Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hiker Tells Story of Near-Deadly Bear Encounter

bedEric Spinner often hikes with his beloved Pippy, a little border terrier. The two of them were in the woods in the southern Adirondacks on the afternoon of August 11 when Pippy came running up the trail, a black bear in pursuit.

Spinner did what the books tell you to do: in an effort to intimidate the bear he stood tall and raised his arms. He also started shouting. The bear kept coming. When Spinner stooped to scoop up Pippy, he slipped and fell, and the next thing he knew he was wrestling a bear. At one point, he thought his life was over.

“It straddled me and was on top of me, and I thought I was going to die. I didn’t see any lights or tunnels or anything like that, but a sensation came over me that this was it, and almost immediately I said, ‘I can’t let my life end like this,’” the Troy resident said a few days afterward.

As the bear mauled him, clawing and biting, Spinner noticed a tree branch on the ground nearby.

“The bear was pressing his stomach against my stomach,” he said. “My right hand was sort of trapped between our stomachs. I pulled it out and swung it to the side and … pulled the stick horizontally between us, sort of like you would pick up a weight-lifting bar.”

pippySpinner used the stout branch to shove the bear off him. He then swung it like a baseball bat. “I hit the bear directly in the nose on the first shot, and the bear ran away instantly back down the trail where it had come,” he said.

Spinner — who is 5-foot-7 and weighs 155 pounds — estimates that the encounter lasted at least five minutes. Time seemed to pass in slow motion. He likened it to a boxing match. The bear would jab at his face and head, and if he put up his arms to defend himself, it would bite him. He believes his opponent was a juvenile male. On its hind legs, it stood six feet tall.

It was the worst aggressive bear incident in the Adirondacks in recent memory. Spinner would require surgery and hospitalization. The bear had scratched up his face, bit him several times, ripped open his forehead, and opened a deep gash on his hip.

Once it was over, Pippy reappeared out of the woods, also wounded. Spinner got out his first-aid kit and tried to dress their wounds, but to little avail. Feeling weak, he pulled his water bottle and some fruit from his backpack.

“I was losing sensation in my arms and fingers,” he said. “I ate a few grapes. The blood poured down into the plastic bag with the rest of the fruit.”

Spinner set off for the trailhead on Stewart Landing Road in the town of Stratford, roughly a mile away. He held Pippy in one arm and with his other tried to apply pressure to the gash in his hip, using napkins and his shirt to soak up the blood.

Soon he became disoriented and lost the trail. “My intellect abilities were somewhat impaired due to the shock that I was now in, and I couldn’t picture the map of the area in my head,” he said.

clawedHe pulled out his map and compass. “Spurts of blood covered the map except the one quadrant I needed to look at,” he said.

Spinner determined that he needed to head northwest. Bushwhacking through the woods was difficult for him. At one point he contemplated resting on a fallen birch tree, but quickly ruled it out for fear he would pass out. He told himself: “If you’re going to sit on this log, you’re never going to get up. You have to keep moving.”

The bear attack occurred around 5 pm. Two hours later, Spinner came out of the woods near the trailhead for the Hillebrandt Vly Trail, where he had begun the hike. When he yelled for help, three people came to his aid. Since there was no cell-phone service, Spinner got in his car and started following them to the local firehouse. After five minutes, though, he stopped at a house. The people there called 911. Soon the S&S Volunteer Ambulance Service arrived from Dolgeville and drove him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. Pippy was taken to a veterinarian in Little Falls.

On Wednesday, eight days later, Spinner was released from the hospital. He said he and Pippy were recovering well. While in the hospital, Spinner received a get-well card from a stranger addressed to “the guy who fought the bear.” The writer said, “Thanks for saving your dog. I would have done the same thing. … You are a hero!”

The night of the attack, forest rangers and environmental conservation officers took bloodhounds into the woods to search for the bear. Despite looking for hours, the only thing they found was Spinner’s hat. “We covered the whole area. If the bear had not left the area, we would have picked up a scent,” said Ben Tabor, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “So from what I saw, that bear left the area right after the incident and was not anywhere nearby.”

