Strange happenings at Cumberland Gap

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After  5.3 mi and 1900 ft of ascent, we arrived at this campsite on Gibson Gap along the Mischa Mokwa Trail in Cumberland Gap.

The plan was to ascend to Hensley settlement but all the backcountry sites are presently closed due to bear activities save for this one. I was reminded of the time that we did this whole 20 mile trail  when I was in the boy scouts probably aged 11.

It was a usual Friday night hit. The weather was warm and we began climbing and sweating. It seemed like a rather endless pull with full packs since there was no water up there.

Kelsie and I were very happy to see the end of that climb. Campsite was in a flat little saddle, ordered by some rock formations and rhododendron. The sun was setting as we rolled in but I noticed by the campfire area a little bit of rustling back behind the rhodo. I immediately had sort of a strange feeling about this campsite. I’ve had these feelings a few times before in the backcountry. It’s almost like you’re being watched.

When we registered at Park headquarters they warned us of all the bear activity. In fact Gibson Gap was one of the only available areas for us to camp. After making the five Mile journey, half of which was straight. uphill, we were assured there would be no one else in that campsite.

The stars were in full glory and we enjoyed a radiant fire. At around 10:45 we retired to our respective tents. We hung our food properly on the provided bear cables.

I’ve spent enough time in the backcountry to differentiate sounds. Especially those when you are asleep. For instance squirrels make a definitive sound as do raccoons, possums, and skunks. They fall into the category I would define as small critter racket. Then there are the deer sounds. I can always tell when it is a deer in camp. Their leaf crunching pattern underneath the hooves is without question. But bear are the most distinct.

There’s usually a big thud on the ground and I felt it before I heard it. So I was fairly confident given the weight of the thug that it was not a deer or smaller critter. And it walked right by my tent deliberately, as if surveying the area. First thing I did at 4:30 in the morning was to grab my flashlight, unzip the side vestibule my tent, and shine it in the direction of the footsteps.

In my experience whenever there’s been a big animal in camp and I shine a light outside the tent it tends to move the animal in one direction or another. And it usually moves fairly rapidly. That was not the case with this particular visitor. At which point I knew I had to leave my tent immediately. This is often easier said than done. Your sleeping bag becomes like a prison cell; easy to slip into but hell to escape. I swung my light around by what was left of the embers below our food hang. I donned the shoes in record time.

I was now staring at a set of eyes in the rhododendron behind our now darkened fire pit. It appeared to be my height. And it just kind of stayed there for a few minutes. I moved cautiously in its direction. ever ready for a big charge or  the other way. But neither of those things occurred. Whatever had been surveying our camp and was now staring at me through the rhododendron, simply decided to retreat.

Now wide awake I had little choice but to stir the dead fire. Were it indeed a bear I have found fires to be a deterrent. Some of you may recall my most notorious incident back in 1997. So from 4:30 until 6:30 or 7:00 I was there alone trying to scout the area, feeding the fire with what remaining wood we had. I could hear Kelsie stirring in her tent.

Around 7:00 she rolled out with the first rays of sunshine. All she could say is what the heck was in our camp last night?  I told her that while looking around trying to assess the situation I came across something that I hadn’t noticed the night before. there at the base of the bear cables from which we hung our food was a crumpled frying pan. I told her that I had not noticed that from the night before.

So either a person was walking around camp or a bear drug a frying pan into camp. Either way that’s some back country weirdness.

Kelsey walks the area behind the food cables. You may notice the pan in the foreground. Little evidence of any other critters was found.

Either way Cumberland Gap rarely disappoints. And it’s always an adventure with me. Cumberland Gap does not have a Backcountry camping fee. And that is the main reason I was there this past weekend. Sadly the old Martin’s Fork cabin is closed permanently. Many were the old Highlander epics we held in that building. But they have shuddered the doors due to mice, rats, and people misusing the space. Here is a link to one of the old trips we had in back in the day.


Let’s conclude this week with some Christmas music and how fitting, this guy playing in the snow.



  1. Richard L Hatten

    Human eyes don’t glow in flashlight but Skunkape eyes glow like an animal. Had it been a Skunkape you would have smelled it for sure. They do such things like that, implying they want you to cook them something to eat.