It was late Friday night around 10:00 pm when we arrived at Fontana Dam Shelter in North Carolina to settle in for the night. After leaving work and driving five hours, I was exhausted and just wanted to climb in my sleeping bag, go to sleep and rest before our hike in the morning. Quietly we slipped in among the snoring hikers and already crowded shelter. There was room for two more so we did our best to set up our sleeping bags by headlamps and not disturb the exhausted sleeping hikers. Finally, I was settled into my sleeping bag snug as a bug in a rug and I waited for sleep to come. As I lay looking out into the night, the cool brisk air of 28 degree winds whipped in and out of the shelter while the full moon glistened across the lake. I pushed down deeper into my bag, listening to the leaves tumbling about and the lull of hikers breathing gradually putting me into a deep sleep.
“AHHHHHHHHHHH!” I was catapulted from my peaceful dreams to the plywood directly above me. Wide eyed and frozen in terror, hanging like a cat from the roof, again…..
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” the hiker next to me screamed again… “I hear something walking around outside. Did you hear it?” he breathed out frantically.
Still frozen in terror I was unable to speak, move or even breath for that matter. If it was a bear as so many hikers fear on the trail, how would I get out of the shelter? There was only one way in and one way out. If the bear is at the door, we are all trapped. Still I sat and didn’t move or breathe. The hiker next to me that had screamed twice was frantically getting his shoes on and grabbing his walking stick. I was unable to move.
A hiker across on the other side of the shelter calmly stated, ” Well if you heard something a second time, it was probably me sh*tting in my pants.” The whole shelter erupted in laughter and I for the first time took a breath of air and began to laugh too. Of course at this point I was wide awake as was everyone else in the shelter. Bear man was outside running around whooping and hollering making all kinds of noise (noise is supposed to scare bears off). My friend, Stacey, next to me laughed and said she thought the guy was dreaming. Either way I told her I had to go to the bathroom because he literally scared the pee out of me!
“Hey… are there women in here?” All the hikers were fully awake now and obviously did not realize we were there and that we were two women. We told them yes we were women and we were headed to the bathroom. The guy said “Oh… okay well I will change my sh*tty underwear while you are gone.” I told them that would be nice and thanks for sharing. The guys all chuckled as we headed out the door to the bathroom.
I have to say that thus far my trips hiking on the trail have been very exciting with bears, snow and just some very interesting characters out there hiking the Appalachian Trail. I guess it is what has taken me back.
We came back from our trek to the bathroom, settled in once again… 2:30 am… just a few more hours and we would be up and moving. Surprisingly, I fell asleep quickly even while bear man was still roaming around outside. I never heard him come back to get in his bag, but when we left out around 6:30 am, he was snoring away along with all the others in the shelter.
It was cold. The sun was starting to rise and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was going to be a gorgeous day. We headed down the mountain to Stecoah Gap where we would start our sixteen mile hike for the day moving north to end at Fontana Dam Lake were we had slept that night with “bear man.” We stopped and loaded up with a great breakfast… eggs, waffles and coffee. It would be evening before we would arrive back at our destination and eat again. Our goal was to be on the trail by 9:00 am. We made it by 8:50 am all smiles and ready to go…
We started our hike up the mountain slowly getting our “trail legs.” Slowly but surely we warmed up and began to shed our first layer of clothing. Stacey was having issues with her pack and it took several stops to get it adjusted right. I was having hair issues as I couldn’t find my pony-tail holder to keep my hair back out of my eyes.
Layer after layer came up as we moved along the trail and the sun came out to meet us for the day. I realized about four miles into the hike that I had an additional set up straps on my pack that I hadn’t even realized were there until I saw Stacey adjusting hers. When I found mine and tightened them, what a difference they made! They actually pulled my pack closer to the upper body around the shoulders which kept me from having to lean forward so much because I was being pulled back by the weight of the bag.
This is the thing about a backpack. There are so many adjustments and straps on a bag it is almost impossible to know what they all do. It takes several trips on the trail wearing the blasted thing to get it right and until you do it can be miserable. Luckily for me, my misery had been minimal!
We made it to the top pf the mountain and hiked along the ridge just taking in the beauty along the way.
The hike on this day was enjoyable.. up and down… allowing all muscle groups to be used… no five-mile hikes up and five-mile hike down… evenly distributed. The best kind. We were nearing the half-way point with a small shelter at Walker’s Gap when we heard voices, not uncommon to come across many hikers on the trail. These were no ordinary hikers these were the hikers from the shelter last night! They hiked from the other direction and here we would meet on this day face to face. Originally from Alabama, a dad, who had lost 45 pounds hiking the trail, and his son, who had just graduated from college, had planned for two years to do this thing together. They started hiking June 30th in Maine and had just miles to go to end their trip in Georgia… exactly 169 miles to complete the whole Appalachian Trail… WOW! One of the dad’s clients had flown in to hike with them for the weekend. This was the guy who “sh*t” his pants the night before. We asked him how he was doing after all the trauma? The guys howled and gave him a hard time. It was fun to watch him blush in the broad daylight 🙂 The other hiker with them was not actually with them, but he had hooked up with them in Virginia and they had been together since that point. He was originally from New Jersey and had just decided at age 36 he had no clue where his life was going so here he was on the trail, 65 pounds lighter than he had started! They were one man short…. where was the fifth guy from the shelter…. bear man? They told us he was about thirty minutes behind them… he had to sleep a little extra from all the bear hunting the night before. The dad noticed Stacey’s bear horn and suggested maybe giving bear man a little pay back should we cross his path. Stacey just smiled. We bid them farewell, wished them continued safety on the trail and many congratulations for their long non-stop hike from Maine.
We headed up the trail and within a few short minutes we noticed a hiker… the “Bear man.” We asked him if he was the bear man from the shelter and he laughed and said yes. We chatted and let him pass. Stacey pulled out her bear horn which is extremely loud. When his back was to us she laid on the horn. He shot straight up in the air. We began laughing and told him we owed him one from last night, “Hey, I saved your life last night!” We could hear the guys laughing down below with our encounter with the bear man. We wished him luck with the guys down waiting on him and moved on giggling as we went.
As we came into the last leg of the hike, about five miles left the view of Fontana Lake from high on the mountain was breath-taking…
This is why you do it… to see this. Of course the pictures don’t do it justice and the scenery along the way can never be captured to demonstrate the moment when you first see it. I can’t really tell you what it is like only that it is worth it… the cold… the crazy… the weariness…. the bears… all of it is worth it!
At the end of the day as I pulled into the little food joint on the river preparing to eat the best hamburger ever made, I was happy with the day knowing I had seen just a glimpse of God’s majestic beauty on display for all who dare to go see!
Below is the infamous shelter with ” Bear man!”