On Friday, July 25, 2008 I set out on a three night hike on Hazel Mountain, following the trail description called "Hazel Country" from the Guidebook "Day and Overnight Hikes, Shenandoah National Park" by Johnny Molloy. The route had daily distances of 4.2, 7, and 6.6 miles.
I had been working the midnight shift at work all week, so Friday morning at 8am my weekend began and I was on the road to Shenandoah.
The route I followed as seen in Google Earth
I started out at the Meadow Springs parking area and followed the Hazel Mountain Trail. Not 20 feet past the parking lot in the middle of the trail was a huge pile of bear scat. This set the tone for the rest of the trip.
I followed the Hazel Mountain trail 1.6 miles to the White Rocks trail. The White Rocks trail was lined with blackberry bushes on either side. About a quarter of a mile on this trail I saw my first black bear of the day. It was off to my right in some thick brush and it ran away when it saw me.
I continued on, passing more fresh bear scat, and came to the Cave Falls trail at about mile 2.7. I descended to the Hazel River, a very steep .2 mile decline that pretty much takes you straight down the side of the mountain. At the bottom it's about another quarter mile to the Cave Falls waterfall and two "caves" that are more like gaps caused by massive boulders resting on each other. The falls were flowing pretty good, thanks to a lot of rain earlier in the week.
I made the grueling climb back up the Cave Falls trail and continued on the White Rocks trail. The bear scat was more and more numerous as I continued.
Thick bear-hiding underbrush and berry bushes
At one point the berry bush next to me suddenly came alive, shaking back and forth and a large black bear who was sitting on the other side of it got on all fours and ran away. I don't know why that bear ran away from me instead of at me. It was one of the worst situations I could have been in. The bear was about 6 feet from me, at a food source, and I had just scared the bejeezus out of him. I had my pepper spray hanging from the chest strap of my backpack, but I never would have grabbed it in time. By the time I did grab it the bear was a good ten yards away. Had he come at me he would have been on me while I was still looking and trying to figure out what was happening. This encounter scared me and I began carrying the bear spray in my hand and not in the holster.
Going through the berry patches
The White Rocks trail descended to a saddle, with bear scat the whole way down and back up. At the saddle I saw a bear about 30 yards down the slope from me off in the woods. He stood up sniffing when he saw me and I stopped and spoke loudly to him. He turned around and walked away.
The White Rocks Trail follows this ridge from Hazel Mountain
The trail followed the ridge for about a half mile with views of Buck Ridge and Mary's Rock opening through the trees every now and then. Next the trail turned right and descended steeply to the Hazel River. I crossed the river and turned onto the Hazel River trail on the river's floodplain.
A view from the White Rock Trail
I followed the Hazel River trail for about half a mile when I found a decent campsite and started to set up camp. My campsite was next to an old man-made pile of rocks. There was a stone chimney standing nearby. On one side of me was the Hazel River trail and the Hazel River just beyond that. On the other side was the slope of the mountain. I was near the middle of the floodplain.
An old stone chimney from a pioneer's cabin
I brought a lightweight hammock and a tarp in place of a tent for this trip. The hammock weighs less than a pound, has a mosquito net over it, and packs down to about 6" x 9" x 3", much smaller and lighter than a tent. As I was hanging the hammock I saw bear number four, about 10 yards up the mountain from me, maybe 20 yards away. The wind was coming down the mountain into the valley so he couldn't smell me and I was being quiet while tying the hammock up. He was just walking slowly on all fours and sniffing about, oblivious to me. I stepped into a clearing and began talking loudly to the bear and banging my hiking poles together. He stopped, looked around, saw me, and lumbered up the hill and to my left, in no big hurry.
The sun was beginning to set so I decided I would hang my food bag, go to the river for water, get down my food bag, cook my yummy Backpacker's Pantry dinner, then hang my food again and go to bed. Finding an appropriate tree for my food bag and then getting it hung took longer than I had anticipated and it was dusk when I got to the river with my water bottles and filter.
Recent black bear activity. The wood that was scratched from the tree is still lying around the base of the tree unoxidized.
When I got to the river I wasn't the only one there. About 20 yards upriver was another bear, bent over and drinking from the river, the 5th so far. This one was smaller and instantly I was on guard, thinking of the fearless adolescent male black bear that you hear about who ends up attacking people. I stood up and began talking to him loudly. He didn't move, just watched me. His ears began to point backwards and he barked at me. I was on a large rock in the river so I couldn't back away from the bear. The only direction I could move was towards him and that was out of the question. I grabbed my bear spray in my right hand and turned on my headlamp with me left, hoping the light would scare him away. No joy, he held his ground. I could see his body heaving as he breathed. I didn't like this one bit. I switched the spray to my left hand and slowly stooped down and picked up a rock with my right hand. He watched me intently, but still stood there. Finally I shouted "Get out of here bear!" and threw the rock so it hit the rocks about 10 feet in front of him. He swayed his head from side to side a few times, barked again, and turned and ran.