StaplesIf the searchers had found the bear, they would have killed it and tested it for disease. “We do consider it a bear attack, because he was injured by the bear,” Tabor said.

DEC estimates that three to five thousand black bears live in the Adirondacks. Occasionally bears get into garbage, raid bird feeders, and steal food from campsites, but attacks on people are extremely rare. A few years ago, a woman used a pocketknife to stab a bear that had approached her on the Northville-Placid Trail.  In 2002, a young male bear killed an infant in the Catskills.

“Bears are typically scared of people, and they’re scared of our scent, look, and our stature,” Tabor said. “They find people to be frightening. Now, bears usually run from us, but if threatened, they may lash out.”

Tabor would not speculate on what motivated the bear. Ironically, Spinner carried bear spray on his belt, but things happened so quickly he didn’t think to use it. Despite his injuries, he is glad the bear escaped back into the woods.

“I hold no grudge,” he said. “I love all animals. I love all creatures. I love the bear despite what the bear did to me and my dog. I know the bear was only being a bear.”

Photos of Eric Spinner in his hospital room and Pippy at a veterinarian’s office by Nancy L. Ford.

This story will appear in the September/October issue of the Adirondack Explorer. Because of its timeliness, the Explorer is sharing it now with the Almanack’s readers.


Mike Lynch

Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues.

Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.

From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake.

Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at mike@adirondackexplorer.org.




24 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    I wish the DEC had pointed out that dogs are required to be on leash…if that dog hadn’t run up the trail alone in the first place, this might not have happened.

  2. Lpbob3 says:

    Why do we see the need to kill an animal that attacks a human in their home? Enough is enough!

  3. Victor Forbes says:

    Thankfully you both will recover — we never know what will happen next whether walking in the woods or on a street in The Bronx.

  4. Victor Forbes says:

    It would have been somewhat different outcome if it was a pack of wolves or a panther which some folk are promoting to bring back to the Adirondacks cos they were here 200 years ago — at that point, may as well bring back the British and Algonquins

  5. tim-brunswick says:

    If the “Cougar/Wolf” fanatics get their way…unfortunate stories like this will likely have a sadder ending. Mr. Spinner and his dog “Pippy” are very fortunate.

    Early July In Tioga County a large Black Bear killed and took off with a dog despite the owner’s yelling and throwing sticks. This was very close to his home and neither the Bear or the dog was located by DEC following up on the incident.

    Suggest folks who want to “re-wild” predators read the book “The Beast in the Garden” by David Baron. In recent history a female jogger was attacked, killed and devoured by coyotes in Nova Scotia. These are all opportunistic predators and under the right circumstances being a Human Being can translate into being “Prey”….

    Thank You

    • Paul says:

      Just to clarify the woman killed in Nova Scotia wasn’t devoured she died of her injuries at a hospital…in the first recorded killing of a human by coyotes.
      http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/coyotes-kill-toronto-singer-in-cape-breton-1.779304

    • Boreal says:

      Even after being mauled, Mr. Spinner seems to disagree with you. He has no malice for a bear acting as a bear in it’s environment. Are you saying we should wipe out bears and coyotes as well as cougars/wolves because there are rare attacks on humans? I don’t believe we should wage warfare on animals just trying to survive alongside humans. The way I see it, predators have as much right to the wilderness as we do.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    Dog attacks bear. Bear defends itself. Man attacks bear. Bear defends itself then decides enough is enough and runs off into the woods.

    • Ray Smith says:

      Excellent point. The history of bear “attacks” in New York is a history of people behaving, shall we say, not very well. The problem is, how do we get the mainstream media to put these incidents into proper perspective?

  7. Randy says:

    I agree with Eric Spinner’s comments. “The bear was being a bear”. When you travel in bear country remember that you’re the visitor. Leash your dog. Make noise on the trail if you spot a bear because he or she has certainly spotted you. Carry bear spray and be ready to use it if you must. In the past two years I’ve seen 2 bears, both running across an access road to some place I’m planning to hike or paddle. So, yes, they are out there, in their environment, not yours. Remember that when you go into the woods next time.

  8. Dave Nethaway says:

    I am so glad that they are both ok. Pippy is adorable!

