"Every state on the AT is known for one thing. Pennsylvania is known for its rocks, New Hampshire for being so difficult, and Maine for its beauty. New Jersey is known for its bears."
Bill Walker, Skywalker - Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail
We got within about fifteen feet of each other before we realized it, and I think we were both equally surprised to see the other. I froze in my tracks. Standing before me was a large black bear.
My heart wasn't pounding. There was no time. After we both froze, we stared at each other for five seconds, then with unbelievable speed, he whipped around and ran down the mountainside and out of sight. I didn't even have time to think about reaching for my camera.
Now my heart was pounding.
I remained frozen as his retreating footsteps faded away. Did that really just happen?! Hey, Mr. Bear, WHY AREN'T YOU HIBERNATING? Of course, he was probably thinking, "Hey hiker, why aren't you hibernating?" The low that morning had been below zero, and I was fully not expecting to see a bear until March at the earliest.
Leave it to New Jersey, a state known for its bears on the AT, to have bears that don't hibernate. Winter bears. Snow bears! (It would have been cool to get a photo since there was snow on the ground)
I suppose some black bears don't hibernate as strictly as other species do. According to what I read online, they do hibernate, like other bears, starting in October or November for about 3-6 months, but they will sometimes wake up earlier if the weather warms up and begin foraging for food. I just don't know what this guy was doing since we've been having record low temperatures along the Appalachian Trail.
Whatever his reason, I consider myself lucky and fortunate to have encountered my four-legged counterpart. After all, we are both wandering around in the woods at a time when most of the rest of our kind is not.
The bear was an encouraging part of my week. It was actually quite an eventful beginning to my new year, starting with my dad coming to join me on the Trail for a few days. We hiked a few miles around the NY/NJ border and spent New Year's Eve in Wawayanda shelter sound asleep by 7:00PM. It was so great having him with me those few days. It had been a while since I had had someone to talk with out there. (Why so many "hads" in that sentence?)
After downing a cup of joe at Dunkin Donuts, we parted ways and said goodbye. I am so thankful for him taking the time to join me over New Years. I continued walking south as he would begin driving, then flying south. This was the day an apparent blizzard was rolling into the region. And sure enough, the following morning I woke up to almost a foot of snow everywhere.
Beautiful but extremely more strenuous to hike through, it stuck around for about three full days. Instead of reaching my daily goal of 12-15 miles, I was just barely hitting 5-7, yet feeling like I had done 20. Exhausting and so, so cold.
Met a couple of friendly donkeys at a little farm where thru-hikers can crash for the night. They appeared warm in their thick coats, though their faces seemed just as miserable as mine. I talked with their owner who said their name was collectively, Jake, because they never left each other. I watched them mosey through the snow together back to their sheltered barn. So happened, I was staying in a neighboring shack on the property where the owner graciously turned the heat on for me overnight. It got down to -6 degrees that evening.
As I continued making my way through the Garden State, most of the snow melted away before becoming patches of hazardous solid ice, and I was able to pick up my mileage a bit. The mornings have been the most difficult. Getting out of camp is a laborious process combatting the freezing cold. And putting on my boots is the worst part. It takes me on average half an hour to get the damned things on my feet, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't cursing up a storm during the entire process.
I have now crossed the Delaware River and entered Pennsylvania, my sixth state on this journey. It will be tough, but as always, one day at a time. A dance of rock and ice awaits.
I leave you with a series of photographs from the start of this new year. Cheers to my loving father, a couple of donkeys, and to five seconds with a bear.