Bears, lightning, and Lyme...oh my! Natural danger on the Appalachian Trail is a real concern for hikers, but how much should hikers really be concerned about snakes, bears, lightning strikes, and ticks?
In this episode of the Green Tunnel Podcast, we'll hear from several experts about how hikers approached these dangers in the past, and what they recommend for hikers today.
We want to add a special thanks to Justin McVey and John Beechman, who also consulted on this episode. Justin is a wildlife management biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and John is the current co-chair of the Human-Bear Conflicts Expert Team of the Bear Specialist Group and former president of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA).
Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods” (2010)
Gene Espy, The Trail of My Life: The Gene Espy Story (2008)
Bill Lea, Bill Lea Photography
MILLS KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly.
[Classical music begins]
KELLY: In today’s episode, we’re going to examine the history of the dangers that hikers experience along the trail. Natural dangerous that is. And just to set the mood, w e thought we’d start with a brief selection from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.
[Classical music ends]
BILL BRYSON: [Rick Davis] Literally unimaginable things could happen to you out there. I heard of a man who had stepped from his tent for a midnight pee and was swooped upon by a short sighted hoot owl. The last he saw his scalp it was dangling from talons prettily silhouetted against a harvest moon. And of a young woman who was woken by a tickle across her belly and peered into her sleeping bag to find a copperhead bunking down between her legs. I heard four separate stories always related with the chuckle of campers and bears sharing tents for a few confused moments. [sounds of thunder] Stories of people abruptly vaporized, “twarn’t nothing left of him but a scorch mark!” by body size bolts of lightning when caught in sudden storms on high ridge lines.
[Mountain music begins]
KELLY: Over and over AT hikers hear the same questions from family members and friends. Aren’t you afraid of bears? Aren’t you afraid of snakes? Of weather? Of goblins? Okay, maybe not goblins, but you get the picture.
KELLY: All these questions aren’t new, of course. Since the beginning of the Appalachian Trail in the 1920s, hikers have had to face dangers from the natural world. And their families have worried about them. They’ve had to make some choices to when they get advice from family, friends, experts, or others. Which advice should they follow? And we’ll hear how advice for dealing with danger has changed, sometimes dramatically.
KELLY: Before we go any further, I do want to explain that we’re sticking to natural dangerous that hikers face rather than human danger. Why is that? All hikers experience nature and the risks associated with being outdoors and in the mountains. But only a tiny minority ever face danger from another human. So ,we decided to stick to the history of natural danger for this episode.
[Mountain music ends]
[Sounds of thunder]
KELLY: Quick, what’s most likely to happen to you? Winning the lottery? Getting struck by lightning ? Getting bitten by a shark? If you guessed lightning, you’re correct. You have a one in 500,000 chance of getting struck by lightning sometime in your life, a one in eleven and a half million chance of being bitten by a shark, and, sadly, only a one in 292 million chance of winning the Powerball jackpot. It’s worth noting, your odds of getting hit by lightning are calculated based on everyone everywhere. Hikers in the mountains increase their odds dramatically just by being in places lightning loves to strike.
KELLY: But who worries about lightning? Okay, I do.
KELLY: But lots of hikers just don’t seem to worry about it the way I do. [Sounds of thunder] Lightning is a serious threat to hikers. For example, in 2009, AT hiker Becky Garris was hit by lightning while on the trail in Vermont. And in 2016 two hikers learned the hard way that getting into a structure was no help during an electrical storm. On that particular afternoon, Mollyann Hart and her sister, Lauren Bognovitz were on the trail on South Mountain in Maryland when a storm
KELLY: boy they took refuge in the Washington Monument, a beehive-like stone structure on the summit of the mountain. [Sounds of rain and thunder] They watched the rain from inside the monument as thunder crashed all around them. And then a bolt of lightning struck the tower and blasted the two sisters right out the open doorway. Mollyann began having seizures, and then her heart stopped. Fortunately, Lauren, her sister, was a nurse and immediately began giving CPR saving Mollyann’s life. So, bad things can happen when hikers find themselves in an electrical storm.
