It was so dark outside that I couldn’t see my own feet, but I knew that smell: it was a skunk. All I needed was to be sprayed before the sun even came up. Not only was a skunk nearby; I could hear the bushes moving ahead of me. Creatures were calling to one another in a language I couldn’t identify. Were they bugs? Frogs? Feral animals? I gave up on stepping past the dim shapes unassisted and turned on the porch light.
If I was uneasy about encountering an animal on the way to my garage, I needed an attitude adjustment; wildlife abounded where I was going. I had signed up to spend a night in the mountains of Georgia, backpacking with a group. I was leaving for Atlanta at 5:45 a.m. to beat the rush-hour traffic, so in order to be efficient I had loaded the car the night before. I’d packed two suitcases, one for the time I would spend in civilization with my son and his family, and the other full of my stuff for the hike. Two of my three new dry bags—waterproof stuff sacks--were packed as well, one with “personal items” and the other with food.
A key to successful backpacking is packing light; after all, you are going to carry those items on your back for miles. Every ounce counts, and my personal dry sack was heavy. I knew in my heart that I should leave out some of the medical supplies, the ones for “just in case.” Would I really need a tube of calamine lotion? How likely was it that I’d get blisters, bug bites, sunburn, an upset stomach, a sore throat, constipation, and nasal congestion in one night? How many bandages could I use in 24 hours?
For snacks, REI, sponsor of the outing, had recommended dried fruits and beef jerky. Both are sold pre-packaged in their retail stores, so I had bought two zip-sealed packs of dried fruit as well as a big package of beef jerky, which ordinarily would not be among my snack choices.
I opened the store packages the night before I left and divided the contents in two, for the two days I’d be eating with my backpacking group. I put the servings in clear storage bags from the grocery and then packed one set in my food bag to eat along the trail. I slid the other set under the front seat of my car so that I could eat it for lunch when we returned to the visitor area of Black Rock Mountain State Park after our hike.
Once I’d lighted my way to the garage—sorry, sleeping neighbors—I opened the back door of my car to an assault of foul odor. What in the world could smell so bad? The same sickening smell wafted from my trunk, where the suitcases lay. It was my snacks! Their strong scents had escaped the cheap baggies I’d used and now mingled to permeate the inside of my car.
I was on a strict schedule with an eight-hour drive ahead of me, so I left in spite of the nauseating odor. A few miles down the road I realized that, by taking my snacks out of their original packages, I had made a potentially fatal mistake. Now not only would I have to endure the stink on the drive; if I hiked with this food, every bear in Georgia would be snuffling after me.
Keeping one’s food supply away from bears is a nightly activity in the forest. Outdoor stores sell bear-resistant food canisters designed to contain scents. Another method of foiling the animals is to tie a rope to a bag of food, throw the bag over a high tree limb, and secure the rope to the tree. My method was to pull into a rest stop in Florence, Kentucky and dump the whole works in the trash.
I knew I would have to buy the same items again once I reached the REI store near my son’s house, but I was all right with that. When one is preparing for a night in the wilderness with hungry animals afoot, seventeen dollars times two is not an expensive lesson.
To be continued…