Lynne Wummel McAfees Knob in Virginia along the Appalachian Trail.
By Susan Bromley
(Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a series covering Lynne Wummel’s journey across the Appalachian Trail. The first story can be found at https://thecitizenonline.com/appalachian-trail-adventure/)
A black bear sighting on the Appalachian Trail was a wish for Lynne Wummel when she began her hike two months ago in Georgia.
On May 10 in Virginia, one of 14 states the 2,189.8 mile trail crosses, that wish came true— and then some.
It was early morning when the 2016 Brandon High School graduate spotted two cubs in the middle of the trail— followed by their mother.
“I didn’t fully recognize that they were bears until the mom bear appeared on the trail as well, 15-20 yards in front of me,” she texted on Wednesday, shortly after the encounter. “Startled, my first reaction was to put a little more distance between the bears and I, so I began to step back. The cubs ran up a tree right on the trail and the mom bear started to take a few steps toward me so I stopped and held my ground and banged my trekking poles together, which caused the mom bear to run up the same tree. It stayed up there for about 20 minutes and I stood on the trail not being able to pass or even go around, because that would
involve too much bush wacking. So we kind of just each stood there for awhile waiting for the other to make a move.”
Wummel had snapped a couple photos and video before her cell phone battery died, so while she was waiting, she retreated a few yards to take off the roughly 30-pound backpack she is carrying with all the gear she needs to survive for 6 months on the trail, including her tent, sleeping bag, miniature stove, and clothes. Also in the backpack was a power bank, and while she plugged her phone in to recharge, the bear finally came down from the tree. Wummel hurried to put her pack back on, banged her poles together, and the bear ran down into the forest.
“I scurried by quickly as the bear kept a close eye on me!” she texted. “I didn’t see the cubs again, so they must have run off as well!”
Wummel is making good time in her quest to conquer the Appalachian Trail in its entirety— a feat that takes an average of half a year to complete, and which only about 500 hikers accomplish annually out of 2,000 hikers that make the attempt.
Speaking by phone a week before her sighting of the mama bear and cubs, Wummel was taking a couple days off from the trail, staying at a friend’s house in Lexington, Va. The day before, she had “slack-packed” a term for hiking without the backpack. In doing so, she covered 25 miles of the trail, a nice change from the already physically demanding trek.
“It was nice, I felt so free,” said Wummel. “I’m not a runner, but you can run down the hills, it’s a lot quicker… It’s been quite the journey so far, really amazing.”
Since her March 7 start in Mt. Springer, Ga., she has watched the trail transform as spring takes hold, everything turning green seemingly overnight and flowers blooming. High temperatures have fluctuated between 80 and 90 degrees in the early days of May.
Besides the bears, Wummel has also seen cows, bulls and even wild ponies, in the Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia, where she was able to pet them on the trail. What she has no desire to pet— and is just trying to avoid stepping on—are the snakes. She is also looking out for ticks after pulling the first one off herself, and is starting to deal with mosquito bites, although she knows the bugs are going to get much worse.
But while there are minor annoyances on the trail, there are major advantages— and vantage points. Wummel excitedly talks about experiencing Dragon’s Tooth, Tinker’s Cliff and McAfee’s Knob, considered the “triple crown” of hiking in Virginia, with giant rock formations and thrilling views. McAfee Knob, she notes, is the most photographed place on the trail, and from it, she watched the sunrise and set, in a welcome reprieve from nearly a week of rain preceding her arrival.
“Up until that point, it had been raining for five days, mist, clouds, everything was wet,” Wummel recalls. “Finally, the sun came out and it was the best day so far. It was a really good day, because the day before was the worst, it had been raining so much. I set up my sleeping bag on the knob and the stars at night were beautiful… It’s about balance out here. You gotta experience the not so good to appreciate the good. The trail has humbled me, you gotta have the lows to have the highs.”
She falls often on the trail and the wet, slippery rocks increased her bad spills, even ripping the toe out of one of her shoes, which were already 200 miles past their allotted wear of 500-600 miles. She had plans on her day off from the trail to buy a new pair from REI.
The number of hikers on the trail are thinning out now, and some of the people she met early on have gone home, due to injuries or because it was not what they anticipated. Others have fallen behind Wummel, who is hiking at a brisk pace.
“It’s nice, you realize your independence and freedom, it’s all up to you,” she said. “It’s your choice to do whatever, you’re in control of it all.”
She has camped alone a few times recently, and was a little unnerved at first, but adds that she doesn’t fear camping by herself. Now that it is getting warmer, she will see more people hiking just for the day, or just a section of the trail, rather than its entirety.
Food on the trail still consists of her favored breakfast— a jumbo glazed honeybun, or what she calls “700 calories of deliciousness.”
She recently began taking the time to make coffee, too. As she notes, she has “nothing but time.” Wummel mixes “chocolate breakfast essential” in with her coffee for the vitamins and to make it more like mocha. Later in the day, she enjoys “ramen bombs” in which she adds instant mashed potoes, tuna, crackers, pasta and pepperoni to ramen noodles.
She loves her food, but craves milkshakes, which she gets when she stops in a town, usually every four or five days. She is sticking to budget and after a 20-mile day May 9, the night before her bear encounter, she was “stealth camping” outside of a public campground.
Wummel expects to stay under budget as she is making good time, waking up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. to be on the trail by 8 a.m., stopping only to make lunch. She is averaging 23 miles per day and stops at about 6 p.m. in the evening to make camp, sometimes earlier.
“I’m pretty tired, but my body is really strong now, it knows what to do,” she said. “I definitely still get body aches, but you push through it. My right shin was hurting when I was running down mountains, so I stopped doing that… When you stop at the end of the day and sit to make dinner, getting up is hard. You do the hikers waddle— picture someone who does a marathon and then walks after that.”
Wummel’s only expectation of the trail-was that it would be difficult. She knows it will continue to be hard and she looks forward to meeting the challenge, as well as new people and people she has known and loved all her life. Her father and uncle were planning to visit her in West Virginia and her mom will meet up with her in Pennsylvania.
She was also anticipating participation in a challenge where she will try to hike 44 miles, crossing four states all in one day, starting at the border of Virginia and moving into West Virginia, then Maryland, before ending that day by stepping foot into Pennsylvania. She also wants to partake in the “half-gallon challenge” in which, at the half-way mark of the trail in Pennsylvania, hikers consume a half-gallon of ice cream.
The real challenge, the end of the trail in Maine, is still the ultimate goal, and she plans to finish the first or second week in August, just in time to start college.
On Wednesday, after her bear encounter and in her latest update, she was at Mile 932— waiting for the Skyland Restaurant to open so she could grab a burger.
But there won’t be much rest on her quest.
“Then I’m gonna do about 11 more miles and wait for nightfall and do some night hiking!”