KELLY: Over the years hikers have been told everything from lay down in a low spot to stay away from trees. But what should a hiker do when an electrical storm rolls in? We asked Abby Rowe president of Wilderness Medical Associates in Maine, for the most current advice.
ABBY ROWE: To essentially avoid being on an exposed summit, to avoid being in an open field, to avoid being in any kind of deep ravine where flash flooding may be a concern, right, because often with lightning is rain, and to stay as low as you can to the ground and the other areas that you’re in on some sort of insulation, and to be seated in a way where your feet and your butt are really close to each other. Increases, on insulation, increases the likelihood that your body is on kind of a part of the ground that has one current moving through it in terms of electrical current.
KELLY: According to Abby, being in a trail shelter isn’t necessarily safe either, which I have to say, didn’t make me happy to learn.
ROWE: If people are in lean tos, or like caves, they’re actually not necessarily better protection. The lightning will kind of arc back into the back of the cave or lean to.
[classical music begins]
KELLY: The thing is, the more time you spend on ridgelines, and AT hikers spend a lot of time on ridgelines, the more likely you are to have a bad interaction with a storm.
KELLY: Take for example, the story of Shenandoah National Park Ranger Roy Sullivan, whose friends all called him Sparky. Why Sparky? [sounds of thunder] What else would you call a colleague who was hit by lightning seven times in their career? Roy was a ranger at Shenandoah National Park from 1942 until 1977.
KELLY: As his personal number of lightning strikes increased, more and more of Roy’s co-workers refused to go out into the field with him, if it even looked like it might rain. I mean, can you blame them? After surviving all those bolts from above? Roy is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person struck by lightning more than any other. Abby told us that this story might be a little blown out of proportion, though.
[Sounds of thunder]
ROWE: You know, more than 50% of lightning strikes are ground shock. And I think it is that is the most common interaction because it’s the hardest interaction to avoid. When that he says he’s been struck by lightning seven times, who knows? Maybe, maybe he’s experienced ground shocks seven times. Anyone who has any, any direct strike, I mean, it’s only three to five percent of lightning strikes, I think are direct strikes. But those tend not to have favorable outcomes for the humans involved.
KELLY: The distinction between a direct strike and a ground shock probably didn’t matter much too poor Roy, especially when one of those strikes burned a hole in his ranger hat and set his hair on fire. The thing about lightning in the mountains is that it’s often difficult for hikers to know where the storm is coming from. The sound of the storm echoes around the ridge line, and storms can blow up pretty quickly.
[Sounds of thunder]
ROWE: There is no place per se that you can be on the Appalachian Trail as a thru hiker that is a good place to be in lightning.
KELLY: It seems that may be your best bet is to stay out of old monuments and keep your distance from anyone with nicknames like Sparky.
[classical music begins]
BRYSON: Imagine if you will, lying in the dark, alone in a little tent, nothing but a few microns of trembling nylon between you and the chill night air, listening to a 400-pound bear moving around your campsite. Imagine its quiet grunts and mysterious snuffings, the clatter of upended cookware and the sounds of moist gnawings, the pad of its feet and the heaviness of its breath, the singing brush of its haunch along your tent side. Imagine the hot flood of adrenaline, that unwelcome tingling in the back of your arms, at the sudden rough bump of its snout against the foot of your tent. The alarming wild wobble of your frail shell as it roots through the backpack you lift casually propped by the entrance, with you suddenly recall, a Snickers in the pouch. Bears adore Snickers you’ve heard.
[Sounds of a bear]
KELLY: Of all the natural dangers that at hikers are asked about, bears have to top the list. But in the early days of the trail, bears weren’t really on anyone’s radar. The old trail guides and the newsletters to the various AT clubs and the Appalachian Trail Conference, now Conservancy, hardly mentioned human bear interactions at all until the 1990s. And the 1930s, only a few AT hikers reported ever seeing even one bear during their time on the trail. In 1970, thru hiker Charles Dawson reported seeing only four bears during his entire thru hike.
