Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Next Big Trip

This weekend's backpacking trip was just enough to whet my appetite for more.  The Smokie's, like other great mountain chains, offer a variety of options.  Add to that the proximity to Nantahala, Cherokee, and Cohutta... and you have a hiker's heaven with lush areas to trek.  I've often considered what side of the US is the better to hike and I have an insatiable urge to test all of the epic areas out west... you know: Rocky Mountain National, Glacier (which is my fave and I want to LIVE there), Yosemite, Sierra Nevadas, Olypic National, Tetons... there are SO many places out there I want to go.  All of these places are dramatically different from what I have locally and while I may be green with envy for a few of those (Glacier and Yosemite, for starters!) I always try to remember that the range I have here is close, easily accessible, diverse, and ...HOME.

That being said, I know I have intent to go to the Rockies sometime soon (maybe next month?) and I know I'll be taking a trek to Glacier for a week or two (next year, I think) which leaves me ample time to plan a multi-day trek locally.

With so many different multi-day trails, I'm open to suggestions (either here or on Twitter using my handle: @Nicotye) but I'm thinking about doing the 16.5 mile Big Creek Loop in North Carolina.

What I'd LOVE to do is get my new Hyperlite Asym hammock first and then make my pops (whom i have aptly trailnamed: Methane Man) go with me.  

Sounds like fun unless you all have a better suggestion???

Go out and play!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Surviving My First Bear Charge

It was a perfect day.  The sky was blue and pocked with plump, lazy stratus clouds.  It was early, so the temperature was still tolerable.  It had rained the night before, so the trail was damp and perfect to keep your eyes peeled for tracks.  The damp leaves softened every footfall, so the sounds of the forest were alive.  We hiked the incline at a casual, deliberate pace.  Today, we had no set destination; we merely looked at what branched off the trail and, though we agreed that we'd take one specific trail if we made it that far, opted to take whatever trail looked the most inviting to us.

A quarter mile passed... half a mile... one mile... the incline leveled substantially.  We neared our first branch and stood for a moment, deliberating on how enticing it may be.  We'd never taken that specific trail, so there was promise of new adventure if we so wished it.  After a few minutes discussion, we decided to keep going and see what the next trail brought.

The main trail crosses over three mountain "streams" but, through the summer (excluding after rain) the creeks are normally barely flowing.  The recent rainfall didn't impact the creeks much, but it did leave potential for tracks.  At every creek, I would pause and inspect the forest floor, looking for tracks of bear, bobcat, deer, boar, and coyote.

We approached the third stream and I meandered over to it.  I heard a rustling in the forest on the hill above me.  My eyes immediately searched for the source of the scratching sounds.

"Jess," I said as I pointed up the hill, "cubs!"  Sure enough, two cubs were scrambling up a tree about 50 yards away.  They were taking it at quite a pace, too.  That, my friends, is NOT a good sign.  Bears climb trees for three reasons:  1) to escape perceived danger, 2) to get to some nuts or fruits, and 3) to rest or sleep.  When hiking, if you see cubs hauling bear tookey up a tree and you don't see momma in the bush, this can be a very bad sign.

"Awe! Yes," Jess replied, "oh look, there's momma!"

"Momma?!" my ears perked up and I leaned left to get a view from Jessica's vantage point.  She wasn't kidding.  We saw momma, NOT scrambling up a tree, and momma quite clearly saw us.  The following portion of the story will take far longer to tell than the encounter itself, but I swear to you, I will not embellish one thing.

Momma bear saw us and charged.  Immediately education and training kicked in; my hands were in the air, arms waving.  It's the equivalent of saying "I'm human" in bear.  She quickly closed the distance to 50 feet.  Jess's arms were in the air now, too.  We yelled 'HEY BEAR' as we waved.  She was charging down hill... this is worse than up hill because she's more inclined to follow through.  Momma bear closed the distance to 25 feet.  My yelling became more aggressive and loud - black bears respond to aggression (whereas a grizzly responds by becoming more aggressive).  She was 20 feet away.  I started snapping my camera with my right hand, aiming at nothing but hoping the flash would help make me look big and scary.  Now she was 15 feet away and I was reaching with my left hand for the bear spray.

