Hornets, Snakes and Bears, Oh My!
Life with a wife and three daughters is already an adventure. Taking them all hiking on the Appalachian Trail is a grand feat in and of itself. Surprisingly, they didn’t complain very much. Instead, there was a good amount of laughter, singing, some screaming, and a few well-earned tears. We started out at Neel’s Gap, Georgia where my wife and I had ended our first AT experience. After adding a couple unexpected miles hiking from the trailhead parking lot, we passed through the Walasi-yi center’s breezeway. I took the lead. The girls were following me like little ducklings, youngest to oldest, and my wife brought up the rear to ensure the girls were safely sandwiched between us. Everyone was excited and optimistic with a can-do attitude born of many pep talks. Twenty-Three miles on the trail — no problem. I was loaded down with two tents and some basic supplies. My wife had the food stash and her gear. The girls had their own stuff and what wouldn’t fit in my pack because of the tents. We were only going to be out on the trail for one night. No big deal, right?
Hornets. That was all it took to throw off our game. About a mile in, the youngest started screaming in panic. “I’m getting stung!” She was grabbing at her clothes and shrieking at the top of her lungs. My wife ran forward telling Lydia to come to her. About that time, our next daughter, Mary Anne, started swatting at her leg and running with some gasps and yells. Then, I felt the sharp pain of a sting on the back of my leg, too. We all ran down the hill away from the hornets. Lydia was hysterical, and my wife was stripping off her clothes to make sure there were not more hornets in them. There were big lumps forming where the venom was spreading. Lydia had one sting on her chest, two on the back of her leg, and one on her ankle. Mary Anne had two on her ankle, two on her wrist and one on the back of her knee. Time for first aid. We had insect bite treatments in our first aid kit, that, and bandaids. My wife learned a long time ago that children tend to forget their “booboo” faster if its covered. We gave both girls ibuprofen tablets for the pain and had benedryl at the ready. We didn’t know if they were allergic to hornets. Luckily, they were able to calm down and we waited about 20 minutes to ensure they weren’t in danger of anaphylaxis. I had been stung before while mowing a yard so I wasn’t worried about an allergic reaction. Instead, I went to investigate the hornet’s nest to make sure we could journey ahead without getting stung again. I hadn’t seen them before they attacked, but I soon located a papery white nest on the side of the trail. Lydia must have hit it with her hiking stick. We had been following in close succession so that we could hear each other when we talked. I instructed the kids to keep about 10 feet between each person and walk ahead quietly without using their hiking poles until we were able to pass by the nest. I also said that if we were to get stung again that it would be better to run ahead instead of behind. That way we wouldn’t have to find a way around the nest since we would be past it when we stopped to treat the stings.
Man! Ten hornet stings within the first mile… We made it to Wolf Laurel Top for lunch. There were tall yellow wild flowers covered in bees. We gave the bees a wide berth. By that time the band aids were gone. The sweat had loosened them and the girls pulled them off. We checked the stings again. They were angry red lumps by this time, but the pain was bearable with the medicine. We praised the girls and encouraged them to hang in there. There weren’t many signs to help us know where we were so we kept moving. The girls had regained their spirit and sang or talked as we went. There was a wonderful view from Cowrock Mountain where we took pictures. The temperature was pretty warm by then. I had soaked my bandanna with sweat, but it was still a lot cooler than it would have been at home on the NC coast. Tessnatee Gap was marked, and we were still energetic. We stopped at a small runoff to refill our water. Someone had left a gatorade bottle with the top cut off for other hikers to use as a scoop in the shallow water. It was a chance to rest and get cold water. We crossed the highway at Hogpen Gap and felt the burn in our muscles as we climbed the earthen stairs up, up and up some more. The breeze at the top was a relief.
There was thick undergrowth along the trail, and we saw a garter snake. Well, I saw the snake. My wife quite determinately stayed away. Poisonous or not, snakes are not her favorite reptile. She loved the wildflowers, though. The downward slope was fairly easy and we made good time. Before we crossed the road at Hog Pen Gap, we found another surprise. Trail Magic. Two unopened jugs of water had been placed beside the trail by a good samaritan (trail angel). We used one of them and left the other. There was a sign for a water source, but it had all but dried up into a small, stagnant pool. The “trail magic” really helped keep us moving and well hydrated.
