BEAR: You were expecting a growl or something? Black bears don’t actually growl you know.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: They don’t?
BEAR: Nope. Sometimes we grunt or moan. We chomp our jaws and clack our teeth together and make a kind of a huffing sound. Sometimes we swat the ground with our paws. Those are the sounds we make when we’re unhappy. When we’re happy, we’re usually pretty quiet.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Really, no growling?
BEAR: Nope. Dogs growl. Bears—we’re so over that, evolutionarily speaking. Start growling and the next thing you know you’re licking your butt. Would you lick your butt?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Ah, no. That would be undignified.
BEAR: Well then.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And to be clear, you’re a black bear, right? Not a brown bear, not a grizzly bear.
BEAR: That’s right. Real-deal Ursus americanus. There aren’t any brown bears—grizzly bears—in eastern North America.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, well, we’re here because bear safety is a hot topic on hiking social media pages these days.
BEAR: Dude, I know. People love to bring us black bears up on hiking social media—I’m convinced that half of the people who do that are just bored and trolling for reactions. And so many of the people who respond have no idea what they're talking about--they're just repeating bear myths. You know trolling for bear dirt is right up there with trolling on Lil Nas X’s Montero music video. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You know this? How would you know about social media?
BEAR: Popped out of the woods in front of a hiker a few weeks ago and the guy freaked out and dropped his i-phone.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You five-fingered a guy’s i-phone?
BEAR: That’s five-clawed technically. And no. Some bears will try to get stuff from people by false charging them. Waste of energy if you ask me. Five out of ten people are wusses when it comes to black bears—just walk across the trail twenty feet in front of them and they’ll wet their pants and drop their packs. Thus the new i-phone. Was gonna give it back to the guy but figured I woulda made matters worse if I chased after him with it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Okay, so should people be afraid of black bears and run away?
BEAR: You’re asking me to give away trade secrets, and you know what they say. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Yeah, if you tell me then you have to kill me. . .
BEAR: . . .EAT you. If I tell you I have to eat you.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Right. So would you?
BEAR: Dude. You ever heard of a black bear eating a human being?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I’m sure it’s happened, no?
BEAR: Listen. According to available stats, two people were killed by wild black bears in the northeast in the last 70 years. Last time was 2002, in New Jersey (don't get me started on Jersey bears and their 'tudes). For New England, you have to go back to the 1940s when a bear was "suspected" of killing a guy in Vermont who was hunting bears. Statistically speaking, a person is more likely to drown in their bathtub or die of a dog bite than get killed by a black bear.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So, with those odds, I’m probably a heck of a lot more likely to die in a car accident while driving to a trailhead.
BEAR: Right. But you’re not afraid to get into your car. Isn't that interesting?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Also, I hear that you eat a lot of veggies. . .
BEAR: Ruins our image, huh?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what gives?
BEAR: Dude, give me a break. We already get no end of crap from you guys—for instance, in Maine over 3,000 of us are shot each year—all in the course of us just minding our own business out in the woods. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But those are licensed hunters legally hunting. . .um. . .ahem. . .
BEAR: . . .and you homo sapiens kill each other too, pretty often actually—last year alone. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, OK. I agree. Too many of us are asshats, it’s absolutely true. So tell me about the chomping of teeth and huffing thing you do—and the false charging—not growling but it does sound scary—can’t blame a person from freaking out when you do that. . .
BEAR: Here’s the deal. We know you’re the apex predator on the block. We know you human beings have more than a few screws loose. So we’d just assume not be seen by you. So, most of the time, we hide. And when we don’t hide, we run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But sometimes you charge people.
BEAR: Yeah, but probably 95% percent of the time we hide or run. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: How come you never hear about bears hiding from people. . .
BEAR: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one sees it. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: But you’re so big—how can you hide?
BEAR: Hide from you guys? Really? Dude, you’re freaking amateurs. We’re wild animals. We’re well camouflaged to blend with the shadows in the forest. And we can smell and hear you a mile off—hear you even without your stupid bear bells. And did you know that we have a better sense of smell than dogs--five times better than that of a bloodhound in fact?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: No, I didn’t know that. So OK, 95% of the time you’re hiding or running away, and you can do that because you’re usually aware of us well before we’re aware of you. Let’s talk about the other 5%.
BEAR: Yeah, about that. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: That.
BEAR: Okay. So—when you do surprise us—which is pretty uncommon—we get freaked out. I mean, you guys are unpredictable and capable of anything. So I bump into one of you guys and I think: is this guy stalking me? Is he packing? Is this the end of me?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Oh, come on.
