FARMINGTON — Brooklynn Winters, a 21-year-old Farmington native also known as “Bear Bait,” has been hiking the Appalachian Trail since May 12. After saving and planning for a year, Winters almost canceled her hike entirely due to the pandemic and pressure from friends and family members.
“My thought process was, well, I am going to be in the woods and I had been saving all year and there wasn’t anything in my mind that could stop me because it was just what I wanted to do,” Winters said while temporarily back in Farmington due to a family emergency. “I had everything planned out. I had my flight booked.”
Winters originally planned on leaving for Georgia to start the trail in Amicalola Falls State Park on March 18, just three days after Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of emergency. At first, Winters modified her plans. She decided to rent a car to drive to Georgia rather than fly and convinced a friend to join her for the 2,190-mile hike.
In the days leading up to her departure, she started receiving messages from people urging her not to go, telling her that hiking the AT was socially irresponsible at that time.
“And the problem with it is, hikers are traveling from town to town to resupply. So that’s where the issue is,” Winters said. “Even though you’re in the woods and it’s really difficult to pass it in the woods, or get it in the woods, you can still get it in town.”
To discourage people from hiking, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which issues hiker tags, announced that it would not recognize any through-hikers on the AT during the pandemic.
“That mattered to me at first, it really bothered me not being able to get considered a through-hiker,” Winters said. “And I think, really quickly, once you’re out there you drop that mindset unless you’re there for the wrong reasons.”
Winters said that the majority of her interactions with people in trail towns have been pleasant with business owners dependent on through-hikers grateful to receive these rebel hikers.
All of these varying factors impacted Winters’ initial plans. After her friend backed out at the last minute, Winters reevaulated her departure date, recognizing the gravity of the pandemic.
“I had everything packed and ready to go. I had all of my food and I don’t know, it was too much, it was too much to process,” Winters said while patting her panting Bernese Mountain Dog. “I walked into my mom’s room and told her, I’m going to wait. I’m going to wait and see what happens. And then I started crying so that was really emotional for me.”
After putting off the AT for two months, Winters decided to begin her hike and spent the first night in the woods alone with a slew of confusing and fearful thoughts.
Winters said that every noise near her tent made her imagination run wild with her biggest fear being an encounter with a bear. She contemplated backing out that night and the sleep that she did get was haunted by nightmares.
“I mean, for the most part, it was fine,” Winters said. “There was nothing traumatic that happened to me. I was happy to be out there, it was just processing.”
Winters struggled at first to build up her daily average mileage into the double digits and said that eight mile days were initially exhausting. By her third day, Winters had developed a limp and had to set up camp later than anticipated as the sun was setting. She struggled to find a tree to hang her food and toiletries out of the reach of bears.
“I was so frustrated and so mad and so tired that I ended up just walking a quarter mile away from my camp and just dropping my food and my toiletries down by the base of a tree and just walking back to my tent crossing my fingers,” Winters said.
There were no bears that night fortunately, but after telling this story to a fellow hiker, Winters was dubbed “Bear Bait.” The nickname has suited her well as just a few days later, Winter’s camp was raided by a bear and her cubs.
“I’ve run into a lot of bears since then and my fear has subsided exponentially,” Winters said. “I ran into several mamma bears and cubs on trail, lots of single little black bears.”
Winters has completed just under 600 miles of the AT so far, but starting late and taking time off for a family emergency will prevent her from completing the trail this year. After studying industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence this coming fall and winter, Winters plans on picking up where she left off on the AT.
“They say you don’t get your hiker legs until 500 miles so hypothetically, I just got my legs and now I am losing them,” she said laughing.
Winters will return to the AT in Southern Virginia in early August to continue her progress before heading to Rhode Island in September. She said even now she is tempted to postpone school and just focus on hiking as it has become a major source of happiness and fulfillment.
“As they say, the trail provides; it’s a saying, everyone says it and it does,” Winters said. “Anytime you need something on the trail, it’s this weird thing, it’s surrounded by so much special energy where I truly believe it, anytime you need something it shows up.”