KELLY: When bears did come up, it was mostly about bears visiting shelters to sniff out garbage that hikers left behind. So, until the 1970s, bears were mostly a curiosity. Something a hiker might glimpse from a distance, but not something that the hiker had to fear. Since the 1970s, bear populations along the East Coast have increased dramatically. This is largely because of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. And backpacking really took off as an activity in the 1970s.
KELLY: Since then, more and more hikers have been out on the Appalachian Trail every year. More bears plus more hikers equals more hiker/bear interactions. These days thru hikers see bears weekly, if not more often, and day hikers are also very likely to see a bear during their time on the trail.
DAN GIBBS: It goes back to percentages. If you say, you know, half a percent of your hikers are going to have a interaction with a bear, and you double your number of hikers, it may still be a half a percent, but you double the number of interactions. And I think it’s just a function of more and more people are going outdoors and getting in the woods. So you got more people being in the in the area and then in a lot of cases, so since they’ve never been out there before they’re new, many of them may not know the things about hanging your food at night how to hang your food, so the bear doesn’t get it.
KELLY: That was Dan Gibbs, a wildlife biologist who works closely with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Dan talked at length about the growing number of hiker/bear interactions over the past decades. If those interactions go south, the news can be lurid.
WATE 6 NEWS: There have been several reports of aggressive bear activity along the Appalachian Trail. The Forest Service says there is evidence of bears getting into campsites.
WATE 6 NEWS: A campsite is closed in the Great Smoky Mountains after a teen was attacked by a bear.
KELLY: It was news like that that almost convinced Bill Bryson to cancel his planned walk in the woods 25 years ago. It’s no exaggeration to say that Bryson was, well, obsessed by the idea that he might be eaten by a marauding black bear.
[Classical music begins]
BRYSON: I won’t say I became obsessed by all this, but it did occupy my thoughts a great deal in the months while I waited for spring to come. My particular dread, the vivid possibility that left me staring at tree shadows on the bedroom ceiling night after night, was having to lie in a small tent alone in an inky wilderness, listening to a foraging bear outside and wondering what its intentions were.
[Classical music ends]
KELLY: A lot of people probably think the same thing as Bryson. But Bill Lea, a retired US Forest Service ranger and a bear advocate, argues that bears have gotten a bad rap over the past century.
BILL LEA: If they’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, it just seems that that the media sensationalism. I mean, you can have 100 people murdered in this country on a daily basis, and yet, if there’s one bear encounter, negative bear encounter, it makes the national news. So, there’s just so much publicity of every incident. And there’s almost no place a bear can go these days where there aren’t people. So, there’s just so many chances for human/bear interactions.
KELLY: Bill says that most people misinterpret bears and their behavior. For instance, just last year, a bear bit a teenager sleeping in a hammock along the AT.
WATE 6 NEWS: A 16 year-old girl is recovering after waking up in a nightmare. A black bear attacked the teenager while she was sleeping in a hammock just feet away from her family in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This bear was exhibiting predatory behavior and attacked in the middle of the night, with no known provocation.
LEA: They called it a predatory attack. And it simply was not that. They cite the fact that the bear didn’t run off immediately. Well, the bear was being attacked and he stood his ground and was fighting back. But the initial attack wasn’t predatory at all. So, if you have the so-called experts claiming misinformation, then it’s no surprise the public is misinformed. Because a picture is painted of bears that is simply unrealistic and untrue. It was mistaken identity. But it goes out that there’s the predatory bear in the Smoky Mountains and people just become scared to death of bears. And it’s that kind of misinformation that has painted an inaccurate picture of black bears.
KELLY: The most likely places along the Appalachian Trail for a mistaken identity situation to occur are in the two national parks the trail runs through: the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Park.
