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  • Monday, October 24, 2011

    A Blue Pair of Eyes

    This picture of me planking has nothing to do with the story below. I just didn't have a picture to go with the story and no story to go with this picture (and I really wanted to post this picture for obvious reasons.)

    Between my fifth and eight years in this world, I had a reoccurring dream. In reality, I was snuggled up in my Pac-Man sheets and blanket, but my subconscious would try to convince me otherwise, "No no little Ryan, we are walking up the road in front of our house in the middle of the night."

    In my dream, I would be in my pajamas walking up our quiet road all alone.  Hidden in the trees and darkness along the sides were several sets of glowing yellow eyes. They followed me as I passed. I couldn't quite see what they were, but I grew up in the eighties, so I thought they must be Jawas, the short rodent-like scavengers from the Star Wars movies. They wore long robes with hoods over their heads that darkened their faces and framed their big glowing yellow eyes.

    The Jawas never did anything to me. They only watched. That's all they had to do to creep the hell out of me. I would bolt out of sleep with my heart racing.

    More than two decades later, I was about 1,090 miles into this thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I remember the mileage because I was hiking through the night with a determination to reach the halfway point of 1,095 miles before setting up camp. All I could see was in the circle of headlamp light in front of me and the silhouette of trees against the moonlit clouds in the sky. That is until realizing I was surrounded by what appeared to be...

    "Jawas?" I stopped in my tracks.

    On my right, there were three sets of yellow eyes reflecting off the light of my headlamp. On my left, there were four pairs. I was surrounded.

    A pair of yellow glowing eyes on my right floated up and down and low to the ground. The movement made me suspect foxes or raccoons. I focused on them intently to try to make out their body's shape in the dark. Or were they coyotes? 

    I made it to my halfway point safely, but never figured out what they were.

    Over the next few days, I realized they were white-tail deer. Probably the least threatening large mammal in North America. By the time I arrived here in Shenandoah National Park in Northern Virginia, they were such a regular nightly occurrence that I never even hesitated when I saw them. Maybe I'm over my fear of Jawas as well.

    My first night in Shenandoah, I arrived at the Gravel Springs Hut late one night. There was a campfire burning down in the fire pit in front of the shelter. A few hikers were already settled in, so I moved ahead a hundred yards into the woods to setup my hammock. After eating my supper, I went into the dark woods with my headlamp on to get my food hung safely in a tree. I threw my rope over a high branch and picked up my bag of food to tie it to the rope. That's when I noticed a pair of reflective blue eyes staring at me.

    Deer eyes reflect yellow. I've never seen blue eyes before. I thought. 

    I strode closer to see if my suspicions were correct. They were, I could see the bundle of black fur. It was a bear cub. I looked around and sure enough, there was a second pair of blue eyes, mama's.

    So there I was, standing alone in the dark woods staring at two black bears, while holding a bag of food.

    I went back to the shelter to get my food out of the way and see if anyone was still awake. They were all asleep. I tried to scare the bears away myself. Now the cub was climbing up one of the trees my hammock was attached to. Mama was going through my backpack.

    Usually, all you need to do is make some loud noises and the normally skittish black bears will run away. I whisper yelled quietly. I still didn't want to wake anyone. I banged some sticks together. I picked up a couple rocks and threw them nearby while being careful to not hit them. Mama bear rose up onto her hind legs and just stared at me while sniffing at the air. I've seen many bears in the woods, but never had I see one rear up like that. With her cub in a tree, she had no intention of going anywhere.

    That was as much as I wanted to mess with mama bear, so I decided it was time to wake the other hikers. "Anyone still awake in there?" I whispered into the dark shelter.

    "Yeah," the grizzled voice from an older hiker said.

    "You know how to scare away some stubborn black bears?" I whispered. "There are two in my camp."

    They came back the next morning
    "Yeah," he said. "First, you get a stick." He pushed aside the trash bags full of leaves he had piled on top of himself for warmth, then hopped out of the shelter. He bent over the dwindling campfire and grabbed a small log that still glowed red hot on one end. We walked close together toward my camp. Shortly after, we heard footsteps coming up behind us. It was a thru-hiker from England, named Snobo. 

    "I've never seen a bear before," he said and followed us to my camp with a comically useless branch in his hand for protection. In his defense, the smoldering log in the older hiker's hands would probably serve no purpose in a bear attack either, other than to piss off the bear even more.

    With the backup, I finally looked intimidating enough for the bears to slowly saunter away. I grabbed all of my, thankfully, undamaged gear and went to sleep in the shelter. I had a feeling I wouldn't sleep very soundly alone in my hammock that night.