BEAR: No, really. Homo Sapiens= apex predator. Your ancestors booted our ancestors out of their caves and started wearing our skins, and it’s gone downhill from there. You still hunt us. Nothing has changed—and no, don’t get me started on that Uncle Tom of a bear with the stupid hat that you guys use on the trail kiosk posters, give me a break. So you freak us out, and in a close call the only thing we can think to do is to encourage you to back off before you get any ideas about skinning and eating us--
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I suppose that’s fair. But it’s still a pretty freaky experience, out in the woods. So tell us how we can all get along. . .
BEAR: Well, for starters, don’t make things worse. Don’t be a dick. We’re already scared, so don’t yell and scream at us, throw things at us, wave hiking poles at us. . .don’t do things that make you appear more unpredictable to us than you already are. If you act like a maniac, can you blame us if we assume you’re going to attack us? All bets are off if you escalate the confrontation.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, I get it, don’t escalate an already bad situation by carrying on like a crazy person. . .
BEAR: And—dude!-- don’t run away.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Why don’t run away?
BEAR: Because it implies you have a guilty conscience and really were messing with us. And that can tempt us to chase you, so that you’ll be even more scared and will tell all your asshat friends not to ever **ck with us bears again. It’s like, “Yeah, YEAH? You want some of this? Huh? You wanna mess with the bears? See what you get when you mess with the bears, hummie? See?!”
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what should we do?
BEAR: Abide, dude, abide. Have an ordinary conversation with us. Say Excuse me, bear—you know, show some manners. Be as calm as you can and talk as calmly as you can. Eventually we’ll be able to tell you’re chill and want to be left alone, too. Could take up to five minutes—but that’s one of the most exciting five minutes you’ll ever tell your grandchildren about. Amiright?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: There’s that. But OK, what about that i-phone. . .
BEAR: Er, yeah, well, not all of us are well behaved. Some of us have picked up some bad habits. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: About that. . .
BEAR: Always one bad apple in the bunch. . .and you guys always fixate on the bad apples. I mean, have you actually watched your television news lately?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, good point, train wrecks make good headlines. But trains running smoothly never make the news.
BEAR: Right. And bad boy bears make all the headlines.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me about these delinquent bears.
BEAR: Happens in areas where you guys come to camp a lot. Happens for different reasons—maybe you guys start providing handouts to bears for the fun of it, so you can take bear selfies even though you know you ought not to, or it happens because you carelessly and routinely leave your food around where we can find it. Or maybe you guys get freaked out and drop your backpacks when you see us. So we take advantage and pretty soon we learn how easy it is to tweak you into “dropping the cookies.” But it’s like robbing a convenience store, you know? Not exactly grand theft, but if you do it enough you’ll get caught. . .
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: By the rangers?
BEAR: Yeah. Caught and shot. Sad.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: “A fed bear is a dead bear?”
BEAR: They say that, but can you blame us for wanting to eat?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So let’s say that a person does everything wrong, and pisses the black bear off, or the bear is a really, really badly behaved bear, and it does attack. Now, you guys outweigh us, you have claws, you’re faster than us, you can swim and climb trees better than us. . .
BEAR: Well, don’t play dead—that’s just plain stupid. If another human being were attacking you, would you play dead? Fight back, dude—what have you got to lose?
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: OK, one last scenario. Mother bear and cubs.
BEAR: Human mother and toddlers.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What?
BEAR: Are your mommas any less protecting of their children? Just don’t be foolish. Don’t assume you know the gender of a bear and its maternity status. If you see bears, or bear cubs, and you aren’t in a confrontation with the bear, walk away immediately and keep going. Don’t make a fuss and scream. Don't linger to take photos. Don't try to get a closer look. Just go. If momma gets upset and confronts you, try talking her down. Be calm. Eventually she’ll probably realize you don’t mean any harm, and she and the cubs will go away. She’s more interested in raising her cubs than she is in getting into a tiff with you. She'd rather you were just somewhere else. Think about it.
Credits: I inserted good links into the interview to back up the bear's assertions. A lot of this information is supported by the research and experience of bear expert Ben Kilham. Read more about Kilham, his research on bear behavior, his publications, and his non-profit bear cub rehabilitation center in New Hampshire here and here. Consider making a donation to support Ben's work with orphaned bear cubs.
Photos: open source, public domain.
