Oh my. My son returned home from a two week backpacking trip in the Blue Ridge mountains with some harrowing tales to tell, along with a smelly piece of freshly-killed-rattlesnake skin. A more anxious mother might have banned him from ever going on another trip with Overland Adventures, a teen-travel company that organizes action-packed, bare-bones trips at Ritz-Carlton prices. But he came home so exhilarated, confident, motivated and cheerful that I’m re-upping him right now.
He and 10 other teens (including Uma Thurman’s daughter with Ethan Hawke) met up with two counselors in Charlotte, NC. The leaders, one male and one female, are the kind of preternaturally accomplished college students–athletes! tutors! community service volunteers! environmentalists! first responders!–that make tail-end Baby Boomers like me feel pathetic, old and obsolete. But they are definitely who you want accompanying your child on a backwoods hiking adventure.
Despite a fierce thunderstorm early on, the trip got off to a great start. They bonded as a group, completed some day hikes, and then set out on a three-night backwoods stint. At some point they drove over a rattlesnake, possibly an Eastern timber rattlesnake. It was injured but alive, so the counselor killed it with a stick, then thoughtfully cut it up so each kid could each bring home a snakeskin souvenir. Ours is now sitting in a paper cup of alcohol solution on the kitchen counter.
While camping in the backwoods, the male counselor was also bitten by a brown recluse spider, which is poisonous if not lethal. He toughed it out for a few days, but the bite was beginning to fester. So he decided to drive himself to a local hospital, with a plan to meet the rest of the group on Mount Mitchell, which they were preparing to climb.
With his spider bite drained and bandaged, the counselor drove to the top of the mountain and started hiking down to meet the group. En route, he happened upon a massive black bear who was not deterred by loud noise, as suggested in all the conventional literature and movies like “The Parent Trap.” Feeling threatened, the counselor dropped his day pack and ran down the mountain to meet the rest of the group. Forty-five minutes later, they started back up, assuming the bear would have moved on. No such luck. “Fuck!” exclaimed the counselor, who was leading the way–followed closely by my son–when they saw it again. The bear was not overtly menacing, but it didn’t seem in a rush to scurry off either–possibly because, as they later learned from the park ranger, some hikers had fed a black bear an entire ham earlier in the week. “Turn around,” the counselor said quietly to my son, “and tell everyone to drop their packs and run as fast as they can!” And that is what he did, while the counselor, armed with rocks, yelled at the top of his lungs to keep the bear at bay. The scariest part, my son said, was when he kept calling the counselor’s name–“Are you OK?”–but didn’t get a response.
The next day, we received an email from Overland. “Everyone is 100% safe and sound,” it began, then went on to describe a toned down version of the bear story we would later hear. “Overland groups see bears with frequency on our outdoor programs and we do not usually email parents but this is a special case because when park rangers went to retrieve the packs from the trail, the bear had already taken them to another location, probably to investigate the lunches packed inside. Only one student actually saw the bear”–I knew instantly that would be my son–“but we wanted to contact you so you weren’t surprised when your son or daughter returned home without a day pack!”
My boy lost a thermal undershirt, a pair of Oakleys, a water bottle and $75 to the bear. But that’s a small price to pay for all that he gained: self-reliance, that fierce sense of community forged through adversity, respect for nature, and dreams of one day becoming an Overland counselor.