GIBBS: A lot of it also depends on density of bears where you’re hiking, and it’s good to kind of have an idea of where you’re at, you know. If you’re in a Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’re the highest density area for black bears, certainly in the southeast for no doubt, and maybe even the east. And you know, the last estimates we did showed about 1,900 bears that utilize the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So, the probability of seeing a bear hiking through there’s pretty good and we certainly have a fair share of conflicts at the park has to deal with on a pretty regular basis.
KELLY: All the rangers and biologists we spoke to agreed on one thing. Bears are motivated first and foremost by food. Humans have food that food likely tastes better to bear than ants and beetles. So, the bears come to trail shelters and hiker campsites to get the good stuff.
LEA: A bear is driven by two things, fear and food, that what I call the two F words. So, the only reason a bears gonna come around a human is if he thinks there’s a chance for food.
KELLY: When the chain of trails shelters was constructed in the late 1930s, those original shelters had trash pits, and later trash barrels, both of which were essentially bear magnets. Eventually, the trail clubs removed the trash barrels and hikers were urged to hang their food either from a tree, or from one of the many bear poles that were erected near the trail shelters. More recently, bears have begun to figure out the hanging of bear bags, and some have even worked out how to get food from bear poles by swinging the pole back and forth until the bear bags fall off.
KELLY: With the growing numbers of hikers and bears along the AT, it’s now all but inevitable that the two species will spend some time in close proximity. And it’s pretty important to know what you should do if you come across a bear. The problem for hikers is that the advice we receive has pretty much always been inconsistent.
KELLY: Hiking guides from the 1940s and the 1950s recommended that hikers yell and throw things at bears that they might meet along the Appalachian Trail. More recent advice is to stand tall, wave your arms over your head and, if necessary, yell at the bear. One of the rangers we talked to was still suggesting throwing rocks at the bears you meet.
KELLY: Bill Lea advises conversation.
LEA: I always say you don’t need to fear bears, you just need to respect them. And, and I always tell folks that I’m not afraid of a black bear. Black bears are actually very predictable. It’s just that most people don’t know and understand their predictability.
[Classical music begins]
GENE ESPY: I killed about fifteen rattlesnakes on the trip. The last one was on Jug End in Massachusetts, that mountain. From then on. I looked for snakes now but I didn’t see any more snakes.
KELLY: That was the voice of legendary through hiker Gene Espy, who in 1951 became the second person to thru hike the AT. Gene had a real thing about rattlesnakes along the trail. The more he saw, the more he killed.
[Classical music ends]
KELLY: I met gene in the summer of 2019. He was already in his early 90s, and he proudly showed me the walking stick he carried on his hike and told me about all the snakes he killed with it.
KELLY: Most hikers though, try their best to avoid getting close enough to a rattlesnake to whack it with a hiking stick. Unlike bears, venomous snakes, rattlesnakes and copperheads along the Appalachian Trail, were much more common in the early days of the trail. As a result, one of the few pieces of safety equipment recommended for every hiker on the trail was a snakebite kit. You can still buy these kits at your favorite camping store. But we were kind of dubious about their efficacy. So, I went on eBay, and I found one from the 1960s for the whopping sale price of $7. Our producer Ashley and I spent a few minutes checking it out.
ASHLEY PALAZZO: Well, it’s a lot smaller than I thought it was gonna be from the picture you showed me when you were buying it. I was like, oh, it’s gonna be like a whole thing, but it’s pretty small. Let’s see. Inside we have. Ooh, that’s interesting. It’s got the antiseptic solution. And this little like glass vial here. And we have little razor blade. And the instructions, I presume.
KELLY: Imagine for a minute that you’re hiking on the AT and a rattlesnake bites you on the ankle. After screaming and running away from the snake, you whip off your pack and pull out your snakebite kit, which you probably hadn’t actually opened before. Once you pulled out all the stuff from the kit, you turn to those directions.
PALAZZO: Don’t get excited. Oh, wow, there be realistic.
