The bears are very thick in northern Georgia. As you get closer to the wilderness areas, the more there are. Rich Mountain wilderness and Southern Nantahala wilderness seemed to be packed with them. We had a really horrible experience with one just outside the Nantahala Wilderness a few years ago.
Indeed, recently, Blood Mountain in CLOSED due to bear activity near the Blood Mtn shelter! They were having issues while we were on the trail, but apparently the Forest Service has taken pretty drastic measures. Chattahoochee National Forest recently eased restrictions, but there are still limitations on camping on the AT in the Neels Gap vicinity.
The National Forest Service had to bring in a hunter and dogs to chase off the one who raided our tent site (and dozens of others in the Standing Indian campground). They didn't shoot him...just chased him with dogs. The midnight encounter was pretty scary. We didn't leave out any food, but he was tearing in to anything that looked like it might contain food. What made it worse was that he was a particularly large bear and wouldn't scare off. Initially I bluffed him down, but then he came right back! I didn't chance a second bluff with him and opted to climb into the cab of my truck.
That's AWFUL! What an experience.
What really freaked us out on the AT is that a lot of backpackers (especially the "new to backpacking / running from a midlife crisis" variety) did not take "bear aware" precautions seriously.
I know we all have to start somewhere, and we learn through experience, etc. So, I'm not trying to play the "high and mighty game here," but - we'll, I've got to share camp areas with these people! I did my best to politely educate (and not preach) but some of these folks scared me to death. You know: Do I REALLY have to hang my chocolate bars and stinky coffee grounds? That kind of thing.
Deb & I (my backpack buddy) carried bear cannisters (for food / toiletries / storage) and really had a good chance to educate other hikers, especially the large population of 1st-time backpackers on the trail, about bear aware, food / smelly items storage and the like.
I met a fellow on the John Muir Trail in 2006 that was going light... I asked him what he used to protect his food. Apparently he just used it as a pillow.
Wow - that just gives me the chills. Bad for the hikers, bad for the bears - just bad all around.
His head will some day be a crunchy bit.
Yep. A lot of people read Bryson's book or hear about the AT and don't think the bears will bother them. But the bear sanctuaries have done a great job of protecting bears and there are lots of them around, these days. You're taking an awful chance if you don't store your food (and toothpaste, etc) in a safe manner.
Also, you're right: it doesn't do much good to preach at such folk. Just show them what they're doing wrong. It's because of that kind of backpacker that I never stay in shelters and opt to pitch my tent far from shelter areas.