Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hiker Recounts Black Bear Encounter

amy-stafford2-600x437Smart hikers know what to do when they come upon a black bear in the woods: wave your arms, yell, and stand your ground. Yet that didn’t work for Amy Stafford.

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.

cell-photo-bear2At 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. 

More stories about the Adirondacks can be found in each issue of Adirondack Explorer, the non-profit news magazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park.  Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Leigh Hornbeck was raised inside the Blue Line in Minerva, Essex County. She now lives in Wilton, Saratoga County and works as a newspaper reporter.

11 Responses

  1. Dan Crane says:

    When I first started reading this article I thought it said “recants” in the title. As I got farther in the article and it just rehashed her bear experience, I reread the title and had a major “D’OH!” moment.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Yes, how long is this going to be rehashed.
    I can hardly wait for the book – Not!

    • lLily says:

      Pete, why are you so unhappy? More importantly, why do you want all of us to share your unhappiness? Take a hike, grouchy-britches.

  3. M.P.Heller says:

    I am happy to hear the young lady was able to avoid a mauling or worse.

    However, I would not advise folks to stab a bear in the face with a 3 inch blade. Throw rocks, sticks, make LOTS of noise, make yourself as BIG as you can by waving your arms and/or trekking poles over your head. If that doesn’t work, make MORE noise. Attacking the bear with a knife or other weapon should be the ABSOLUTE LAST resort. The one you go to when you think you are about to die. If the bear decides to fight back, your pocket knife isn’t going to level the playing field one bit.

    While contraversial, a firearm (legal and licensed), is also an option. Nobody that spends much time in the Alaska bush goes unarmed. There is a good reason for this, and while bears are a part of it, Moose are actually responsible for far more negative wildlife encounters than bears are. (See ADF&G website for recent statistics.)

    I feel the young lady was lucky that the bears were on the smaller side of the spectrum. A 300 or 400 pound bear would not have the same reaction. Nor would a bear that was being effected by a brain tumor (rare) or rabies (not as rare).

    Since the discussion is ongoing. Consider checking out these links for advice on what to do in a bear attack situation.



    The second link is a bit less technical in nature, but still contains some very good information.

    I’m very happy to hear the young lady didn’t sustain any injuries and still has the desire to hike alone. Good for her not letting the bears run her out of the woods for good.

    • Phil Merlino says:

      What about Bear Spray?

    • Avon says:

      I’m no bear expert; the two I’ve seen since 1963 stayed far clear. But it seems to me that using the pocket knife did indeed “level the playing field” against a bear that was already charging to within arm’s length. Better than level, in fact; it won the day, right?

      To worry about whether that bear would then “decide” to “fight back” (hey, WHO started it, again?) is just plain silly. A charging bear is likely to bite or claw, especially if it did have a brain tumor or disease. I’d bet that letting it draw blood before using the knife as a “last resort” would have made the knife too little, too late. Doesn’t adrenaline exist in animals, too?

      Kudos to Stafford. She earned her cry to decompress, and she deserves points by cooperating with the DEC afterwards.
      As I see it, she did 8 out of 8 things right. Very few others could be perfect in that bizarre situation.

  4. Marisa Muratori says:

    It’s good that you interviewed her, Leigh…she needed to tell her own story without so many interpretations. No matter what she did, she’s going to be criticized for not doing the right thing. When I go into the woods, I never think three bears are going to follow me. I don’t know what I would done in a state of fear.

  5. troutstalker says:

    I noticed that there was no mention of her donning a bear bell.Did she startle them?

    • Walker says:

      Trout, this was a group of young bears that had followed her for a considerable distance– startling had nothing to do with it, and bear bells wouldn’t have helped. Bear spray probably would have helped. Using hiking poles as weapons might have helped, too, if she had them handy.

  6. lLily says:

    Good for you, Amy, for keeping your head in a terrifying situation that few have endured. Be proud of yourself for handling it so well you weren’t hurt and the bears also survived.

  7. TiSentinel65 says:

    She did the right thing. She is still here to talk about it. I recall a previous post here on the Almanack talking about the threat of black bears. Although black bear incidents such as this are rare, they still happen. Bears are wild animals, and they can be unpredictable as their wild stature suggests.