northeast section of the park instead of the far Southwest corner. I am reminded frequently by this pastime that flexibility is very important in life. Even now that out itinerary is set (let's hope) there are a lot of outside factors in backpacking that can have a big impact on a trip's outcome (see my article: Anatomy of a Beatdown to see what weather did to our recent Wind Rivers, WY trip). Hopefully we won't be eaten by bears as I'd look pretty stupid after offering all of this unsolicited advice.

While I'm at it, here's some trip planning advice: When planning a trip with others form a distance one really great way to share information with friends, family and trip partners is by making a map and itinerary in the form of a .jpg file which you can e-mail to people. If you don't have any fancy mapping software, simply search around the web until you find a map of where you want to go. Then you can use that button on your keyboard "Print Screen", that you, if you're like most people have likely always wondered, "What does this do?" When you push the "Print Screen" button it copies a photo of whatever's on your computer screen onto the clipboard (screenshot). Then open up whatever generic drawing program comes with your computer - for PC users it "Paint" stored on your Start Menu under Accessories. Now click paste and voila - your screenshot appears, map and all. Now move your screenshot around until only what you need is on the screen and reduce the width and height (image attributes) to fit your map. Use the drawing and text tools to edit your proposed routes and make notes and then save as a .jpg file. You can now e-mail this .jpg to friends as a small e-mail attachment.

Have I mentioned I'm available for trip planning for a small fee...?

Happy Hiking!


  1. A few weeks ago I was attempting to pass the Double Spring Gap Shelter on the AT in the Smokies on a weekday mid-morning. I say attempting because a black bear was nosing around the fire ring directly in front of the shelter. After 10 minutes of watching, then beating our hiking poles, then shouting, "Go away!" we gave up and made a big detour around the area. The bear only looked at us casually and went back to its investigation of the shelter. I was very glad not to be staying there that night.

    Hope your final route worked out and you had a great trip. I am heading back to the Smokies for a few nights this week as well. Just can't get enough!

  2. Hi Peter. Thanks for your recent comment.
    I'm looking forward to the weekend when I'll have time to read more of your posts. I love reading about others' trips, and it looks like you have lots of good advice to share. I'm looking forward to reading about how this trip turned out as well.


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