KELLY: A rattlesnake just bit me in the ankle that I’m not supposed to get excited, too late for that! After that helpful advice about not getting excited, you are advised to avoid useless remedies like putting whiskey on the bite. And then, just in case you were thinking that now is a good time to start drinking.
PALAZZO: Don’t take a slug of whiskey or start running or even walking back to camp.
KELLY: Don’t you love that? Don’t take a slug of whiskey. It’s like apparently this is a thing right? You just got bit by a rattlesnake. Where’s the whiskey Bob? [laughing]
KELLY: The directions go on to tell you to make some incisions around the bite marks, use the suction cups in the kit to pull out as much venom as possible, and then add a tourniquet to your leg just above the bite to prevent the venom from spreading. We asked Abby Rowe what she thought of these helpful suggestions? For instance, if a rattlesnake bites me on the ankle, should I use a tourniquet?
ROWE: [Chuckling] It’s dramatic. It’s it looks great on TV. But yes, that would no longer be advisable. And it turns out none of those things have ever been proven to help a snake bite.
KELLY: In fact, according to Abby row, most bites are no big deal because
ROWE: A pretty significant percentage of snake bites don’t even envenomate a human, right? They’re dry bites.
KELLY: Of course, it’s easy for Abby to say that getting a dry bite from a rattlesnake is no big deal. Recently, I met a long-distance hiker in Virginia, who had received just such a dry bite from a copperhead. Trust me. She thought it had been a very big deal. It’s worth noting, though, that I was talking to her almost 24 hours later, and she was fine. So, if you do encounter a poisonous snake on the AT, take Abby’s main advice,
ROWE: Do your best to not disturb snakes in the first place.
[Mountain music begins]
KELLY: The last natural danger we want to talk about today is the one with the oldest history of all. And of all the natural threats that hikers face on the trail, perhaps the most dangerous thing of all, is something that hikers can’t even see. Lyme disease. A bacterial pathogen delivered to our bodies by ticks and their nymphs is so much more common than bear attacks, so much more common than snake bites, and definitely more common than lightning strikes. In fact, thousands, if not tens of thousands of hikers pick up Lyme disease every year. And speaking as someone who had Lyme six years ago, you don’t want it.
[Mountain music ends]
KELLY: These days, we’re used to lots of misinformation about viruses, and as much misinformation as there is about Covid, there is almost certainly more out there about Lyme. Fortunately for us, one of the world’s experts on Lyme disease is a professor right here at George Mason University.
ALLESANDRA LUCCHINI: My name is Alessandra Lucchini. I am professor at the Science and Technology campus at George Mason University. I am a bioengineer as academic training and I conduct research aimed to develop new diagnostic testing for many diseases including infectious diseases, cancer, and neurodegenerative disease ,and one infectious disease I have put a lot of effort into is Lyme disease.
LUCCHINI: So, Lyme disease is a condition that is caused by a bacterium and the main bacterium that causes Lyme disease in the United States is called Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacterium is transmitted by ticks and primarily deer ticks. And what happens is the tick and especially the tick saliva help the transmission of this bacterium. So, upon a tick bite, the bacterium is transmitted to our skin. And then if our skin immune defenses are not able to overcome the infection, then the bacterium goes in the blood and then it to the lymph nodes and then disseminates.
KELLY: Lyme disease gets its name from the discovery of the bacteria in Lyme, Connecticut in the 1970s. But it’s been around for a lot more than fifty years.
LUCCHINI: It has been around for a long time, and there are evidence of Borrelia one thousand, even thousands of years ago. But yes, but earlier was first named and discovered by Dr. Rudolph Darfur. The way it was discovered, it was a very unusual outbreak of juvenile arthritis in the area of Lyme, Connecticut. You know, scientists identify an infectious disease agent that was the cause of this outbreak of juvenile arthritis, and then they isolate the bacterium, and they characterize it and so it was back in the 60s, 70s. Yes, but the bacterium itself has been around for a long time.
KELLY: People who get Lyme have many different symptoms, ranging from rashes to fevers to pain in their joints.