The sun was getting lower in the sky as we continued on. We were on the shadowed side of the mountain so it felt dark before it actually was. We were getting hungry and tired as we reached the crest at Poor Mountain. Our goal was 2.6 miles further along at Low Gap Shelter. We started feeling an urgency to pick up the pace so that we wouldn’t have to set up camp in the dark. My wife’s knee was acting up by this time and all of us were dragging, but we pressed on at a decent pace. It’s funny how everyone gets quieter as the energy-level dwindles. Finally, we made it into the valley around dusk. We had hiked 13.5 miles and were ready for a little rest. We hurried to set up camp and make our supper. There was a scout troop sharing the campsite. They were much more lively than we were. The creek was perfect for getting water and cleaning up our dishes and ourselves. I took a bit of a shower after dark by pouring water over my head and scrubbing with a cloth. It always helps me sleep when I can clean up a little before bed. The temperature was moderate that night.
Toward dawn, my wife woke me up. She said she heard an animal close by. We listened closely and suspected a bear. The “hurumph” sound was pretty distinct. Our food was on a bear cable so we weren’t as worried about it. We were not, however, able to warn our children to stay in the tent. They were up hill from us about 40 feet away. What if one of them decided to use the bathroom and found a bear outside the safety of the tent? The odds were slim since the girls were so exhausted that they were probably sleeping like little hibernating chipmunks snuggled in a sleepingbag nest. Nevertheless, I decided to scare off the bear if I could. Armed with bear spray, I made a lot of noise getting out of the tent and told the bear to “Get on out of here!” It was still too dark to see much, but I caught a glimpse of the bear climbing back up the hill away from the creek and the bear bag. I was getting back into the tent when I heard another strange sound. I recognized the grunts and sound of movement in the brush from my hunting experiences — Wild boar. I had noticed where some of the ground had been turned over the day before. Those hogs can make a mess of the undergrowth as they root around. I didn’t see them, but they kept up the noise for a while. We managed to get a little more sleep before daybreak.
Breaking camp the next morning was a bit of a challenge. None of the girls wanted to wake up. Then, it took a while to dress, eat and pack up. My wife was braiding one daughter’s hair while I was filling up water bottles. She was creating a pony tail for another daughter and leading the way to the privy while I packed one tent. She was administering medicine to the two with hornet stings and repacking the girls stuff while I folded up the other tent. The whole process was more complicated than anything we had experienced backpacking without kids. Needless to say, the Boy Scouts made it to the trail a lot faster than we did. The girls didn’t complain much, though, even with the soreness.
The morning was cool and the trail was fairly level. We joked about being the characters in the Fellowship of the Ring as we followed the path around the curve of the mountain. Around lunchtime, we stopped beside a small waterfall. The path had become increasingly rocky so we enjoyed resting our feet. We heated our meal, and we ate it along with the rest of our chocolate. We always take chocolate for comfort food. After the break we climbed higher. There were not many other people on the trail, but we passed a young guy who was headed the other direction. He caught my attention because he was barefooted. His shoes had fallen apart and his feet looked painful. Fortunately, he could wear my sandals. Hey, one less thing for me to carry. He offered to trade something for them, but we were finishing that day and didn’t need anything. He was at least 15 miles from any replacement shoes so we left him my sandals and wished him luck.
Things got really exciting on the final leg of the journey. We passed the Blue Mountain shelter around 4:30 pm. Our car awaited us at the bottom of the mountain. We were in good spirits, laughing and chatting. About that time, I looked up and saw a bear to my right, beside the trail! Surprise, surprise! The bear grunted and jumped and so did I. I immediately checked the tree tops to see if there were cubs. I didn’t see any. I pulled out the bear spray and we calmly talked to the bear as we backed up the trail. Denita escorted the girls back up the trail to the shelter. As soon as we they were up the hill and I was about fifty feet or so from our unwanted trail mate, I started trying to shoo him off by yelling at him so we could continue on our way. After yelling at him a few times, he slowly walked far enough off the trail that we were able to pass. The only thing I could conclude was that this bear was a bit desensitized to humans since it lived near the shelter. Either that or it was hard of hearing. I did get a few decent pictures, at least.
From that point on we had a downhill trip, literally. The path was rocky, and I had little girls with increasingly sore feet from climbing across boulders. Eventually, we heard the sound of cars on the highway. Our vehicle appeared through the trees and we felt like celebrating. A quick GPS search lead us to a pizza place about 10 miles south. The pepperoni and cheese was heavenly and the perfect end to a great hike with the family.