So, I began organizing a hiking series called “Bumps and Falls.” The concept of Bumps and Falls was a simple one: meet in the morning at a designated trailhead, hike a small mountain and/or waterfall, drive to another nearby trailhead, hike a second small mountain and/or waterfall, and so on—until exhaustion or sunset. The logistical beauty of this system was that it allowed participants with different ability levels and time commitments to get some hiking in and enjoy the company of other hikers but bail out at personally tailored junctures during the day—one could hike for as long as one wanted to. The ascetic beauty of it was in getting to hike a lot of really sweet small mountains that one might otherwise overlook, each of which, standing alone, would be an “easy” hike but cobbled together became a moderate to difficult hike (I even ran a waterfall-only version of this group on the hottest days of the summer—we went from waterfall to waterfall and dunked). I do a lot of this kind of hiking when I’m on my own as well, and I’ve come to call it “Cluster Hiking” (or just “Clustering”).
Cluster Hiking is a bit different than “Traversing” where one is stringing together a bunch of peaks along a single contiguous foot route with a car spot at either end, but shorter traverses can be included in a Cluster mix. It’s similar, but more buckshot and diverse, to what my friend Michael Blair calls “the Daily Double”—hiking two of the shorter 4,000 footer ascents in the same day—but one can throw a smaller 4K peak into the Cluster mix occasionally. It’s also different than Redlining (now called “Tracing” in certain circles) in that Clustering is destination-specific, not trail-specific—but again, one can Cluster and Redline at the same time. It’s also a bit different than doing a 24-hour Ultra list (for instance, the Saranac Sixer Challenge) in that the focus really is on enjoying the ride and seeing new places—but you could ultra-purpose a cluster if that is the kind of hiking you are into. As a variant of Clustering, sometimes I’ll string together a series of small hikes along a linear travel route from Home to Big Mountain Destination. I made good use of this technique one May while travelling the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway to hike in the highlands of North Carolina.
I won’t go into details here—how big or small, or how creatively one Clusters is really a matter of individual preference—and part of the fun in Clustering is in the planning. To plan, one ought to avail oneself of reliable information: print guidebooks and maps, vetted online sources like Trailfinder and Maine Trailfinder (one can use unvetted sources like Alltrails.com—but with unvetted sources there is a certain risk of disappointment and misinformation). For waterfalls, an excellent online source is the World Waterfall Database, with breakdowns by state and GPS coordinates. Below are CalTopo links to some general locations where there is good clustering potential.
I hope you enjoy planning and carrying out your next Cluster Hiking experience! --Paul-William
The Jackson-Conway area of the White Mountains (NH)
The Crawford Notch area of the White Mountains (NH)
The Evans Notch area of the White Mountains (NH + ME)
The Upper Valley of NH and VT (circa Hanover, NH)
The Greater Monadnock Region of NH
The Wantastiquet-Pisgah Highlands of NH & the Brattleboro, VT area
The Lake Willoughby area of VT
The Camden Hills of ME
Southern Oxford County, ME
The Weld Region of Maine
The Moosehead-Katahdin Ironworks Corridor in ME
Acadia National Park in ME
The Keene Valley region of the Adirondacks (NY)
The South Taconic Range & surrounds (southwestern MA, eastern NY, northwest CT)
At this point I’m done with all that and looking for a taste of spring—or at least some snow free ground. If you’re of the same mind, the good news is that there are some really great mountain ranges to hike which melt out a lot sooner than the high peaks (by virtue of being further south, lower in elevation, or because they are covered primarily with deciduous trees).
Here is a list of my favorite relatively snow-free mountain ranges to hike in the Northeast United States during the spring season. Not only will these mountain ranges melt out a lot sooner, they’re scenic, tough, rocky, and rewarding hikes that are worth visiting any time of the year. I briefly list and describe them below but will be following up with an in-depth profile on each range through April and May. (Note that camping options during the spring may be limited until Memorial Day weekend when campgrounds tend to open up, but other forms of lodging are likely to have vacancies and reduced rates in the spring).
1: THE BELKNAP RANGE
Where: The Lakes Region, New Hampshire; about 1 hour south of the White Mountains and 100 miles northwest of Boston.
What: Sixteen (more or less, depending on how you count them) summits, many with dramatic views of Lake Winnepesaukie and more open ledge than you can shake a stick at. Over 60 miles of trail: short, moderate and long loops, and long-distance traverses are possible. There is even a hiking patch challenge associated with completing a traverse of the Belknaps.
Info: AMC Southern New Hampshire Guide and maps. Online Belknap Range map.
2: THE WAPACK RANGE
Where: South-central New Hampshire and adjacent Massachusetts, about an hour northwest of Boston.