Suddenly, she skidded... stopped.  She was somewhere between 10-12 feet away.  Her teeth were bared at us still, but at least she was stopped; behavioral signs indicating it was a bluff charge.  Still waving our arms and yelling at her, I told Jess quickly and quietly to very slowly step back.  We took a large but slow and deliberate step back.  Momma bear stood her ground.

"Back up another step, Jess."  We did.  Again, very slow and deliberate.  We had increased our distance between us and momma bear to about 15 feet.  She didn't realize it, but I was in the exact same mode that she was in: "if you threaten my child, I will attack and hurt you."

It was enough.  She turned and ran back up the hill to her awaiting cubs.  We stood our ground.  She gathered her cubs and they took off in the opposite direction.  Finally - after seconds that seemingly lasted hours - I was able to breathe.

"Jess," I said at last, "do you realize we were just bluff charged by a black bear?!"

Jess and I stood there for another 5 minutes, talking excitedly.  I glanced at the photos on my camera, not spending a lot of time on any as my adrenaline was pumping, and told Jess I didn't think I managed to snag her in any of the photos.  We continued to talk excitedly while we made our way to a backcountry unsanctioned camping area to sit and have a bite to eat.

We continued to talk over some trailmix and jerky and, on a whim, I wanted to look at the photos again.  I was calm now, and I was so very hopeful that I had managed to get even a shadow of her in one of the sure-to-be-out-of-focus pictures.  I hit the display on my camera and, right there she was.

Defensive Momma Black Bear after a bluff charge.  (Nic Pic)
How I missed it before can only be summed up by sheer adrenaline causing brain freeze.  In the photo in front of my eyes was an almost in focus, 10 feet away, teeth bared, pissed off and scared momma black bear.

I say it every time, but this is one of those cases that really brings it home: know everything about EVERYTHING where you plan to be.

Of note, I didn't manage to get a photo of the cubs.  I will report this sow and her cubs to the Cherokee National Forest rangers because this bear has been spotted by the trail 3 times in three weeks; twice by me.  I don't know if they will do what the Smoky's do (block the trail for awhile) because this is a wilderness area, but I should at least let them know that she is very active and consistently near the trail and that she has at least 2 cubs (she had 3 a couple weeks prior, but I can only verify a visualization of 2).

Now, go outside and have fun!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Nothing But Water and Woods?

Today Jess and I hiked Big Frog Mountain in Polk County, Tennessee.  I was anxious for this trip as I knew it was black bear country (and boar country).  I haven't seen a black bear in a few years, the last two I saw were in Glacier National (Montana) and the only wild bear I have seen in Tennessee was ages ago (15 years?) and the bear was quite far from me.  My aspirations, today, were to see a black bear.

A view from Big Frog, by Nicotye
Jess and I left around 6 a.m. and hit the trail around 8.  Not quite 2 miles into the 10-mile-round-trip I hear something "hear us".  Normally, the most noisy creature in the woods is a squirrel.  I swear, I have watched a large buck run through the woods and make less noise than a squirrel rooting around for nuts.  Whatever heard us, however, wasn't a squirrel.

It was big.

It huffed... not a deer huff, but deeper.

My heart started racing.  I started fumbling, hands over my shoulders, with the top of my pack to get my camera.  It was still making noise and was in a thicket not 30 feet from us.  I told Jess, "my heart is pounding!"

As soon as I spoke, even though it was a low tone, the animal started to run.  Instinctively I listened for the direction it was running and realized almost instantly it was running away!  The trail went around a bend immediately in front of us and I took two huge strides - forgetting the camera - and rounded the corner just in time to see it.

Maybe 50 feet now to my left a large (well, it would have come to my waist, so large to me!) bear was high-tailing it down the mountain.  I watched him bound for about 10 strides and one jump before he was in underbrush too thick to see him.  I got a great look at him (granted, from behind).  His ears were, for the record, freaking adorable.

After my missed photo op of a bear's bum, I opted to strap my trekking poles to my pack and carry my camera.  Now, you know as well as I do, this is a big, fat JINX.  It worked flawlessly, too... at least against bear.