    But I do think it is important to clarify how this encounter unfolded. Mr. Spinner did not slip and then suddenly find himself wrestling with a bear… he did indeed slip when trying to pick up Pippy, but he then got up and intentionally engaged the bear.

    Here are two quotes where he describes how this played out:

    From the Times Union: “She is the love of my life,” Spinner said over the phone. “Pun intended, I gave the bear a bear hug and pulled the bear backwards off the dog.” Pippy ran away, and the bear shifted his attention from the dog to Spinner.

    From Time Warner Cable News: “I wrapped my left hand around the bear’s stomach and I put my right hand around the bear’s neck and I tried to pull the bear back, but I’m not the biggest guy in the world,” he said.

    In other words, he went after the bear. He did this to save his dog. I don’t blame him for it. Quite frankly, I admire him for it. I would have done the same thing. But leaving that information out of the story completely changes the narrative of the event.

    Is that just nit picking? Playing semantics? I don’t think so. First, I think the fact that Spinner took action to save his dog is a pretty big detail in this story, and we should expect it to be included. But second, the way we talk about wildlife encounters influences the way people feel about wildlife, the way they interact with wildlife, and the time they spend in wilderness.

    Reading that a black bear attacked a man more or less out of the blue gives a very different impression about the nature of bears and possible encounters with them in the woods, than reading that a man was hurt by a bear only after he initiated physical contact with it to try to get it off his dog (who ran into the bear unleashed).

    What sort of effect can this have? Just yesterday there was an Op-ed in the New York Times where the writer talks about how she was unable to enjoy a recent vacation in North Carolina because she was obsessed with news that black bears lived nearby. It scared her. She couldn’t stop thinking about worst case scenarios. She wondered how she could let her kids explore the woods, go on hikes, or even play outside, etc.

    Unnecessary or irrational fear of wildlife never leads to good things. So it is important to describe these events accurately. I do hope that is the case when the full Explorer issue comes out.

    • Scott says:

      Thanks for pointing out that the article left out key points of the events, thereby changing the story. I hate when they do that and think it is usually intentional.

    • Mike Lynch Mike Lynch says:

      Yes, you’re right. The initial encounter between Eric Spinner and the bear should have been included in the article. I overlooked it when I was going back through my notes after what was a long interview: an hour and a half. However, I should also note that Spinner did tell me the bear hit him shortly after he slipped. Here is a description of the initial encounter, according to our interview.

      Spinner told me he slipped (which he called a near-fatal mistake) as he tried to pick up his dog as it ran past him with the bear in pursuit.

      “The bear approached, swatted me with a swift left, and I rolled to the side,” Spinner said. “And the bear then approached doggy. Now we had already made some contact: claws and teeth. It was moving in for what looked like the kill. (The bear’s) nose was maybe two inches away from doggy’s flank. I got up and put my left hand around the bear’s neck and wrapped my right hand around the bear’s stomach, and I flipped the bear backwards. I thought I would have a moment for me to get up before bear. The bear was like a buoy in the water.”

      Spinner said the dog then ran off. “At that point, the bear turned and moved upon me and pushed me down, and this bear began to swat me,” he said.

  9. Bill Quinlivan Bill Quinlivan says:

    I know this is not a popular statement, but if you are hiking with dog(s), it is best that they are on a lead. If not, this is what can happen. Glad this did not result in any deaths.

  10. Brian says:

    Hats off to Mr. Spinner’s wise remark, ” The bear was being a bear”. I have come across 2 bears this season and both times while walking my dog on her leash. The bears did what I have always expected them to do…return to the woods. If my dog had been off leash, I’m not sure things would have been so good.

  11. Paul says:

    Five minutes? That seems like a very long time.

    This is a strange incident. I get it (and have commented as such) that the dog had something to do with why this happened. But the altercation is still weird. Bears are normally so skittish. Once the dog wasn’t part of the thing I am surprised the bear didn’t just take off. They will usually even run away from a garbage can full of food if a person gets close. There was no shortage of food in the woods this summer so I would be surprised if the bear was starving.