What: The 22-mile Wapack Trail traverses this linear mountain range over ten slabby peaks which poke up from dense coniferous and deciduous forests; there are excellent views over the surrounding rural countryside from the summits. Hikers tend to favor either a manageable 10-ish mile partial traverse or the full, difficult long-distance traverse, but there are also short and moderate loop options especially at the north and south ends of the range.
Info: Wapack Range Guide and map, AMC Southern New Hampshire Guide and maps.
The terrain is surprisingly diverse with open ledges, rocky tarns, waterfalls, historic ruins, wetlands, a startling knife-edge arete, and talus slopes.
Info: AMC Southern New Hampshire Guide and maps. Pisgah State Forest map, Wantastiquet to Monadnock Trail maps.
4: THE CAMDEN HILLS
Where: Maine seacoast, 1 hour and 40 minutes north of Portland.
What: Rugged, rocky highlands with many open ledges and precipitous cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and inland lakes. Hikes are clustered around the Camden Hills State Park (6 peaks) and nearby along the Hills section of the Georges Highland Path (4 peaks), and there are several other satellite peaks to do as well. Short, moderate and long loops and traverses are possible; hiking all 13 peaks in the Hills region would add up to a very challenging experience.
Info: Camden Hiking & Biking Map. AMC Maine Hiking Guide, Maine Trail Finder
Hikers often favor single traverses (depending on route, 7-9mi, circa 1,500ft eg) or double traverses (out-and-back) but the extensive, dense network of trails make for nearly unlimited short and long possibilities.
Info: Blue Hills Reservation Map; AMC Massachusetts Trail Guide and maps.
6: THE HOLYOKE RANGE
Where: The Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, near the University of Massachusetts in Amherst; 45 minutes north of Hartford, CT.
What: This unique, deeply fissured line of semi-open volcanic cliffs plunge up to 1,000 feet into the surrounding lowlands of the Connecticut River Valley. The Range offers a long, rollercoaster-tough traverse (about 14mi, 3,600eg), shorter segment traverses, and varied loop options. The New England National Scenic Trail traverses the crest of the range.
Info: AMC Massachusetts Trail Guide and maps, Skinner/Mt. Holyoke Range State Park maps.
Short and long traverses, moderate and extended loops, and overnight backcountry treks are all possible. The Appalachian Trail traverses the east branch of the Range and the South Taconic Trail the west branch of the Range, with many shorter connecting trails between.
Info: AMC Massachusetts Trail Guide and maps, NY-NJ Trail Conference South Taconic Trail Map.
8: THE HUDSON HIGHLANDS
Where: 1.0 to 1.5 hours north of New York City
What: Over 100 miles of trails crisscross the mountains and hills of the Hudson Highlands on both sides of the Hudson River through several state parks, wildlife preserves, and non-profit conservation lands extending from the New Jersey border to the Connecticut border. Same-day or multi-day overnight backcountry trips and varied same-day loops are all possible. The long-distance Appalachian Trail and the Long Path traverse the Highlands. Some of the most dramatic and rugged terrain in the Northeast can be found where the Hudson River has gouged through the Highlands near Storm King and Bear Mountain (ex., the infamous Breakneck Ridge).
Info: NY-NJ Trail Conference maps; ATC Appalachian New York-New Jersey Guide.
Happy snowless spring hiking!--Paul-William
If you are thinking of hiking high ground during spring but have limited experience doing so, this article is for you.
spring is the only season where one might experience the entire range of conditions during a single hike-- sheer ice, hard snow, deep soft snow, bare ground and ledge, and uncompromising mud. Hiking safely in this season requires careful planning and forethought.
Spring season hiking can be divided into two sub-seasons: “Mud-season” (running from the end of March through Memorial Day) and “late spring” (Memorial Day through mid-June) where conditions start resembling what most people think of as spring. This is a generalization, of course—latitude, elevation, aspect (whether one is on the sunny vs the cooler side of the mountain) as well as the local winter snow load (which varies year-to-year and place-to-place) will really determine where in this spring continuum one stands. Mud Season is particularly problematic— hiking during this season has a disproportionately damaging impact to trails (see my article on Mud Season hiking).
It was once the case (circa 25 years ago) that spring season hiking in the high peaks was the province of skiers trying to grab a few final runs before melt-off, and a few diehard masochistic hikers who didn't know when to quit. These days, amidst the popularity of hiking lists fueled by social media, and standing squarely in the heyday of light traction devices (Microspikes, et.al), spring hiking has become much more accessible and desirable. This inevitably means that someone who isn’t ready for the mercurial nature of spring conditions in the high peaks might end up having an uncomfortable, embarrassing, or hurtful experience. People do die with avoidable frequency in the mountains during the spring—hypothermia, frostbite, slips on ice, falling ice, and avalanches are just as cruel in the spring as they are in winter.
