A Smell to Remember

I am not sure how far that poor little mouse had to travel after I hit him, but he brought in the reinforcements.

The signs posted near the summit warned me, but I did not really think too much about any visitors when I laid down to sleep. The mice came to visit and were an annoyance, but it was the visitor about 12:15 or so that really got my attention.

Warning signs posted by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club at the summit of Springer warning of recent bear activity in the area.

I lay in my sleeping bag, all warm and cozy, visiting with my new mouse friends. The rain poured for most of the evening, but it actually warmed up a little. The mice ran and played. About midnight, the wind settled and the rain stopped. About 12:15, I awoke to the sound of a loud snort outside the cabin. It sounded like a dog as it sniffed the air smelling a scent. I am certain that it was not a dog.

In the darkness, I heard the plodding of some very large feet in the water outside the shelter. I sat up and listened intently in the pitch-blackness. There is was again- a snort and then more heavy steps. I got up out of the bag and quietly made my way to the small door in the eave of the shelter. I raised the metal latch and swung the door open.

I could hear the footsteps in the darkness about 15 feet away as the creature made its way from the side of the shelter around to the open front of the shelter. I flipped on my headlamp and shined it into the darkness. The heavy fog blocked any attempt to see the source of the noise. My light reached about three feet into the curtain of fog and dissipated into nothingness. I never saw the creature, but I am certain that it was large, black, and very curious to know who was staying at the Springer Mountain Shelter.

The map of the Springer Mountain Shelter area posted near the Appalachian Trail.

In many ways, I was trapped. I started to think about what I would do if it decided to make its way into the shelter and if it decided to climb that ladder to pay me a visit. I determined that if it made an approach, I would be ready. Just in case of such an event, I kept my hiking poles extended. I decided that if a bear climbed that ladder he might fight his way to me. If it got me, I determined that it would do it after a fight and would have to feel its way around without his eyesight to find me. I was prepared to drive those sharp, hiking poles through his cold, black-eyed stare.

He continued his stroll around to the front of the shelter and I never really determined his purpose. I suppose it was nothing more than curiosity or habit. I made my way back to the sleeping bag and decided to scare him off. I heard him snort again about 10 feet directly in front of the shelter. In the loudest voice I could muster, I screamed, “Get out of here” and pounded my boots on the wooden floor of the loft. His heavy tromps disappeared into the woods and the fog of Springer.

The mice and I renewed our dance- they climbed all over me and I raised up and shined the light. We did this over and over all night. The rain came and went. The wind blew and the fog rolled in and out of the shelter in a rhythmic parade. The acorns fell and beat against the roof. I was prepared to get up early and walk a little while before breakfast, planning to make it to the Stover Creek Shelter. I hoped that I could get some sleep and be on the trail shortly after sun up. Then it happened.

black-bear 2
Black bears are common on the Appalachian Trail and most incidents end with the bear running away to avoid human interaction.

I cannot say it was the same visitor, but, about 2:15 a.m. I was awakened by one of the most horrible smells that I have ever experienced. The smell of a nasty, wet dog filled the shelter and was so bad I actually gasped when it woke me up. I lay there on my back and listened to the rain. I could hear a guest directly under me on the dirt-floored section of the shelter. I was probably less than 10 feet from him. I twisted in my sleeping bag to look between the boards where I was bedded down. A board creaked loudly in the night. I heard one loud footstep as he stepped out of the shelter and then I heard him digging around the fire ring just in front of the shelter. The clang of the metal ring filled the night when he turned the ring over and then dropped it. I screamed at him and beat on the tin roof. He ran into the woods toward the bear cables and the privy.

Needless to say, the rest of the night was spent on watch duty. It was weird that during and after the bear visit, I did not see a mouse for nearly half an hour maybe because of the smell or because they knew who was there to visit. The rodent respite was short-lived. Once they realized that he was gone, the party at the Mouse Palace started anew.

bear (2)
The next morning, the evidence of my visitors was all around the shelter in the mud.  This Forest Service photo shows black bear tracks in the fresh mud.

I did not see either of my visitors that night. For all I know, they may have been the same bear. What I can say is that a close encounter with a wild, black bear in the total darkness of the wilderness by yourself has a way of clearing the senses and focusing the mind on your surroundings. I believe could have counted every raindrop as it fell to the ground. Neither guest returned that night, but there was more to be heard from my new woolly, stinky neighbors the next day.

To me, it is strange- I was not at any time afraid. I did not feel alone or isolated. There was a certain calm that descended on me and I actually enjoyed the brief mouseless time. The visitors in the darkness served to strengthen me and to make me feel even more a part of nature. I loved the experience, but I just did not want to be parts of nature scattered around the woods in little piles left by the bears who call Springer Mountain home.

After a few hours, I could see the glow of a new day and new adventures on the horizon. Despite the experience, I was still having the time of my life and one I will never forget.

I think my visitors spent the night like this- waiting for me to come out and play with them in the dark.  I was sorry to disappoint my new friends.  Maybe next time.

About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Appalachian Trail and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Smell to Remember

  1. Carolyn Robinson Green says:

    Stephen I loved reading about your adventure with the bear/bears and mice. I am so glad that you were able to keep your cool. If that had been me I would have freaked out! What am I saying I would never have had the courage to go out in the woods, alone and at night and lay with mice! Oh my it scares the bee jee-bies out of me thinking about it BUT!!! On another not it sounded exciting!! God Bless!


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