Eric 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.”
Spinner 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.
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.”
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.