Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gone Camping

I'm off again, for another week of camping... this time with bears.  Thought I'd leave you with a blast from the past for while I'm away...

The Great Smoky Mountains (or The Second Worst Camping Trip Ever)

After reading about the worst camping trip ever, you may have thought I'd never again venture out into the wild.  However, I'm not exactly a quick study.  I eventually bought a tent and Coleman stove, thinking that with the proper equipment I could become a fearless mountain woman.  

With that goal in mind, my boyfriend (of the ill fated Colorado trip) and I set out for a getaway to the Great Smoky Mountains.  The trip down to the Smokies was highlighted by a car malfunction in Pittsburgh, but we'll save that story for another time.  

When finally we arrived at the Great Smoky Mountains visitor center, we were met with a graphic display of the terrors which native black bears could wreak upon unwary campers.  It listed warnings about what could happen if you encountered a bear, including a display of items mauled by bears, such as a metal container that had been ripped apart and showed the slashes left by claws. The list of precautions you could take to avoid being ripped to shreds by bears included such things as preparing and consuming all meals before dark and storing all food inside your car. The sign admonished you to NEVER store food in your tent unless you wanted the vicious bears in the neighborhood to slash open the side of your tent, maul you and steal your food. Needless to say, it didn't take much convincing for us to swear on our ancestors' graves that we would never even THINK about disobeying the rules of bear safety.

(Giving credit where credit is due:  Bear photo by Brian Wolitski)

We traveled on to the camping area where we were assigned a wonderful campsite.  To reach it you had to traverse a small stream and thus were beautifully isolated from the other campers in their large Winnebagos.  An idyllic scene, to be sure.  We happily set up camp, erecting the tent, blowing up air mattresses and proudly setting up the Coleman stove on the picnic table provided for our enjoyment.  We also laid out a neat pile of logs we had purchased and twigs we had gathered in the fire pit for later use.   Standing back and surveying our professionally appointed campsite, we were filled with pride!

Once we had set up camp, it was time for a rousing hike through the woods.  Our day packs were laden with the essentials;  sunscreen, water bottles and "gorp" for the trail.  We set off on a trail that led up to a fire tower.  It was a beautiful walk weaving through virgin forest and past a waterfall, with spring wildflowers in abundance.  Once we reached the fire tower, we climbed it to get a perfect view of the Smokies in all their splendor.  The clouds had settled over the peaks and dipped into the valleys, giving name to the mountains.  On the trek back down the mountain, we grew weary, so stopped at the waterfall to take off our hiking boots and dip our toes into the refreshing pool below.  

Later, back at camp, we prepared another delicious meal of, (you guessed it,) Kraft macaroni & cheese and canned green beans.  Our dinner was over before dusk settled into the valley.  The plates, silverware and pan were washed thoroughly and stowed back in the car, across the stream so that no aroma of cheese would remain to tempt any starving black bears.  As the sun dropped, so did the temperature, so after our campfire burned down to ciders and no longer provided warmth to our bodies, we retired.  Nothing feels so good as a sleeping bag floating on an air-mattress on a cold spring evening.  We talked for awhile about how wonderful the day was, how beautiful our camp site was and what a great job we had done of bear-proofing our camp site.

As the evening wore on, sleep once again eluded me.  After the initial warmth of the sleeping bag wore off, a chill set in and as I tensed up, my calves began to ache from all the hiking we had done.  I knew that I could either lay there thinking about it or get up and do something about it.  So I rummaged through my pack to find the first aid kit and pulled out a tube of Ben Gay.  Slathering it all over my legs left me even more chilled as the medication started working. After awhile, though, I began to warm up again and my muscles began to relax.

That is, until I realized my legs smelled like giant peppermint candies.  Yikes!  Did bears like peppermint?  Was that just the thing bears crave for late night snacks?  How was I to get the smell off of me?  The greasy formula of Ben Gay was not wiped off easily.  Plus, as luck would have it, my air mattress had lost all its air and there was nothing protecting me from the cold, rocky ground.  No matter how much I huffed and puffed, the air mattress could no longer be re-inflated.  Now I was wide awake, cold and miserable, waiting for the bears to come slash their enormous, razor-sharp claws through the tent, drag me from my sleeping bag and feast on my peppermint flavored legs.  What to do?  Should I go sleep in the car for the rest of the night?  Or better yet, in the cinder block bathroom up at the ranger station?  Either would be equally uncomfortable and it might mean coming face to face with a bear and being mauled on the way.  Better to stay put.  Could I possibly be any more uncomfortable and scared?  Not to mention the fact that I had failed to set out the pan with rocks in it to shake and scare off wild animals that came close. (Remembering how futile that plan was the last time I tried it.)  Another sleepless, fear-filled night of camping was upon me and yet somehow I made it until morning with my legs still intact.

Yes, once more a camping trip, (originally so full of hope and promise,) had gone horribly wrong.  Obviously the bears never got me, but the memory of the terror that struck my heart is still with me to this day.  Amazingly, I still love camping out... I just avoid places with bears, mountain lions or snakes.
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