It was the end of the day. We sat around the fire in Spence Field Shelter talking about yet another great backpacking trip . . . and we waited for the bear. Tomorrow we would descend from the misty mountains to our vehicles parked in Cades Cove, then head for home. That is, if we survived the night.
We had arrived three days before on Sunday night. Monday we began the day by hiking a few warm-up miles near Newfound Gap. I appreciated this chance to work out some of the bugs. Then we drove on to Clingmans Dome. As we stood in the parking lot adjusting our packs and wondering what we had forgotten—or more likely what surplus poundage we were hauling that we really wouldn’t need—we asked a tourist to snap a photo of us: the seven manly mountain men. He informed us instead that we were a motley looking crew, to which Dave replied, “Thanks. I didn’t think we looked that good.” Other people smiled at us, probably because they were thinking that the sum of our combined ages nearly equaled the elevation of the lot we stood in.
We hiked the four miles to Double Springs Gap Shelter, and soon we were enthusiastically reducing the weight of our food bags. The sky began to darken around seven o’clock, and after hanging our packs in the trees on the cables provided, we were ready for the evening’s entertainment. Since we had forgotten the playing cards, we settled for testing our knowledge of the English language with “Word Powers” torn from old Reader’s Digests. I hike with a very literate group; they proceeded to slay almost every question. We played into the night until some of the group started to seem less than ebullient (B:full of high spirits). My first clue was when I heard someone snoring. That was OK. After all, it was after eight o’clock.
We set off early on Tuesday for a 7 1/2-mile day, our vocabulary richer than the other hikers we met who possessed more abecedarian (A:rudimentary) word skills. Along the way we encountered a busy work crew and thanked them for maintaining the trail. The terrain that day was not too difficult, but strenuous enough that when we reached Derrick Knob Shelter we would bloviate (C:speak or write wordily) about our manliness. That is until the 20-something hiker stopped in at the spring for water.
It hurt that he had started just that morning from where we had started the day before. It hurt a little more when he said he would continue on that day to Spence Field Shelter, six difficult miles on down the trail. That was tomorrow’s destination for us. And tomorrow he planned to hike all the way back to Clingmans Dome. Andy asked him not to laugh at our group because in 40-some years he would be us. Guys old enough to hide their own Easter eggs. He was cool with that, and we watched as he hurried away. According to Andy’s logic, I guess we could use the same Word Power pages again that night.
We awoke Wednesday to find someone sleeping on the picnic table. I was surprised when our young friend crawled sleepily out of his bag. He explained that after arriving at Spence Field, he immediately checked out the most recent entries in the shelter journal. That is when he found out about the bear. The one who had come into the shelter three nights before. Two young hikers in the loft had pitched lit candles at it, but that just seemed to tick off the shaggy omnivore. Then they started throwing food! The bear ate it all and stayed on. I figure it was waiting for dessert. As of 11:45 it was still in the shelter, a very long four hours after it had stopped in for the candlelight supper. After reading the account and eyeing the pile of rocks someone had stashed in the loft to deter uninvited guests, our energetic hiker retraced the 6 difficult miles back to our shelter–in the dark!
We wished him well as he headed east toward the Dome and we took on the trail ahead. We hiked mostly uphill all morning to towering Thunderhead Mountain, then to the breathtaking vistas of Rocky Top. I could understand a little better now why Wednesday is called hump day. It made me wish I was on one of those escalators they say are in tunnels under the AT. But I did like this trail. It appeared the bears did as well, judging by the amount of scat along the way. It seemed to be increasing in quantity as we neared the shelter. I was happy I didn’t see any candles in any of the piles.
So there we were, in Spence Field Shelter. Bold yellow signs warned us we would be killed by bears. I decided to sleep by the pile of rocks. I pulled out the bear safety brochure the ranger had given me at the office. After all, I wanted the bear to be safe. I read it again while listening to stirring out in the vegetation surrounding the shelter.
We saw nothing out of the ordinary that night. However, it was fun telling bear stories as well as playing our nightly Word Power game. Early in the morning I scurried to the privy, hoping it was not already occupied. The privy door had sported bear prints just five days before, at least according to the journal. The bear must have been checking it out for Charmin.
We packed up and left the shelter, then began our 5-mile descent to Cades Cove. On the last quarter-mile, lo and behold, our bear showed up. It lumbered across the trail a couple hundred feet ahead of us, then sauntered on into the woods. I guess he knew not to mess with seven peckish (C:a little hungry) mountain men.
We filled up on some McCuisine in Pigeon Forge. I fully enjoyed the hike and especially the comradeship. I hope Andy leads another hike next year. And after some reflection, I realize the shelter-crashing bear mentioned in the journal probably meant no great harm—its intrusion was really only a peccadillo (B:slight misdeed).