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.
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.