Stafford, who is twenty-two, was forced to stab a bear in the face when it charged her in the woods on the Northville-Placid Trail.
“The whole time I kept thinking, if this bear wanted me, it could have me in a heartbeat. I considered throwing things at it, running at it, but I was afraid it would provoke aggression. I didn’t react until I had to,” said Stafford, who graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology last spring and is a member of the Army Reserves.
She is no stranger to the woods. Stafford became a Forty-Sixer this year, having climbed all of the Adirondack High Peaks. She spent the summer working as a lifeguard at Golden Beach State Campground on Raquette Lake. The hike along the NP was to be her last before she returned to her parents’ house in Pennsylvania.
She started in Northville and camped for two nights. On the third day, September 18, she was moving through the Blue Ridge Wilderness near Indian Lake when she noticed three bears about twenty-five yards behind her.
At first, Stafford wasn’t scared. Indeed, she welcomed the chance to see wild bears and even snapped a few blurry photographs of one. When they followed her, however, she tried to shoo them by waving her arms and yelling, “Go away, bear!” They backed off but soon returned, again staying their distance. If Stafford went around a bend or otherwise strayed from their sight, she would hear them running to catch up. She yelled again and played the music on her phone at maximum volume.
“I was getting frustrated because I did everything I was supposed to do, and it didn’t work,” she said.
The cat-and-mouse game went on for about a mile. Sometimes the bears were behind her on the trail and sometimes they were in the woods alongside or in front of her. They bounced on their front legs and huffed at her.
Stafford slipped a knife out of her pack and held it in her right hand, along with a trekking pole. It was a folding knife with a three-inch blade—a small weapon against a bear but better than nothing.
Then the lead bear charged. It was just inches from Stafford’s left side when she threw a punch with her right hand. The blade struck the animal’s jaw, and blood ran down Stafford’s hand and arm. The bear ran off and rejoined its two companions.
Stafford didn’t look to see where they went. She walked to the next bend and then began running down the trail. When she got to Lake Durant State Campground, she knocked on the door of the caretaker’s cabin, the knife still in her hand. A woman answered with a toddler in her arms, and the sight brought Stafford, rattled by adrenaline and fear, back to earth.
“I got a few words out before I started tearing up. I thought, I need to sit down and breathe for a minute,” she said.
State forest rangers and wildlife experts took a statement from Stafford and examined the contents of her pack. It contained nothing to explain why the bears followed her (her food was in freeze-dried packets). The next day, she accompanied rangers to the scene of the stabbing. They didn’t find the bears, but they did find paw prints suggesting that the animals weighed between 150 and 180 pounds each.
Because she got the bear’s blood on her hand, Stafford received rabies shots as a precaution.
Stafford said she considers the incident a fluke and it won’t stop her from hiking solo—though she might invest in a can of potent pepper spray to deter bears.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation posted bear warnings at trailheads in the area, but Lance Durfey, a wildlife manager for the department, said Stafford’s experience is rare. Most bear encounters occur at a campsite where a bear is looking for food. On the trail or in the woods, bears and humans usually avoid each other, he said.
DEC spokesman David Winchell said the department has received no other reports of aggressive bears in the Blue Ridge Wilderness. It’s possible, he added, that the stabbing has conditioned the animal to avoid people.
“The aggressive behavior of the bear is unacceptable,” Winchell said in an email, “and if DEC can confirm the identity of the bear and has the opportunity to do so, the bear will be destroyed. We are encouraging bear hunters to kill the bear if seen and report it to the DEC.”
Durfey said the best way to avoid an encounter with a bear is to hike in a group, make noise as you go, and don’t hike after dark. When camping, it’s a good idea to store food, trash, and scented items, such as toiletries, in a bear-resistant canister. Do not feed bears.
If you do cross paths with a black bear, don’t run. Yell, clap, make noise, and raise your hands to make yourself look as big as possible. Throw rocks and sticks, but not food.
And if you are attacked, do what Stafford did: fight back.
Photos: Above, a selfie of Stafford, and below, a photo of one of the bears taken with her cell phone. Photos provided by Amy Stafford.