Monday, July 11, 2016

Bear Watch 2016 - Backpacking in Shenandoah: Brown Moutain Trail, Rockytop Trail and the AT

Our weekend backpacking plan was simple: Complete the Brown Mountain - Rocktop loop in Shenandoah. The route called for 3 days of hiking: a 5.5 mile hike in, a 10 mile hike on Saturday, and then a quick 3.4 mile hike out on Sunday. The route specifically mentioned fishing and wild blueberries. I had visions of completing the long hike on Saturday and then kicking back to a relaxing afternoon of fishing and foraging.

Of course, outdoor adventures rarely go as planned. In our case, we didn't even have to get on the trail before the plan was significantly altered. No, that happened at the entrance gate to Shenandoah. As we handed the ranger our entrance fee we noticed a sign saying that Big Run Portal Trail was closed, and that there was no off-trail camping allowed from Brown's Gap to Loft Mountain Campground. Both of these closures were due to unusual bear activity.

There are over 500 miles of trail in Shenandoah National Park. On the day we arrived there was exactly one outage in the whole park, and it happened to be an essential 3 miles or so of our route. D'oh.

We didn't panic. Looking at the map, we realized we could re-route and include the AT in our trail. Of course, the second limitation of the park said that there was no camping allowed on the trail that we'd be re-routing through.

Oh well, we'd figure it out when we needed to.

We drove to Brown Mountain Overlook, suited up and took a few before-selfies. As we started to walk down the trail to begin our hike, a woman approached us. She just wanted to share that she'd hiked down the trail we were about to enter, but high-tailed it back to the parking lot when she encountered a momma bear and her cub. Black bears are generally considered quite harmless. But get between a momma and her cub and all bets are off. Still, we decided to go for it and off we hiked. Sure, we were a little more on edge and talking a little louder than usual, but into the wilderness we went.

After about 15 minutes of hiking we pretty much relaxed and started to take in the scenery. And man, was it gorgeous. Here's are excellent descriptions of the trail and area: Brown Mountain Trail, Brown Mountain - Rockytop Loop. In short, the trail takes you through a section of the park which had large fires in both 1986 and last May(!). The result are that many of the large trees were burned out, and the views are spectacular. Furthermore, the smaller plants are thriving with all the sunlight. The contrast between the lush green new growth and the charred remains of the fire is really something to see. It's not quite as dramatic as the lava fields we walked on at Volcano National Park, but it's in the same spirit.

We arrived and camped at the top of Big Run Portal trail. You know, the trail that's closed for unusual bear activity. We camped at a section of the trail that was not closed.

We had not one, but three gorgeous campsites to ourselves. All three were situated next to Big Run, which had a healthy amount of water flowing in it. We used one camp site for our tent, one for our cooking area, and the farthest one away as our bear bag location. Dinner was our traditional hot dogs and marshmallows. I did take some recent inspiration from the historic cooking channel I'd been following, and wrapped my hot dog in some improvised dough. The whole thing cooked up quite well and was a tasty treat.

We awoke Saturday morning to find our bear bag totally undisturbed. All was good. We had a quick no cook breakfast, packed up and headed out. About 200 yards out of camp, Shira who always walks point, came to a quick stop and let out an expletive. What!?, I asked. She'd seen a flash of fur cross the trail up ahead and was naturally a little cautious. After a few moments we continued up the trail. I never saw a thing. Ignorance, in my case, was bliss.

We then merged onto Rockytop Trail and made the 5.7 mile hike down to the start of Big Run Portal. Like the first night, this trail was most excellent. It had wonderful views, and while we gained quite a bit of elevation, much of the steep climb was at the beginning. As promised, we found tons of wild blueberries, and noshed our way along the trail. I'd never eaten blueberries on the trail before, and was thankful I had my Wild Edibles app to verify that we were in fact eating blueberries. We crossed a number of "Talus Rock Formations" which made for impressive views and a fun break in the terrain.

At one point on Rocky Top Trail, Shira noticed what could have been a pile of bear poop (known technically as scat). I agreed that it could indeed be bear scat, but it looked pretty old. About 10 yards later we found a larger and fresher pile of poop and there was no mistaking what animal had deposited it there. Dang. There was nothing to do but keep hiking.

After 5.7 miles of hiking we arrived at the bottom of Big Run Loop Trail. As if we thought we could ignore the warning posted at the gate, the trail had police tape and printed flyers repeating the alert from the previous day: the trail is closed due to bear activity, move along. So we did.

After what seemed like a half mile or so, we arrived at Skyline Drive and joined up with the AT. It's also at this point that we saw our first fellow human being on the trail. It was pretty sweet doing all of Brown Mountain Trail, camping and doing all of Rockytop Trail all without seeing another individual.

Looking at the map, we were about 5 miles of road-walking away from our car. Given that there was no camping allowed, we figured, what the heck, we'll hike the AT till we either find a legal campsite or we hit our car. As we hiked along we met plenty of day-hikers and one even explained to us the cause of the closure. Apparently, on Big Run Portal trail, a bear approached a hiker, and rather than scurrying off when the hiker made noise, continued to approach. The story was that the bear got close enough to the hiker that he could hit and poke the animal with his trekking poles, at which point the bear loped off. When we got home, we checked Shenandoah's alerts page and to our surprise, the incident happened exactly as the hiker reported. Bears are supposed to be skittish animals, so I appreciate the park taking extra precaution when a bear gets a little too comfortable around humans.

The section of the AT we walked was quite nice. It had some wonderful views. It was also way longer than the 5 miles of road-walking the mapped called for. We never did see a suitable campsite. Eventually we popped up at Ivy Creek Overlook. We'd need to do the last half mile on the road to hit our car. We took a few last photos on the trail and headed out on Skyline Drive. At this point, Shira turned around and saw 2 or 3 cars stopped on Skyline Drive and their occupants out of the car. And a few yards away from these on-lookers was a bear. The bear looked like a lost puppy. We weren't close enough to see exactly what was going on (was the bear trying to cross and the people in its way?), but it didn't look Kosher to me. Here we had spent 2 days on the trail, carefully avoiding bears, and here were a group of people practically trying to pet him. With this kind of behavior, it's no wonder that bears are going to get more curious than afraid of humans, and that's bad news.

After 12 hours of hiking and 17 miles, we arrived at our car. Whoo! We changed into fresh clothes, and hung out as the sun began to set. Man, it was perfection.

For nearly the last 30 years, I've hiked and camped in bear country. They've always been a non-issue. I've got to say, showing up and hearing about the bear alert, I did have bit of concern walking in on the trail. I can't tell you how glad I am that I ignored that extra bit of anxiety. What an amazing trail and hike. And, as I told Shira more than once, the statistics are on our side. According to one of the trail signs, there's never been an unprovoked bear attack in Virginia.

We randomly picked Brown Mountain trail and Rockytop Trail, and I've got to say, they're real gems. I'm ready to go back and do this route when we can include Big Portal Run Trail. I'm sure that will bring a fresh set of challenges!

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