A couple of weeks ago Dirt Stew and I decided to join an old AT friend Donner for a weekend backpacking trip to Joyce Kilmer State Park, just south of the Smokies. Along with our friend Donner, came PJ (another AT thru-hiker from 2005) and his cute dog, Pilot.
We chose a somewhat short loop hoping I’d do OK with my problematic hip, and gave ourselves options for side trails if we felt good.
We starting hiking Friday night by going up Naked Ground Trail and finding a nice spot along that trail to camp. We then hiked over to Stratton Bald trail.
There weren’t too many people out, but we did bump into Tipi and Patman, who regularly frequent the mountains of the Southern Appalachia. Tipi is known for his long stints in the woods, carrying as much as 20 days worth of food so as not to have to resupply, even in the dead of winter.
We got a lovely view at Hangover Lead and stayed near to there camp on Saturday night
The real excitement on this trip happened on Sunday as we made our way out. We took Jenkins Meadow Trail heading down to get back to our vehicles. Straight away it was obvious that this trail was not well used, but we were all used to pushing through undergrowth on trails that are not well maintained. We didn’t think much of it
All of a sudden I felt a terrible pinpointed pain on my head like somebody had stabbed me with a huge syringe full of lava. It was immediately realized that I had just gotten stung by something. I have a huge phobia of stinging insects (which I have slowly gotten better about over my years of backpacking), and I immediately started screaming flailing my arms about.
Dirt Stew, noticing that I was probably over-reacting, started to try to tell me to calm down when suddenly he yelled at the top of his lungs “RUUUUUN!! FUUUUUCK!!! RUUUUUUN!!”. All four of us ran like maniacs down the trail. I felt an equally painful jab fairly close to the first. I reached up to my head and felt an insect almost the size of a fun-sized snickers bar stuck in my hair. I managed to rip it out of my hair as I kept running and screaming down the trail.
We ran maybe a quarter or a third of a mile until we hit a clearing, and we stopped to assess the situation. Dirt Stew had a welt on his arm where he had gotten stung, and blood was slowly oozing out.
“We disturbed a hornet’s nest” He said. The whole nest had been chasing us down the trail until we outpaced them.
I had at least two if not three stings on my head, and they were the most painful stings I have ever felt. It was uncontrollable pain throbbing through my whole brain. I took a Benedryl, hoping that would ease the reaction.
We carried on, and this time Dirt Stew and I went in front, and Donner and PJ took the back. Not 5 minutes later PJ screamed “RUUUUN!” I kind of assumed his was joking, but I was NOT going to take any chances. We ran. As PJ kept yelling “Keep running, keep running”, with urgency in his voice I knew it was no joke.
Again we ran about a quarter of a mile and regrouped at a clearing. “What the heck was that?” We asked him. “There was a nest of yellow jackets!”. PJ had gotten stung on the leg.
We kept on, feeling tense as ever, but the trail was still over grown and it was hard to avoid disturbing things. We had to climb over a fallen tree. Dirt Stew went first, and I went over second. As I was climbing over, I could see out of the corner of my eye that insects were emerging from under the tree. “RUN” screamed Donner. I got my second leg over the tree and bolted. I heard Pilot the dog yelp. I just kept running.
Dirt Stew and I stopped not too far away. We had lost the others. I shouted back at them, and they shouted back at us that they had run in the opposite direction and they were now putting on all their rain gear to get past that nest. The stings on my head were still throbbing severely. Through the pain, I felt another sting on my butt. “I think something just stung me on my butt” I said to Dirt Stew.
“Pull down your pants, quick!” He said to me. I pulled down my shorts and bared my butt for him to look at. “You have two stings there, but the insect is gone” he said.
“I just want to get out of here” I told him, adrenaline pumping through my body. “Let’s just keep going. This is my worst nightmare, and I just want to get out of the woods”.
We went a little further, and stopped again for the others. They caught up, but not for long. I was speed-walking towards the road, and one more time we thought we heard cacophony of buzzing, and we ran. I wasn’t going to stop until I was safely in a car.
When we got to our vehicles, I got in and sat there, overwhelmed. I probably looked like I had just seen a ghost. I kept holding my head, which was still experiencing stabbing pain, and only got out briefly to say goodbye to the others.
“Nothing like this had ever happened to you before, has it?” Donner asked me. “Absolutely not!’ I replied. Between the four of us we had hiked well over 15,000 miles, and none of us had ever been chased off the trail by stinging insects. As a group we had sustained about 10 stings.
We decided to leave a warning message for others.
The pain on my scalp lasted about 12-14 hours. It was not dull, but rather every few minutes it felt like I was being stung all over again. Although the Benedryl made me drowsy, I couldn’t sleep.
When we got home, I googled hornets and stinging insects and found out that when you are stung by such an creature, they release a pheromone that alerts the rest of the hive to attack you. Because the hornet got stuck in my hair for a while before I was able to get it out, my hair was probably covered in attack pheromone. I was from then on marked as Enemy #1 for all stinging insects until I could take a shower. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we had to spend several more days in the woods!
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