Home / Destinations / Bears, Mice And Other Ferocious Beasts of the Wilderness by Dennis “K1” Blanchard

Bears, Mice And Other Ferocious Beasts of the Wilderness by Dennis “K1” Blanchard

K1 at the start of the Appalachian Trail
K1 at the start of the Appalachian Trail

When setting off on a long-distance hike, I’m often asked by my friends if I am afraid. The question is a direct response to the media’s daily onslaught of horror. In their minds, why should the trails be any different? Women usually ask me that question directly, “Aren’t you afraid?” with visions of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. On the other hand, men envision Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and ask, “Did you carry a weapon?”.I then invariably whip out my key-chain with it’s penknife and declare that, “Yes, I did carry a knife.” That usually brings a hearty laugh. However, it is true, the penknife was my only “weapon.”

I set out in 2007 to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trial (AT), from Georgia to Maine. At the time, I was a sixty-year old “experienced” hiker. Experienced is a relative term. Over many years, I had hiked many three-day to week-long trails, but I had never actually “lived” out in the wilderness for six months, something the AT would demand of me. Also, I had never spent much time in the southern woods, famous for its bears and rumored mountain lions; rumors that later proved to be true. The movie, Deliverance, haunted the back recesses of my mind.

Bear
Bear

Not knowing how to defend myself in the wilderness, I consulted a few friends who were knowledgeable in such matters. The consensus was I should carry a .357 Magnum and four-hundred rounds of ammunition. The ammunition alone would weigh nearly 13 pounds! There had to be a better solution. My next thought was pepper spray. This seemed logical because it was light weight and it would not harm the aggressive animal. According to the Internet, many bears actually like the flavor of common pepper spray and may even be attracted by it. I felt attractive enough already. Further searching turned up a variety of pepper sprays specifically for bears. One weighed around 14 oz. (the holster would add more weight). It had a range of 35 comfortable feet, but I feared that spraying from downwind could end up taking me out, and possibly missing the bear entirely. In the end, I opted for none of these solutions.

It may seem foolhardy to march off into the wilderness with only a penknife, but a highly-traveled route like the AT is quite safe. The bears, having been hunted so much over the years, are shy of humans and avoid contact. Of course, one must never be careless with food or corner a sow with her cubs. Otherwise, the risks are no worse than being a pedestrian trying to cross a busy road. I’d rather take my chances with the bears.

The real dangers on the AT are much less obvious. Mice can be real aggressors and can damage equipment by chewing holes in packs and ruining food. They also can carry diseases and make things unpleasant when you’re trying to sleep. Perhaps the biggest danger on the AT is deer ticks. They carry Lyme Disease and far more hikers have fallen victim to them than to bears. Actually, bear attacks are extremely rare.

I didn’t finish my thru-hike in 2007. As a result of a genetic heart problem, I ended up leaving the trail after six-hundred miles to undergo a six-artery heart bypass operation. I took three-hundred “zero” days to recover from the operation and then returned to the trail in 2008 to finished the remaining sixteen-hundred miles. In Vermont, I met another hiker, “Blaze” who almost died from Lyme Meningitis ( a Lyme Disease variant). After spending weeks in the hospital and a number of weeks in recovery, he went on to finish the AT. Such is youth; I probably would have been carried home in a bag.

Are there dangers on the AT? Certainly. Should you worry about them? Absolutely not. Go prepared, don’t be foolish, pay attention and enjoy your hike. You are safer on the AT than you are in most major US cities. As they say on the AT, “Hike your own hike.”

About Dennis “K1” Blanchard

Dennis Blanchard was born and raised in Connecticut but spent most of his life in New Hampshire with his wife, Jane. Dennis and his brother, Tom, made a promise to each other that, following their military duty; they would hike the Appalachian Trail together. In 1968 his brother Tom, a Marine, was killed in action in Vietnam. Dennis’ book, Three Hundred Zeroes, is dedicated to him (Available in print, Kindle and other ebook versions.)

Dennis spent six-months on the Appalachian Trail and found it to be a life-changer. His story is both informative and humorous. If you pay close attention, you might even learn how to take a shower with a black bear.

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19 comments

  1. Yes, bears are not a problem. Like most of the creatures on the planet, they avoid people. . .as a rule. An injured bear can be quite dangerous. Mama bear is known for her protective nature. She fears you, she *will* protect her cubs. Minibears are another problem. Several years ago, I set my pack down. After returning from a *pit stop* I noticed a red squirel trying to break in. It hung on diligently as I lifted the pack up. It hung on diligently as I shooed the thing off with my hand in my sleeve. It hung on by it’s teeth while I took a stick and poked him to get him clear. He finaly left when I set the bag on top of him, again. Then he went to the nearest tree and chattered at me for stealing HIS food. My pack still has a hole in it where he chewed through it!

    Lean-to’s are generally places to be avoided. Dirty floors and mice. Hard floors and poor sleep. I try to avoid them unless I can feel weather setting in.

    An excelent article!

    • I am often asked by hikers who want to try backpacking about bears and the threat they pose. I always explain that we are a far bigger danger to bears than they are to us, because – I apologize for the shocking Forest Service language – “a fed bear is a dead bear” – but it gets to the heart of the matter. If bears get used to human food because we don’t take the necessary precaution to hang it or pick up our orange peels and apple cores, they are hunted and exterminated.

      As for the biggest danger on the AT – it is Lyme – no doubt about it. And it’s not just on the AT, it’s in our backyards and neighborhoods. Cover up when you hike, wear long pants, and check your skin for ticks afterwards.

