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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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July 22, 2019

AT thru-hike mile 230: The hungry diabetic versus the persistent bear


There are several things I expected to happen as my time on the trail has grown longer. Two of these were to begin needing insulin even while actively hiking and to see a bear. The former was inevitable, and I was hoping the latter — seeing a bear — would occur, if at all, on one of my breaks sitting quietly and staring off reeaally far in the distance. 

As it turns out, both of these things would come to a head on the same evening, creating quite the dilemma. As I neared the Crosby Knob shelter on my last night in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, I had it in my mind that I was really going to work on nailing down an insulin sliding scale for hiking days, taking my blood glucose levels every hour of need be. When I arrived at the shelter, however, a visitor had other plans for my evening. 

A group was gathered with cameras out when I rolled in, and I quickly learned that they were all taking photos of a bear within eyesight of the campsite. I assumed that this was a bear who was wandering through the woods off in the distance. 

I was wrong. 

Bears, by nature, want nothing to do with humans. This is true to such an extent that I have heard stories of hikers getting home and going through photos only to find a bear off in the distant background they had no idea was there at the time.

Unfortunately, bears are just like humans in that their behavior can be influenced and changed by environment.  If food is left all over s campsite, especially an unattended campsite, the bear is going to eat. This causes the bear to associate humans with food, and changes their natural behavior of avoiding humans. 

In this case, the first hiker to arrive at camp was greeted with an uneaten honeybun in the fire ring and a bear in the shelter. 

For the next several hours, the bear made every attempt imaginable to make his way into the campsite. If he was scared off from one direction, he would turn around and slowly make his way around the perimeter and try to come in from another direction. 

For a good deal of time he wandered along the actual AT as well as the approach trail to the campsite, causing a series of shouts and emergency whistles as hikers continued to stream in. 

The truly sad thing about this situation is that no matter how many groups of hikers store their food properly, it is almost impossible to revert the behavior of such a bear and he will ultimately be euthanized for the safety of humans because of unnatural behavior caused, of course, by humans. 

Most research into human psychological conditioning based on reward began with animal testing, and what they found is that extinction — the ending of a behavior after a period of no reward — takes an incredibly long time.

As far as my plans for taking an aggressive stab at my insulin levels, tonight was not the night. Bears have 8 times the sense of smell of dogs, and in an environment where a known bear is actively seeking food, even sealed packs of diabetic gel could be dangerous. With all carbs hung across a log footbridge hung in the air, it was not the night to experiment with insulin or risk a low. 

The scary side of this was knowing the slightly high blood glucose levels would force me out of my tent several times in the night for bathroom runs in a campsite where a bear has been desperately trying to make his way in. But I kept to my business, and if the bear was there during any of my twighlight excursions, he kept to his. 

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