Based on a skimming of questions in various hiking forums, here is a Q&A to help those just starting out with spring hiking in the high peaks understand what they are getting into:
Q: Which mountains in the Northeast are known to have difficult spring hiking conditions?
A: Just about any mountain can be more challenging during the time between full winter snow cover and melt-off. The higher the peak, the longer winter-ish conditions will persist into the spring season. Look for particularly challenging conditions in the Adirondacks, Green Mountains, White Mountains, the highlands of northern Maine (from Grafton Notch northeast to Katahdin), and (to a lesser extent) the Catskills. Peaks above 3,000 feet anywhere in the northeast, and even lower elevation peaks in the higher latitudes should likewise be treated with the same respect through May.
Q: What kind of weather should I expect in the high peaks during spring?
A: Anything goes in the spring in the high peaks. You could have a full-on blizzard with fierce winds, hypothermia-inducing freezing rain, or sunny “beach weather.” Night-time temperatures may plunge significantly. Before you go, check weather reports frequently for changing summit conditions (not base conditions) and take your forecast with sobriety.
Q: What kind of trail conditions should I expect in the high peaks during spring?
A: Again, just about anything goes. If there was a recent spring blizzard, you could have deep unbroken snow in higher elevations. The norm tends to be a lot of ice, patches of bare ground and ledge, deep pockets and fields of drift snow (deeper and more persistent in shady areas and north slopes), and lots of mud. Snow consistency can range from concrete in the morning and evening to mashed-potatoes by mid-day. If your trail has wet brook crossings (no bridge), expect anything from wet feet to drowning torrents (drowning deaths in spring flows in the mountains aren’t rare enough). Avalanche and crushing ice-fall conditions may persist in the steeper open ravines, cirques, and on slides (as late as early July on Mount Washington). You can check trip reports at trailsnh.com to get a better sense of ground conditions, but you should carefully scrutinize trail-guide descriptions and maps as well.
Q: What kind of gear should I bring for a high peaks trip in the spring?
A: Plan on taking your full winter gear unless you have a recent trip report and a good weather forecast that suggests leaving something behind (for instance, a well broken out trail may not necessitate snowshoes). Always carry traction; consider full crampons for ice. Bring all of your winter clothing and safety gear but be prepared to dress down to base layers on a warm day. The cardinal rule is: when in any doubt, bring all of the gear.
Q: I don’t have winter gear (snowshoes, traction, insulated boots, winter layers). Are there any high peaks I can safely do in the spring?
A: It depends. On many high peaks you might not have full melt out until June, sometimes later. That said, you may be successful and safe hiking one of the smaller of the high peaks with south-facing approaches later in the spring if conditions are favorable. Again, check trip and weather reports. Lack of evidence should make you assume that the worst conditions prevail!
Q: I am just starting out hiking the high peaks of the northeast. Is spring a good time to start?
A: It can be the most discouraging time to start. To the extent that your inexperience could get you hurt or color your first big hike in an unpleasant light, shoot for summer or early fall. Until then, it may be wise to either hike with an experienced 4-season high peaks hiker who can show you the ropes, or consider smaller mountains (it is no secret some of us “big peak hikers” actually prefer to hike smaller mountains in the spring because conditions there are more enjoyable).
Q: What about camping in the spring in the high peaks?
A: Unless you are camping at low elevations, assume you’re camping in winter conditions and bring the appropriate gear (including a winter sleep system—don’t skimp on sleeping bag and sleeping pad thickness). If you haven’t camped before, spring (and winter) are difficult seasons to become accustomed to it.
Q: Are there other things I need to be concerned about when hiking the high peaks in the spring?
A: Yes. At lower elevations, black flies start emerging in May and can be pestilential enough to make a person want to jump off a cliff--bring bug repellant. Lack of leaf cover in early spring and light reflecting off snow can mean unrelenting sunlight on your corpse-pale winterized skin-- bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a good hat with a visor. Black bears emerging from hibernation in the spring are ravenous from fasting all winter. If you are camping plan to secure your food in a bear cannister or with a bear proof hang bag system (cannisters are specifically required in parts of the Adirondacks). Don’t leave packs and food unattended.
Happy Spring Hiking!
*I realize this term is often applied to a certain part of the Adirondacks; I use it more generally in this case.