That encounter convinced my that cooking probably wasn't a good idea so I went back to camp and got into my hammock without dinner.
During the night there were four times when there was a bear walking around my campsite. The massive weight of their steps and the sniffing and grunting are unmistakable. Being under a tarp in the open air I could smell them. Nasty-wet-and-dirty-dog type of smell. Each time I began talking loudly and then turned on my headlamp to the brightest flood setting to scare them off. I have to give props to Black Diamond for the Icon headlamp. It is very, very bright and the sudden bright light seemed to scare the bears away effectively.
There was a 5th bear in the night, the 10th overall, who I heard making a commotion in the direction of my food bag. I yelled several times and turned the light on and off but it didn't seem to phase the bear so I got out of the hammock to scare him away. I was hungry and I wasn't going to lose my food to a bear. This bear didn't like my headlamp shining in his face and he growled and barked at me several times. I held my ground speaking in a loud voice and finally had to throw a rock near him to convince him to leave.
Earlier, when I was setting up my hammock I had noticed it was a few yards from a game trail that went from the mountain to the river and was covered with deer tracks. "It's only deer" I thought. "It will be fine". When I fell back asleep after chasing the bear from my food bag I was awoken by a loud snort sound. I thought it was another bear at first but then it snorted loudly again and I heard a stomp and another snort. It was a buck, obviously mad that I was camped next to his trail. He snorted again. I've been snorted at by bucks many times in the woods and while I've never been charged by one we've all seen the funny video shows on TV where some poor guy does get whaled on by a deer. I instantly thought of myself as hanging in the hammock like a pinata with the deer hit me with his antlers and front hooves. I yelled and turned the light on full blast again and I heard him run off.
The next thing I knew daylight was coming in through the opening of the tarp over me. I had hardly slept all night. I got up and ducked under the tarp to check out the damage from the night before. My backpack was knocked over on it's side and the garbage bag covering it was torn but the pack itself was alright. I walked down the game trail and saw that my food bag was still hanging where I left it.
I decided I would break camp and then go get the food bag down and cook breakfast. As I was taking down the hammock I happened to look up and noticed that one little branch with 3 or 4 leaves on it about 30 yards away was shaking and blowing in the wind like mad, but nothing else around it was moving. "That's odd" I thought, then I noticed there was no wind. That's when I saw that the branch was being moved by the large black bear scratching his side behind it. I talked loudly to the bear again, used to it by now, and banged my hiking poles together. The bear walked away to my right and disappeared from sight in the brush. I continued to take down the hammock and I kept hearing movement in the brush to the right of me but I couldn't see anything.
Worried that the bear was stalking me I reluctantly decided I wasn't going to finish the trip, I would hike back to the car and leave. I was alone, I had 11 bear encounters in the previous 16 hours, I was dead tired from the lack of sleep, and there were thunderstorms forecast for that afternoon, evening, and the following morning. Leaving seemed to me to be the most sensible thing I could do.
I went and retrieved my food bag but wanting to get out of the area immediately in case that bear was stalking me, I carried the food bag in one hand, the spray in the other, and had my poles tucked under my arms. I walked back the the White Rocks trail, crossed the Hazel River, then stopped to put the food bag in my pack properly.
Ahead of me was a climb up the Hazel Mountain that had me gain 500 feet in under half a mile. Then the trail continued to climb the ridge line. I didn't see any more bears on the trip out and I'm glad I didn't. I was low on water, hadn't eaten in almost 24 hours, had no sleep, and was on this steep climb with essentially three days worth of supplies on my back since I hadn't used anything yet. It was well above 90 degrees and sunny and my clothing was drenched with sweat. I climbed 1500 feet in elevation returning back over the 4.5 miles. The total altitude gain was over 2000 feet due to the rises and falls along the ridge on the White Rocks trail.
Beginning the ascent - 500 feet in under half a mile
I went back to my car and drove to the Big Meadows picnic area where I broke out my stove and cooked a meal. On my way back north, between the Meadow Springs parking lot and the Hazel Mountain overlook, was the largest black bear I have yet seen. He was standing on the other side of the stone wall looking down the road. I hit my brakes and he ran off into the woods. That sighting was like the exclamation point for the trip, the cherry on top, the finishing blow. 12 bears in under 24 hours. Hopefully I will never break that record...