About 4 miles later the terrain had shifted slightly and I told Jess, "keep your eyes open, this is pristine rattler country."  Less than 40 steps later, I let out a loud, startled "WHOA!"

Jess quickly caught up.  "Mom? What is it?"

I pointed.

Six feet in front of us, what in my wonder-filled eyes did I see?

A HUGE effing rattler, about to see ME.

Sorry for the lamer poetry there, but I was startled.  Just last week I found a rattler, but there was one difference:  I had MEANT to find that one.  This one was being totally un-timber-like and laying, literally down the center of our 12" path.  He was large, too.   Every bit of 4-feet long and as big around as my fist.  No sooner had Jess let out a gasp of wonder (I hadn't let her see last week's specimen), the snake realized we were there.  It went into a mildly defensive "S", staring us down.  It didn't "RATTLE" but it 'buzzed' at us.  Not a "ch-ch-ch-chhhh" but a "zzzzzzz".

Timber Rattlesnake, photo by Nicotye
"Jess, back up a couple steps," I whispered. She immediately complied, as did I.

No sooner had she and I backed up, it laid it's head back down and started to slowly move off the trail.  There was one problem.  It moved off the trail by, at most, 2-feet... and it was parallel with the trail.  I may have cussed a bit.  Making up my mind that it had moved for a reason (to be out of our way), I told Jess to get behind me and, never turning my front or taking my eyes from the snake, we eased past it.  As soon as we were clear I told her to step it up and we walked a little faster for about 15 feet.  I cussed a little more and thanked all that was green and good that I hadn't brought my dog, LeiLui.  On the way to a destination, Lui is always out front; there's no doubt in mind she would have been bit and killed.  After that, I'll admit, I went a little paranoid.  I'd go so slow I was almost in reverse any time that I couldn't see the trail (it was overgrown in spots).

Jess asked, "What's your deal, mom?"

I explained to her over the next quarter that timbers were the bane of the pioneers.  They aren't aggressive by nature, but their venom packs a punch.  If you startled an adult, there's a 20% chance that, when they bite, they won't inject you with venom.  But 20% isn't odds that are high enough to bank on.  Timber's venom is highly toxic and deaths have been recorded.  Moreover, survival rates decrease based on two things:  amount of injected venom (only the snake knows, initially) and length of time before treatment.  I then asked her how, if I got bit, she was going to haul me off the mountain and get to a medical facility in a couple hours when it had taken us 4 hours to get that far, not including the 45 minute drive to the nearest city.

Her reply?

"Well, if you get near it, you'll hear it rattle first."  Comforting?  Not really.  I explained that timbers aren't actually known for their over-use of their rattle.  They rely on camouflage far more than their rattles.

"Then I'd leave you."  Less comforting.

"You'd leave me?!" I exclaimed.

"Well, I'd leave you and my pack and run down till I got cell signal and then call 911 and give them your GPS coordinates to fly in and get you."

It was a good thing I never got bit.  I checked on the way back and we didn't get signal once on the trail and, once back on the road, we didn't get signal until 35 miles later.

We hiked the rest of the trip, and the trip back in peace.  I did have to make a quick trek about .75 miles back in to find one of Jess's trekking poles that a tree had pick-pocketed (which, of course, we didn't figure out until we got to the trailhead).  Luckily, I was pack-free so I walked at a good 3.5 mile pace to her pole and, literally, jogged back.  Nothing like adding an extra mile-and-a-half mallwalker/jog to the end of your lengthy, 3000-foot-vertical-variance hike!

15 rattles on this timber!  (Nic Pic)
In all, totally exciting trip and a magnificent picture to boot.

Just in case you were wondering, the timber had 15 'rattles'... which does not indicate he was 15 years old (snake shed more than once a year).

As always, learn about the areas your hiking in... temperatures, elevation variances, terrain, and FAUNA.  Study the facts that help you to identify signs, tracks, scat, and behaviors.  In the end, seeing wildlife in the wild... is the most amazing thing you can do.

As always: GET OUT AND PLAY!