Winter Backpacking the AT

I have just returned from a 2 night backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park. Tom, Chris, and I hiked 3 miles the first day, a little over 12 the second, and 9 miles the third. Let me recap some of the highlights.

Starting at 3:30 PM Sunday at 29°F we hiked for 3 miles rising 1500 ft with winds generally between 20-30 mph. Ice covered everything for most of the journey; very beautiful. The ice added much to the journey. First, it was wonderfully beautiful. I thought it just really amazing how God takes the pretty much dead and broken forest, covered it with ice, and then just setup the lighting (aka the sun) to reflect creating a sparking landscape. The ice that had fallen from the trees (due to the wind) completely littered the path and forest ground. This made it seem like we were walking through a major spill of a Ready Ice truck for the journey. We reached camp at 25°F where I failed at starting a fire (far too windy). After dinner, the three of us sat in our sleeping bags chatting for a couple hours each with a cigar, pipe, and our share of the fifth of Jim Beam. We went to bed around 21°F.

After a decent night’s sleep, giving credit to Mr. Jim Beam, we awoke at 17°F. We learned this morning that it would have been a good idea to sleep with both the stove fuel and water. Also, as part of an experiment, I slept in my bag with only long-johns on while the other guys slept with several layers of pants and coats. I was warm the whole night long, while the other guys were cold for parts of the night. However, after some internet research, it looks like the only thing to substantiate the “sleep warmer when naked” statement is the fact sleeping with damp clothing can be chilling, clothing can restrict circulation, and too much clothing could actually compress the bag – causing a loss of insulation capacity.

What a great day. We started the 12 mile hike at 21°F. After the sun rose, we pretty much hiked around 30°F throughout the day. About 5 miles into the day, we came around a bend to have a medium sized deer jump up to our right only 10 ft away. It then flashed its beautiful white tail and jumped around 10 ft away and looked back at us. We admired the deer for a few minutes, talking to it, etc. As we began to walk along the deer tracked us to our right about 15 ft away. I was actually a little concerned at this, because I don’t expect a deer to walk alongside of humans. This is just not normal behavior. After another 30 ft of walking, the much larger deer appears to our left – only 10 ft away. We speculated the mother – no antlers and much larger than the first. We didn’t seem to be in danger even though the three of us were directly between the two deer, so we talked to the mother and admired her for a moment before we proceeded with the rest of the day’s journey.

Now, apparently an incredibly rare experience. We are walking along the mountain; I’m leading, with Chris 20 yards back and Tim another 30 yards behind him. As we are walking there is ice falling from the trees consistently, so I’ve tuned out or dismissed most sounds around me as merely ice falling. I hear some noise above me on the mountainside. I look up and see the fallen trees sparking in sun. I dismissed the noise as a larger piece of ice falling from the trees. About 20 yards later, I hear a noise again and look up to not see anything. As soon as I’m turning my head away, I hear a loud crash and quickly look up; attentive. “Wow,” I think to myself. There is a black bear only 40 yards up the mountain from me. I have no time to think or react or anything. The bear is moving incredibly fast. As it is barreling down the mountain, I think to myself, “I have no gun or knife or anything.” By the time I can think this, the bear is crossing the trail only 30 ft in front of me. I am completely tense and speechless. I wanted to tell the other guys to hurry up to see the bear, but I didn’t want to do anything until I felt the bear was safely away. Once the bear is 75 yards below me, I call to the guys to hurry if they want to see a bear. Chris runs up and I’m able to point out the black mass moving in the valley. Once Tom gets there, the bear is no longer in sight.

I had one very clean look at the bear, when it was directly in front of me on the trial. I’d have to estimate it was about 400 lbs. This confirmed the fact that there is no chance of anybody outrunning a bear. In the time it took Chris to run up to me, the bear has practically gone down the entire mountainside. While relaying the story to Tom, I found out that in all of his experiences he has never seen a bear. And, after getting home today, I learned that Phil’s dad has only seen two adult bears in his 32 years of spending time in forests for two days a week. Wow, God has totally blessed me with a fantastic camping trip.

We reached camp in the evening to the pleasant surprise of a firelog. What a wonderful relief to a 12 mile hike. We were able to start up the log and let it dry off the other limbs that we found to eventually create a large fire. We sat around the file chatting and drinking some Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve. We went to bed and got up at 25°F. The hike back to the cars (9 miles) wasn’t very eventful. However, I did learn, with 3 miles left, that adjusting my pack to my body really makes carrying it much easier. I should have read some of the instructions.

Overall, the trip was awesome. It was very cold and very windy. It was beautiful. It wasn’t easy. We were/are sore. We learned. We saw some fantastic wildlife (aka the bear – too bad that was mostly me). We shared – food, stories, tasks, weight, etc. It got to relish in how great God is – such beautiful creation, so diverse, highly creative, and incredibly intricate.

I can’t wait to do this again with some other friends in couple months.

Some topics that came up:
Anamalia (Kingom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Species):
Black Bear:
Brown Bear:

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Jason Lund

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