I was holding the chocolate bar in my lap, trying to break up squares as neatly as possible. The giant Cadbury Fruit & Nut bar had become slightly soft in the heat and I was trying not to make a mess. “How much do you want?” I asked Scott who was starting to clean up our campfire dinner. He just silently stared at me. Or more accurately just beyond me. I was confused. Did he not want chocolate?
“There’s a bear behind you,” Scott said quietly and calmly.
Wait, what? I froze. Scott stayed still. He told me to get up and stand behind him. I moved slowly and turned around. Holy crap. There was a bear.
Welcome to the Allegheny National Forest and a weekend backpacking adventure.
This was our second time backpacking in the Allegheny National Forest. In the fall we made our maiden voyage into the woods, spending the night on the Morrison Trail. This trip on the Minister Creek Trail came together in a week and a half. Our schedules lined up. The weather cooperated. We had the gear. We had the desire. Off we went.
We’re still learning the ins and outs of backpacking — from how to make our packs as lightweight and efficient as possible, to reading maps and trails, to setting up camp. The Minister Creek Trail is about a 7-mile loop. We planned two days with an overnight on the trail. Just before noon on Saturday morning we hit the trail head.
Online reviews of the trail from AllTrails.com and a video from the hiker Frozen led us to understand the trail wasn’t necessarily well-marked. So we paid close attention to markings and the map and wound our way up the North Loop through the forest and past some amazing boulders. The trail connects with the North Country Trail, which we found around Mile 3 of our hike. We then found the spot we were looking for — several campsites along a beautiful, and roaring, natural spring.
We unpacked, set up the tent and a hammock and chilled out. To sit in the beauty of the forest and be totally unplugged was refreshing and energizing. I meditated to the sound of the spring and wrote in my journal. Scott and I talked about life and love and our favorite college courses. We also enjoyed stretches of comfortable silence. It was an opportunity to just be — be with ourselves, with nature, with each other.
And then with a bear.
As I stood at our campsite, Scott went to get the bear spray that was in our tent. (Lesson learned: The bear spray needs to stay with us.) The bear was maybe 80 pounds — older than a cub but still young. He was about 50 yards away and looked at us. He took a few steps and looked back at us. Took a few more steps and looked back again. He slowly started to walk away. My heart was racing while I tried to stay calm. I shoved half the chocolate bar into my mouth.
But that wasn’t the end of the bear. A few minutes later, two young women who had set up at site about 200 yards away started walking toward us. The bear had entered their campsite. I started talking loudly with the girls, trying to make as much noise as possible. Scott walked over toward the site clapping and shouting. He threw a stick off to the side to create some noise and the bear finally ran away.
The bear’s game was clear — he was skulking about campsites trying to get people to leave so he could take their food. The bear was never aggressive. He didn’t seem interested in us, only in trying to get our food. That didn’t matter much to me as it took a good 45 minutes for my fear to begin to dissipate.
Our food and toiletries locked up in the bear canister we decided to hang our backpacks for an extra measure of safety. Or perceived safety. I kept the bear spray in my hand for the rest of the night, which passed nicely with a campfire and more conversation about things non-bear related.
Sunday morning brought no signs of unwanted visitors to our camp. We had breakfast, packed up and went on our way, heading toward the Minister Creek Overlook. This part of the trail became challenging. We went about half a mile on the top of a mountain, an open field with high grass and vegetation. Only 9:30 in the morning, the sun was still very hot and while I was sweating profusely, I was glad I wore hiking pants and a long-sleeved summer-weight shirt to protect my body from the brush and thorns and muck.
We then climbed. And climbed. And climbed some more. We took our time. That’s how we roll. Once we hit the first big boulder at the top of an endless climb, we took off our packs and had a snack. Onward we went and started to hit the magical part of the trail — awe-inspiring giant boulders. They are moss covered, lending softness to the exterior of dense rock, deposited here by glaciers in a time frame that eludes my understanding. At least 100 feet high, these intricate formations created paths and caves. We walked through the boulders, with a mixed feeling of awe and insignificance, on a soft trail, slightly damp, which felt like a reward for the hard work of the arduous climb to get here. It was as if we stepped into another dimension, one that was ancient and mystical and much more interesting than the world back home. The interplay of hard and soft, of darkness and light, captured my imagination. It was a place that defied words, a place that was more a feeling than physical description.
It wasn’t much further until we reached the Minister Creek Overlook, offering an expansive view of the valley. We took off our packs and enjoyed the view. At this point we were ready to head back toward the car and complete our adventure. As we left the overlook we met a man who had just arrived. He told us he has been coming to hike this spot for 20 years and recommended we take the South Loop. We followed his advice and walked through more incredible rock formations and along a path lined with blooming mountain laurel bright and delicate at the same time with hues of white and soft pink. We again tried to carefully follow the trail blazes, losing them in one spot but picking them back up. Only we ended up back at the Minister Creek Overlook. We missed the turn that would have taken us back to the main road out!
Slight panic set in. I had done such a good job navigating us along the trail, correcting us when we got off the path, that I was disappointed in myself. I felt I had let us down. And now we were tired and I was getting hungry. And nervous. I noticed a set of blazes that went hard left, the trail from which the man we met at the overpass came from. We decided to take that trail, which immediately put us on some dicey rock formations with a steep descent. It took concentration to maneuver down the rocks and patience to find trail markers and an actual trail. We started walking but as Scott pulled out his GPS device, which marked where the car was, he stopped cold.
We were headed in the exact opposite direction of the car. How quickly the beauty of the hike turned into a prolonged moment of defeatism.
We started to walk back toward the overlook, but there was no way I wanted to scramble up that rock formation. Plus we had already fumbled on navigating the South Loop out. Scott decided to bushwhack and see what the terrain looked like between our current location and the direction of the car. Meanwhile, I pulled out the trail map. I knew where we had just come from — the overlook. So I oriented us on the map. From the overlook we had made a sharp left on a trail. That put us on the middle loop. The middle loop went back into the forest before it turned around to head south, back to the trail head. Ah ha! Of course the GPS told us we were going away from the car — the trail was taking us north before we turned back south. We decided to follow the trail and lo and behold, it turned south. We were on our way out.
As we walked along the trail, now a gentle descent, we came upon signs for the middle loop, north look and south loop. This was not the way we came in. As we emerged from the trail, we learned that we did not start at the actual trail head, rather we started on the Fishing Trail that ran alongside Minister Creek before joining up with the North Loop. The trail head was about 50 yards behind the campground entrance and slightly overgrown. No wonder we missed it!
With fresh t-shirts and our feet free from hiking boots, we started our drive back to Buffalo, stopping at the Pennsylvanian roadside institution “Sheetz” for a quick sandwich (because we could not find one restaurant open in Warren on a Sunday. Not. One.) We stopped at the headquarters of the Allegheny National Forest, closed again for us but with the vestibule open for us to take another armful of brochures to plan our next adventure. An adventure that again will take us out of comfort zone and challenge us physically, mentally and emotionally. One that will refresh our spirit. One that the poet Mary Oliver describes this way:
This is the earnest work. Each of us is given
only so many mornings to do it —
to look around and love