Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Start: Neel’s Gap, Georgia AT
Finish: Blue Mountain Shelter, Georgia AT
The day starts late for me, and for the first time on this hike, I start out alone. Immediately out of Neel’s Gap is an 800 foot climb up Levelland Mountain. I wonder how a mountain this steep is called Levelland?
I quickly hike the section from here to Tesnatee Gap, the area that is closed to camping because of bear activity, without any sense of danger or trepidation whatsoever. Time of day makes all the difference, I guess.
The solitude of the walk makes the day special. Being alone with my thoughts and working through long climbs which produce volumes of perspiration in the cool air, I feel ever closer to God. I find myself singing his praises for a wonderful creation. And with that in mind I contemplate the state of the forest as I have seen it so far throughout Georgia. It appears this entire area has been clear cut possibly 50 years ago. The growth is thin and the canopy even thinner. I remember reading of pioneer days when these mountains are covered with giants. They are long gone now. Few of the trees are timber quality and at best could be cut for pulp. It seems a shame nothing was left for this generation to enjoy. And yet, it is still wonderful to be out here.
Along the way I pass by all the hikers who started ahead of me. It’s not that I’m a fast hiker, I just don’t take many breaks. I prefer to go at a sustainable pace and catch my breath on the downhills. I first pass the couple from St. Augustine. A little later I pass Bojangles, Curly, and Apparichian. Finally I pass David from Greensboro, the only hiker left from the group which started at approximately the same time and met on Hawk Mountain on Sunday night.
10.7 miles from the starting point at Neel’s Gap, I reach Deep Gap. It’s about 3:00 in the afternoon. I’ve made almost two miles per hour which is like a foot race in these mountains. Arriving at the shelter I meet two men who are hiking the opposite direction, southbound. They are ultralight packers, something you can do when you have a lot of experience, money, and will. They claim their packs are in the low 20 pounds, something to be envied. I just can’t decide what I might do without to lose the extra weight. Of course, two people sharing items which are mutually usable can shed several pounds, and if you are willing to put up with the mice and sleep in the shelter, you don’t need a tent.
The two are from Tampa and we muse about the difficulty of training for the mountains while living in flatland. They see the patch on my pack proclaiming the Florida Trail and we talk about it briefly.
Soon after Bo, Curly and Apparichian show up, drop their packs, and go for food. Shortly after that David from Grensboro shows up. We’re all together, one happy family.
3:00 is too early for me to leave the trail for the day and we talk about the trail ahead, the one the Tampa Two have just travelled. The trail from Low Gap to Blue Mountain Shelter is seven miles and I consider the five hours of daylight which remain. I seem to have forgotten how spooky the woods seems to be late in the afternoon and decide to go ahead. Part of the decision is based on the claims by the Tampa Two that the next 4 miles are as easy as any on the trail in Georgia. The trail follows an old forest road and though it is uphill, it is at an easy road-grade slope.
The late afternoon walk is pleasant and I’m rewarded with several views. The trail between Cold Springs Gap and Chattahoochee Gap is a little more rugged with a 400 foot climb leading to the Jack’s Knob side trail.
After rounding Red Clay Gap and approaching Spaniard’s Knob (a mere dot on the USGS map) the trail became very rocky and the going slowed down to a crawl. Rounding a curve I glanced up and saw something black. In the woods one sees many things that are black. Most of them don’t move and are tree stumps. This black thing moved.
I stopped with the same suddenness at which I realized I had come across a bear.
“There you go,” I said to myself, “hiking late in the day when things start to get a little spooky!”
Though everyone wishes to see a bear, it is difficult to overstate how uncomfortable it is to meet one in its own environment. My senses are heightened to 11 on a ten point scale and the rush of adrenaline could fill a quart bottle.
The bear turns toward me and we make eye contact. There’s no question as to whether he saw me, and can I just tiptoe away? He’s looking full in my eyes and I’m looking full in his.
Black Bears are not large, as bears go, so I assume this is a fully grown adult male since it appears to be every bit of 400 pounds. And now comes rushing to my memory all the stories of how fast bears are!
Decision time. I’m vulnerable, I have no weapon, and I’m in a staring contest with a bear about 100 yards away. My preference is to pass along the trail and continue on, which brings me closer to the bear, which is uphill from me. I’m hesitant to close any distance, but I accomplish nothing by retreating. Ultimately I need to make the shelter at Blue Mountain, still at least two miles away. I decide to go on my experience that most animals run away from humans.
I speak loudly, “Go on home, there’s nothing left to see here,” wondering if the bear is as amused with my words as I am. I wave my hands in a shooing motion. The bear slowly turns and retreats, then stops and turns back around and looks at me as if to say, “Where am I going? I am home.”
We stare a few more moments then I do what I hope is not the most foolish thing I’ve done in my life. I suck up my courage and proceed along the trail as though I own it, completely unconcerned with Mr. Bear’s presence. But I do keep watch out the corner of my eye. He just sits and watches me pass.
Once around the bend and out of site, I cover the quickest mile I have ever covered on the Appalachian Trail.
The last two miles seem to last forever and I keep glancing back. But there is no bear following me. I pass a marked camping area, but there is no one there. There is no way I’m camping away from people tonight. I pass two marked springs, then finally, after an interminably long time, I reach Blue Mountain Shelter.