    • Marco, you had me cracking up–minibears! I like that. I had a similar encounter in Maine, where a red squirrel and I had a dispute over the sandwich I was eating. What an aggressive little bugger. He wouldn’t let up! Is it the red hair?

      I described the event in great detail in my book. Bear encounters were, for the most part, fleeting events, the squirrel on the other hand was an outright confrontation, I’m glad they’re not as big as bears.

  2. Great article. Bear encounters can be scary, but I am more fearful of creatures that slither and are poisonous.

    • They’re also afraid of you. I’m not to keen on snakes myself but there are precautions you can take like hiking in cooler weather, staying alert when walking on open ledges in summer, using hiking poles to poke and probe ahead of you, hiking with others (who create lots of ground vibrations that scare snakes away), wearing long pants and/or tough gaiters, and so on. I’ve never seen a rattler or a bear on the AT and I hike on it all of the time.

      • Hiked the Damascus, VA section of the AT south into TN. Almost stepped on a large rattle snake right in the middle of water trail. The night we were camping near Lake Watauga the Forest Service Ranger came by and had us move site after a bear went after several bear bags. But that’s a heavily camped at site, and bears had to know there’s food there on a regular basis. All the shelter logs mentioned that this leg through Northeastern TN had lots of bears. Perhaps the bears are not frequent in the Northeast.

        Scott B.

  3. My potential danger list has always been, from greatest to least:
    1. Humans
    2. Moose
    3. Snakes
    4. Bears
    But fear about any of these things prior to an incident is pointless, especially since the likelihood of anything happening is quite slim.

    Since its fairly light (imo), I always carry a canister of bear spray whether I’m back east, out west, or up in AK since it can work on 3 out of 4 creatures on my list – don’t think spraying a snake in the face after it’s bit me is going to do much good ;)

  4. The Kings of the Shelter

    Do you fear the mountain lion?
    Or the claws of the bear?
    I testify in solemn truth,
    There’s another to compare.

    The kings of the shelter,
    Though they do not weight thrice,
    Are the vicious conniving monsters,
    The dreaded shelter mice

  5. It’s been said many times but so true, I think: There are many more reasons to be afraid on city streets than there are out in the woods, including on the Appalachian Trail. When I hiked, I was certainly afraid at times (actually, that’s what my own post for this series is about), but that’s something I can’t really control and doesn’t mean I carry .. nor feel it’s necessary to carry … any kind of weapon, pepper spray, etc. I just try to carry plenty of common sense, caution when I feel it’s necessary, and awareness.

    Excellent post. And congratulations for getting back out there after your recovery and finishing the trail. The bulk of it, actually. I’m glad you were able to do that!

  6. The hardest thing is convincing a scared-of-bear wife that they are more afraid of us than we are of them. Our first backpacking trip that we saw a bear on was last year, we saw it in a valley near a river on our trip up to the camp site and she was freaked the rest of the trip, it ruined it for her (and in a way, me). She hasn’t gotten over that fear, and I can only push her so far. Hopefully more smaller hikes will get her more comfortable with longer backpacking trips again.

  7. I had anxiety about bears when going to sleep for a long time. I’ve only recently overcome it. Every time I’d hear a noise in the night my imagination would take off and it’d be 45 minutes before my heart had calmed enough to think about sleep again and by that time I’d hear another noise. Solved my sleep problem by taking a benadryl before hitting the hay. Not sure how the anxiety has left me, I’ve seen bears in the wild a few times now and they haven’t attacked, so maybe that’s it?

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

    Sean

  8. I am afraid more of humans…drunks or crazies, out in the woods, along a trail. This is why I carry a big knife. Now, it would only be “used” to scare someone away if I desperately needed it, which I doubt I ever would. Just insurance. Also, good in case I ever needed to cut a branch, as it’s a kurki machete.

  9. Spiders. Spiders are the most dangerous. How many hikers have fallen while frantically trying to get a web off their face?

  10. I purchased Dennis’ book after reading an excerpt from it in a Ham radio magazine. Dennis carried a small transceiver and made a radio contact from each state along the trail. I made the purchase to read a unique story about ham radio, but I didn’t realize at the time that it would also be such a fun read about hiking the AT.

    I highly recommend the book.

  11. I suppose it makes me a bit strange that I’ve never been afraid in the woods. Humans would probably be the most likely creatures to cause me anxiety, if I were a lone woman deep in the wilderness with goodness knows how many unwashed and lonely men. Ticks are certainly awful but I have them even in my house in the suburbs. As for bears and other wild creatures, snakes would freak me out a bit the most, but otherwise most creatures go out of their way to avoid humans and that’s just the way I like it.

  12. I couldn’t agree with you more Dennis (and enjoyed your book by the way). Lyme’s is a killer. Black bears are more like big dogs– in the unusual circumstance they can be dangerous, but for the vast majority of the time they are curious, smart, hungry, but very very timid. I had just a twinge of fear until my trip to Yosemite last year. Watching the rangers chasing the bears was hilarious.

  13. Dennis is no stranger to critters. I live next door and I have 7 dogs and 5 cats, all of whom consider Dennis to be their “Unca” Dennis. They trained him well for the animal dangers of the trail :)

    Seriously, though, a very well written piece (and funny, too). Good advice … nothing to fear but fear itself!

  14. K1: I read your book a while back and absolutely loved it. One of my all-time favorite AT books. It was absolutely hilarious in parts, which I didn’t expect at all.

  15. Dennis: I loved your book, “Three Hundred Zeros” and thoroughly enjoyed every page. I was drawn to your book as my uncle is a Ham Radio operator in Huntsville, Alabama. Thanks for such a great read! You have inspired me to put a through-hike on my bucket list (definitely when the kids are grown and gone!)

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