LUCCHINI: People have a hard time walking, they can also have issues with their bigger joints, like the shoulders, hips, the elbows, or the smaller joints, like the finger. So, the connective tissue is one site where the Borrelia likes to go. In a little bit less amount of cases the Borrelia likes to go in the central nervous system or in the peripheral nervous system. So, it can when the brain and causes cloudiness.
KELLY: Cloudiness is what happened to me back in 2015. I was teaching a class and suddenly I couldn’t remember what I was talking about. Then I felt faint, which freaked my students out because they could see that I was woozy. I had to get my wife to drive me home, and then to the doctor. Fortunately for me, the first question my doctor asked was, if I’d been hiking. She knows me pretty well. When I said yes, she put me on doxycycline immediately, and within a week the clouds had parted, and I was fine. We spoke to former thru hiker Logan McCollough. about his experiences with Lyme, a disease that he contracted in 2011.
LOGAN McCULLOUGH: I woke up with that kind of itchy chigger feeling. And while my son my dog slept in, I sat there with tweezers and pulled 20 deer tick nymphs off of me from between my toes up to my waist. So, I got them. I thought I got them all off the next morning. Later kind of classic case, it was about six, eight weeks later, I started showing symptoms. This was the late May 2011. And I didn’t start showing symptoms until about eight weeks later. So I never made the correlation until I just kept getting sicker and sicker with some of the cognitive issues that come along with disseminated Lyme disease. And it wasn’t until the November you know good six months later that I was finally diagnosed.
KELLY: Like so many hikers who get Lyme disease drove Logan off the trail. And in his case, it was only two years later that he was up to long distance hiking again and was able to then complete a thru hike. Fortunately, the advice about how to deal with ticks has been consistent since the 1940s. Where insect repellent and check your body for ticks every single day.
ROWE: That’s really where I would encourage people to focus. It’s not the dramatic stuff. And to be honest, it’s not the most interesting stuff. But it is the stuff that ultimately is gonna make or break their ability to stay on the trail.
[Mountain music begins]
KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by Ashley Palazzo. Abby Mullen is our executive producer, and she also did the audio production for this episode.
KELLY: A big thanks to all of our experts who spoke to us about the various natural dangerous that hikers might experience along the Appalachian Trail. We also want to thank Rick Davis, the Dean of our College of Visual and Performing Arts who read all the selections from A Walk in the Woods.
KELLY: Our music is performed by the award-winning musicians Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd Virginia. Andrew and Ash are also the hosts of the Floyd Radio Hour. If you haven’t listened to that show, you’re missing out.
KELLY: Before we go, we have a favorite ask. Two favors actually. First, we’d love it if you would post about our show in your social media feeds. That really helps us grow our audience. Second If you haven’t already, please be sure to follow our show on your favorite podcast platform. And if you have a chance, write us a review there. If you go to our website, greentunnel.rrchnm.org, tou can sign up for our newsletter, which contains interesting tidbits from our stories that didn’t quite make it into the final version of the episode. Thanks so much for listening. And we’ll see you soon.
Dan Gibbs is a wildlife biologist that works in Tennessee and with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is a part of the team of bear biologists that developed the bear education program, Bearwise.
Bill Lea is a black bear photographer, black bear advocate, and former Forest Service employee. Bill has been photographing black bears for two decades as well as providing educational programming about black bears through Bill Lea Photography.
Dr. Alessandra Luchini is a bioengineer and professor at George Mason University and has conducted research aimed at developing new diagnostic testing for many diseases, including Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
Lyme disease survivor Logan “Unitic” McCulloch has worked to spread awareness about the illness since he contracted it in the spring of 2011. In 2015 Logan backpacked, and bike packed more than 4,100 miles coast to coast from Delaware to California to raise awareness of Lyme.
Abby Rowe is the President and Owner of Wilderness Medical Associates. A lifelong educator, she has over twenty years of experience leading domestic and international expeditions and teaching outdoor leadership and technical skills.