  12. Charlie S says:

    Boreal says: “I don’t believe we should wage warfare on animals just trying to survive alongside humans. ”

    Waddaya mean don’t believe we should wage warfare on animals. We’ve been doing it since the extirpation of the buffalo and the wolves and….. why should we stop now. The feds were aiming to kill a quarter million geese some few years ago because of concerns regards them in the flight paths of airplanes along the eastern seaboard. Evidently lots of people aired their grievances on this matter and they scrapped the plan. The airliners have had no significant problems because that i’m aware of,no planes have come down because too many geese were in their way.

    Locally they’re trapping geese over Schenectady ways and exterminating them because they (State or local officials) say they’re a danger to airplanes taking off from a local airport. They trap them in cages little chicks and all,separate them from kin…and kill them off. Does anybody out there think that these geese know not danger,callousness,a disruption in their routine? Does anyone out there think that these geese have no fear while they’re being carted off to their doom? It is evident that some people are just outright incapable of having any feelings at all,are cruel, hardhearted….numb! May this planet be rid of all of them before long!

    • JohnL says:

      Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. You say the airlines have had no ‘significant’ problems because of geese in the flight path. Sully Sullenberger may disagree with that.

  13. Charlie S says:

    Boreal says: “Are you saying we should wipe out bears and coyotes as well as cougars/wolves because there are rare attacks on humans?”

    We wipe out trees because they get in the way of parking lots,or new subdivisions or malls…..why not kill anything that moves if they’re disrupting the human cycle Boreal?

    • Boreal says:

      Charlie,

      Frankly, I can’t tell if you are agreeing with me, arguing with me, or just ranting.

  14. Bob M says:

    I’ll repeat the statement that if the dog was on a leash this most likely would not have happened. I let our dog free in our yard, but whenever we are on the trail the dog is leashed because its the law. Sometimes its a pain and it would be much easier to let the dog run free, but you keep it on a leash as a common courtesy to other hikers and to wildlife. I’m very surprised there was no mention of the dog off the leash by DEC. Maybe there needs to be some sort of written warning and/or fine system.

    • Boreal says:

      Based on what I know about dogs – of any size – they don’t have a lot of sense of their size. My guess is, the small dog sniffed out the bear (who may have been feeding on berries this time of year) and started barking at it. The bear, whether defending his food source, or just being cranky, decided he had had enough. So he chased & attacked the dog. When Mr. Spinner started to pull the bear of of the dog, he was then attacked by the agitated bear. If the bear was being predatory, a whap on the nose wouldn’t slow him down.

      I have been attacked 4 times over my lifetime by dogs not on leashes, not to mention dozens of incidents while hiking thaht did not involve blood. These were dogs that would never hurt a flea, or so their owners would have me believe. I was never seriously injured, but all the attacks drew blood. The owners somehow don’t seem to notice Fluffy chasing cars and cyclists down the road or chasing deer with a few of his canine pals. I witnessed a roadkill once where an adult deer ran across the road in front of me and was run over and dragged by a car coming the opposite direction. Behind it came a beagle, a border collie, and a poodle. I will never forget that scene. I’m no deer lover, but that was certainly an unnecessary death.

      So I am a big fan of dogs on leashes. A good dog is one that is under control.

  15. Charlie S says:

    I’m highly misunderstood Boreal…is why you cannot figure me out.I’m used to this by now.

  16. Charlie S says:

    JohnL says: August 25, 2015 at 4:28 pm
    Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. You say the airlines have had no ‘significant’ problems because of geese in the flight path. Sully Sullenberger may disagree with that.

    Sully may disagree but that doesn’t make him right. He was an experienced pilot and I commend him for his actions that day. How often does it happen that an airliner comes down because of birds sucked into their engines? If we had a little imagination and patience surely we can find better ways than outright slaughter of a species so as not to be inconvenienced. We’re always in a hurry John! Places to go money to be made,beauty ignored,morals out the window……..

    My understanding is that there are ways to keep geese away from the flight paths of planes but I guess they don’t want to do what’s right when it’s easier to outright kill them slowly and painfully with poisons. We’re way too ahead of ourselves John. We’re taking away more and more habitats for all these animals and then we call them nuisance animals….. The real nuisance? Look in the mirror.