I stumbled out of the woods at Bear Mountain State Park in New York. I was parched and exhausted. The spring some miles back was dry and my complete attention was fixed on the first thing I saw – a water fountain! Disregarding two people I lurched forward and spent what seemed like five minutes gurgling, slopping, and slurping enough water to distend my belly. Finally sated, I stopped, wiped my brow, and shed my backpack. I looked at the two people I had until now ignored.
The man looked precisely like novelist Tom Wolfe. He was dressed like Tom Wolfe. Completely in white. White hat. White shirt and white jacket. White slacks. White – patent-leather shoes! Beside him sat his lady-friend. She, too, was in bridal white, right down to the bleached handkerchief she had just plopped down on the rock upon which she sat, no doubt to shield her pristine dress from becoming soiled. They fixed me with a stare and gaping mouths. I walked over.
“Where have you come from?” the woman began. “Georgia,” I gasped. “You mean you…walked here from Georgia?” I nodded. Her eyes grew wide, as did her male companion. Silence was thicker than the humidity around us. I was waiting. Waiting for “the question,” which came sooner than I ever expected it to.
“You mean,” she continued, “…I mean…aren’t you afraid of bears and snakes??” I smiled. I had to resist the urge to snap my fingers. Instead, I calmly explained what I felt were the real risks of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and bears and snakes are far down the list. Seeing their confusion and genuine disbelief I bid them a good afternoon and shouldered my back, disappearing into the woods.
High controversy and debate sometimes surround the issue of what is genuine risk in undertaking a long-distance hike along the Appalachian Trail. That there are real risks is undeniable. It remains to sort out which are foremost and which are of lesser concern. It surprises many that the cliché “bear and snake” risk is not as pronounced as believed.
Each hiker will have their own personal list, based on their anxieties and expectations, and sometimes bears are the most feared and dreaded. Perhaps it might be a fear of coiled reptiles lying in wait behind downed logs which cross the trail way. Wildlife is abundant along the A.T., and one is certain to meet some of the fauna there; that’s part of the draw of the trail. But the potential harm wildlife encounters propose pales in comparison to other possibilities.
Here’s my list, in order of perceived potential risk:
Hypothermia (exposure); being caught in violent storms; lightning strikes; having a serious fall; suffering sunburn or heat stroke or exhaustion; crossing highways; fording streams and rivers; lyme disease; rabid animals; insect bites; spiders; hornets; wasps; black bear encounters; venomous snakes; poison oak and poison ivy; stomach ailments; norovirus; contaminated water; crime.
Everyone will have a different experience on the trail. For me, I had a nerve rattling encounter with hypothermia while backpacking in the Maine wilderness. I was also laid up at Speck Pond shelter in Maine for three days with a severe case of giardia. After a third day I managed to hike to Gorham, NH and get attention. I had a black bear visit at a state park in Pennsylvania, but managed to deter him getting my food and gear; still it was pretty close. I dodged lightning in New Hampshire, but there were no close strikes. Still, that shot adrenaline through my veins and I’ve never walked so fast with fifty pounds! I was spiked by a hornet in Maine, which also sent me jogging down the trail to avoid further stings. Falls? Too many to count, but none serious.
The list above is based on the greater likelihood of event, and not on melodramatic or perceived actual hazard. This does not mean you will not see a snake or bear. What it means is you are less likely to be harmed by them than being caught in an exposure situation high in the mountains, or being struck by lightning.