It’s bear hunting season in my area and I got to see it first-hand today during a nine-mile hike on the Whetstone Ridge Trail in Rockbridge County, Virginia. The trail runs from Ithe Blue Ridge Parkway near Montebello south to Irish Creek. My friend Joe wanted to scout the trail as a possible hike for a local hiking group and I needed a good training hike, so he met me at my house at 8:00 a.m. and we drove up Irish Creek Road to the southern trail head, dropped off my truck then drove in Joe’s truck to a spot near Nature Camp in Vesuvius to start the hike. Joe had been an instructor at Nature Camp years ago and thought he knew an old postal trail that would get us up to the Whetstone Ridge Trail without having to drive all the way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It would cut our hike short by a few miles but would save at least a half hour of driving time.
We weren’t able to find the old postal trail, which is just a narrow horse trail used to deliver the mail, so we decided to bushwhack directly up to Whetstone Ridge. As we started climbing we heard hunting dogs barking up above and moving closer to our location. After a few minutes they came into view and we could see a small bear just ahead of them running towards us. I got my iPhone camera ready hoping the bear would get close enough for a good photo. Unfortunately it saw us and turned away so the photo (below) isn’t so good. It was interesting to watch the bear and the six dogs chasing it. I had heard about bear hunting, which is popular in our area, but never been close enough to actually see it. The dogs didn’t get too close to the bear and it did not try to attack them. They all looked tired and that may explain why the bear did not climb a tree. Eventually the bear turned up the mountain and disappeared with the dogs still close behind. Joe and I continued the steep off-trail climb and reached the ridge by about 10:00.
Once we reached the ridge we found ourselves on a well-maintained trail and saw a yellow marker confirming that we were on the Whetstone Ridge Trail. We took a short break while Joe got a GPS fix to help reconstruct the route for the hiking group. We made good time once we were on the narrow ridge trail and had terrific views of the Blue Ridge off to the east and the Great Valley of Virginia to the west. After about an hour of walking I saw a hunter coming up the trail and yelled “good morning” to make sure he saw us. He carried no water and no supplies but he did have a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder. I am not a hunter and even though I know the hunters in our area are very experienced and not likely to shoot a hiker by accident, it still makes me a little bit uncomfortable whenever I meet an armed person on the trail.
The hunter was very friendly and we talked for about fifteen minutes. He was working with two other hunters and nine dogs to hunt for a large bear, probably not the one we’d seen earlier. He explained that the dogs wore transmitters and one of the other hunters had a tracking unit in his truck. He had walkie talkie communications with the other hunters and they were working together to try to locate the dogs. He gave us a tip about directions back to where my truck was parked at Irish Creek and we said goodbye.
The rest of our hike was uneventful but somewhat strenuous and our hiking pace slowed a bit when we had to cross areas of the trail that were covered with loose rocks. One of the most challenging hiking surfaces for me is loose rock covered by fallen leaves, where a false step can result in a hard fall. We saw three more hunting dogs as we hiked south back towards Irish Creek and they followed us for a short distance before taking off down the slope to investigate a scent. From time to time we had excellent views of familiar towns and crossroads in the valley to the west and Blue Ridge mountain peaks and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the west. At other times there were no signs of civilization for as far as the eye could see.
Eventually we got to a fork in the trail that the hunter had told us about but we decided not to take his advice and took the left fork which, according to the sign, would keep us on the Whetstone Ridge Trail. The trail followed switchbacks down towards Irish Creek and which was much more forgiving than the steep talus slopes we had descended earlier. When we got to Irish Creek Road we saw two trucks and the two bear hunters who were working with the one we had met up on the trail. They told us that the place where my truck was parked was about three miles down the road (maybe we should have taken their friend’s advice) and offered us wine, which we politely declined, and a ride to my truck, which we gladly accepted. We talked to them for a while and they explained that the 30-day bear season had just opened a few days earlier and that they typically hunted every day during the season. They would go out before sunrise and finish before dinner, assuming all of the dogs made it back and they didn’t have to go searching for them. They also said that they normally did not shoot the bears that their dogs chased, unless it was a particularly large bear, since dressing a bear is a lot of work and especially hard after a long day in the mountains.
After talking a while we got into one of the hunters’ truck and he drove us the three miles back to where my truck was parked. The driver told me that he was born in Irish Creek and for thirty years he had driven forty miles to Waynesboro every day where he worked as an electrician for Dupont. He took an early retirement at age 56 and said he enjoys the social aspects of bear hunting, which involves spending a lot of time talking to the other hunters while waiting for the dogs to find and tree a bear.
He dropped us off at the truck and we made the drive back to Joe’s truck then headed towards Lexington and our homes. It was a great day to be outside with wonderful views and beautiful weather – we were in shorts and t-shirts by noon. Overall we covered about nine miles and it was a good training hike for me. The Whetstone Ridge Trail is similar to much of the Appalachian Trail that I have hiked in central Virginia but is much less traveled since it is not well known and not close enough to the AT get much attention except from local hikers and hunters. I plan to use it regularly as a training hike for the AT.