Yes. Yes, I am.
Actually, there are a lot of things to be afraid of in the great outdoors - wildlife, the dark, ill-intentioned people, etc. But none are so terrifying as bears.
My fear of bears hit a near-frenzy level this summer, when we were doing a lot of camping out west in national parks that have significant bear problems. Warnings abounded at the entrances, campsites and bathrooms. I became extremely paranoid about keeping food and toiletries locked up and out of sight, and I changed my clothes after eating, before I got into the tent for the night. My campmates were slightly less enthusiastic about following all the bear precautions, which caused even more anxiety for me.
Then we actually saw a bear. Within close proximity. You can read my account here. Now, my fear of bears is no longer a fear of the unknown. They are really big and could definitely eat me, in a most unpleasant manner.
Many of my friends and family have read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. The paperback version has a bear on the cover, so you might think that bears are an extremely common part of the AT experience. Here are some facts about bears on the AT, presented in a less hysterical way than Bryson does.
The truth is, many AT hikers don't ever see a bear, the whole time they are out there. Nonetheless, it is smart to exercise caution. Here are some ways that we will do that.
1. Make noise while hiking, a startled bear is an unhappy bear. I am not a fan of bear bells (little jingle bells people tie onto their trek poles), but M and I do enough chatting and singing while we walk to scare off most wildlife.
2. Cook away from where you sleep, and hang your food away from both (make a triangle). We hang anything that might have a smell, food obviously, but also our first aid and toiletries kit, and our cooking pot. Many established backcountry camping sites have poles where you can hang your food. Otherwise, we have a really long piece of nylon rope to use.
3. Never eat in your tent, or keep food in there overnight. This would attract all sorts of pesky critters, not just bears. I also keep all chapstick, soap and sunscreen out of my tent.
4. Wear ear plugs when you sleep. This will keep you from hearing all the things that go bump in the night, that you will imagine are a bear, thus losing sleep. A tired hiker is a dangerous hiker, and you will be more likely to stumble and fall off a cliff the next day, making the fear of bears a great deal more dangerous than the bears themselves.
5. Carry bear spray. I was considering this for a while, but I think I will hold off until I am in grizzly country (which is very far away from the Appalachian Trail).
Now that I am getting over the hysterical phase of my fear of bears, my long-held fears of the dark and bad people don't seem so intimidating. It gets dark every night and has done so for the duration of my life. Thus far, I have survived it.
As for bad people, check the statistics - no more than a dozen murders in 50 years. My odds at being a crime victim are much, much worse here in the 'Burgh. But that doesn't mean I live in daily fear here - I exercise sensible precautions - and I'll be exercising those same precautions on the trail, with a few more, like avoiding camping near roads or other places the general public has easy access to. A criminal is unlikely to hike deep into the woods to prey on M and me. I've got a knife and a big stick and I know where to hit 'em where it hurts.
Everything in life involves risk, and there are certain risks associated with an outdoor adventure that we could avoid by staying home. But staying home involves the risk of car accidents and fires and muggings and other sorts of horrible things that human beings inflict upon each other. So I think I'll take my chances with the bears.
Yes. Yes, I am.