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HOW “WILD” IS THE A.T.?
The well-known plaque at Springer Mountain in Georgia describes the A.T. as “a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.” What does that mean? The Trail will indeed take you deep into some of the wildest and most remote woodlands of the eastern United States. But true “wilderness,” in the sense of untouched wild country, is rare, even on the A.T. Much of the land that the Trail follows was once farmland—even the steep, stony, remote slopes—and nearly all of it has been logged at some time during the last four centuries. Except for bears, bobcats, and coyotes, most large natural predators have been exterminated.
In the twentieth century, though, much of the formerly settled land was incorporated into state and national parks and forests. On that land, forests and wildlife have returned. As you walk through what seems like primeval wilderness, you’re likely to run across old stone walls or abandoned logging roads or the foundations of nineteenth-century homesteads. The federal government has designated some of those areas as protected wilderness areas, which strictly limits the ways in which they can be used. Today, the mountains teem with creatures of all sorts, from microbes to moose. To the casual hiker who knows only the woods of a suburban park, it can seem very wild indeed.
One good way to look at the “wilderness” of the A.T. is as a series of long, skinny islands of wildness, surrounded by a sea of populated valleys inhabited by working farms and suburban communities. In the vast national forests of the South and the spreading timberlands of northern New England, those “islands” are somewhat broader. But, even in its wildest places, the A.T. hiker is rarely more than a strenuous day’s walk from the nearest highway or community.
WHAT LARGE ANIMALS MIGHT I SEE?
Moose, the largest animal that hikers encounter along the Trail (often weighing in at more than 1,000 pounds), inhabit deep woodlands and wetlands from Massachusetts north, especially in New Hampshire and Maine. White-tailed deer can be found along the entire length of the Trail. Elk have been reintroduced to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Black bears have been spotted in all Trail states and are especially common in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Wild boars live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bobcats and coyotes are stealthy residents along most of the route of the Trail, though they’re rarely seen. Fishers, otters, and beavers are occasionally reported by hikers.
WHAT SMALL ANIMALS MIGHT I SEE?
By far the most familiar will be mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels, but foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, groundhogs, porcupines, bats, weasels, shrews, minks, and muskrats are also common. Tree frogs and bullfrogs inhabit wet areas in warm weather, lizards scurry along rocks and fallen logs, snakes (both poisonous and nonpoisonous) are common south of New England, and streams and ponds are home to salamanders, bass, trout, bream, sunfish, catfish, and crayfish.
WHICH ANIMALS ARE DANGEROUS?
Few A.T. hikers encounter aggressive animals, but any wild animal will fight if cornered or handled roughly—even timid animals such as deer can be quite dangerous in those circumstances. The large wild animals most likely to be aggressive include moose (during rutting season) and black bears (especially mother bears with cubs). Mountain lions, which have stalked people in western states, have long been rumored to have returned to the Appalachians, but so far scientists have not been able to confirm any sightings in mountains that the A.T. traverses.
When disturbed or stepped on, many other creatures will strike back aggressively, inflicting painful wounds or poisonous stings. These include timber rattlesnakes and copperheads, water moccasins, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, Africanized bees, and black widow and brown recluse spiders. Foxes, bats, raccoons, and other small animals susceptible to rabies may bite when suffering from infection. Mice, though not aggressive, may transmit diseases, and biting insects such as mosquitoes and ticks can infect hikers with bacteria. Hikers in more populated sections of the Trail may also encounter aggressive dogs.
This story was provided by friendly folks at The Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Their mission is to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come. For more information visit www.appalachiantrail.org.
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