Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Scare from a bear: When does a charge becomes a chase?

Missing Old Forge teen claims she was chased by bear, spent night in tree

The weighty canon of Adirondack bear lore grew a little thicker recently, when an Old Forge athlete put her running shoes to good use to scamper out of the path of a momma bear intent on protecting her cubs.

According to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, a 19-year-old woman later identified by state police as Rachel Smith, set out on a five-mile run on Big Otter Trail in the HaDaRonDah Wilderness Area on the evening of Aug. 18 and did not return.

What happened next is sure to be retold many times in a region that values its bear culture — from the famed Bear Fight Up in Keene to the hiker whose camp was ripped apart because his lunch included a salmon sandwich.

Smith could not be immediately reached, but according to the DEC report, during her evening run that began around 7:30 p.m., she encountered two bear cubs on the trail. She told the DEC that the mother bear charged and chased her through the woods. According to the DEC, Smith said she climbed a tree to escape and stayed in the tree until morning.

Wildlife expert: If a bear charges, don’t run

Although it worked out for Smith, Steve Hall, who runs the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington, said her tactics are not recommended.

Hall said it is of some amusement that humans— among the slowest of the planet’s mammals — are the ones who put on the Olympics.

“Never run from anything, because we’re slower than everything,” Hall said. “Talk quietly to it, never run and never stare at it in the eyes.” Along with being faster runners, bears are also better tree climbers than people.

In the end though, “the bear wants what you want,” Hall said, which is a cessation on any potential hostilities. It may “bluff charge,” but black bears almost never mean it — black-bear fatalities in the United States average only one person every five years, said Hall. When considering how many thousands of black bear encounters happen within this time frame, these are very rare attacks, he adds.

Search party formed

In the darkness, Smith told the DEC, she could not be entirely sure that the bears had left and she chose to stay in the tree until dawn.

Around 10 p.m., when she hadn’t returned, Smith’s family called the authorities and by morning — with still no sign of her — a sizable search party had been organized.

“When you have a missing person of this age you can only think of the worst,” said Old Forge Fire Chief Chris Stanley. The story spread fast, and along with state and local authorities, private citizens volunteered to help search.

Stanley said a command post was set up at McCauley Mountain near the young woman’s home, but “It was pretty complicated because nobody knew where she went.”

Not long after that, the search had started in earnest, with about 250 people from the Forge, Inlet, Eagle Bay and Big Moose joining in.

Stanley said they were in the early stages of assigning trail routes and grids when Smith was found about a mile from her home. The search party — the first such that Stanley could recall in his 15 years in Old Forge — were relieved and grateful for the happy ending.


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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

14 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    An excellent book on how easy it is for people to get disoriented is, “From Here To There” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0674244575/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_taa_L9QtFbHNC9JCG

  2. Steve B. says:

    One thing that puzzled me about this story was who goes for a 5 mile run (easily a 45 minute run) on a hiking trail at 7:30, when sunset is 7:40 ‘ish ?. Maybe wearing a headlamp ?, if so, should have been able to see ?.

    Something doesn’t make sense.

  3. Paul says:

    Hall is right. Climb a tree to escape a black bear? That is nonsense, they are awesome tree climbers. I have seen it. Ran into two cubs and a big mom one time they got up the trees like nothing I was the one on the ground. This is a shaky story at best.

  4. Jim S. says:

    I bet the bears have some great people stories.

  5. Ed says:

    If I were a bear , chasing people up trees at dusk would be a my hobby .

  6. Tim misunderstood one thing I said about fatalities from black bear attacks. I believe I said that black bears kill about one person every five years in the states. Consider how many thousands of black bear encounters frame these very rare attacks. Another perspective: “According to Stephen Herrero in his “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” (great book by the way), 23 people were killed by black bears from 1900 to 1980.” This would include Canada and Alaska. Some black bear attacks are predatory rather than defensive, so always fight a black bear who has actually made physical contact (as opposed to bluffing), but never fight a grizzly, as the latter is likely to deliver a stern bloody lecture, which may involve broken bones, but are usually not fatal. Grizzlies attacks tend to involve Mom defending cubs, or a grizzly defending a carcass they’re scavenging. The only grizzly attack I’m aware of in which the motive was starvation, was the “Grizzly Man”, who’s the subject of that documentary on Netflix or Amazon. https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2015/04/appreciating-bears-through-the-seasons.html

  7. Vanessa says:

    How cool, let’s talk about bears! One of my fav topics.

    Black bears are indeed not typically fatal if you know what you’re doing. In fact I feel that we cause them a lot more trouble than vice versa. Please make sure to follow bear-related rules when camping and hiking, and secure your trash at home. The bears will thank you <3

    My hometown had a very rare black bear death in the area a few years ago. Unfortunately the victim ran and was chased for 20-30 minutes before passing out, at which point he was, um, eaten :(:( illustrated the “never run” rule in a really grisly way

  8. Boreas says:

    As I mentioned in a post here on the original article, I don’t see this encounter as an aggressive attack at all. If the hiker had continued to run toward the bruin family, it likely would have. I believe the bear pursued the hiker purely out of instinct when the runner ran away. I think it was simply the bear’s way of making sure the runner got her point. After all, bears can’t shout obscenities. I would have expected the bear to retreat with her cubs if the hiker would have simply stopped and held her ground – depending on the distance. But I suspect things happened so quickly that the bear gave chase instead. Since her cubs followed her to the tree, it seems very unlikely the bear would have stayed at the tree very long once she realized the threat was neutralized. This is also likely why she didn’t try to climb the tree. She would likely have removed her cubs from the area ASAP.

    If I was in the same situation as the runner, it is very likely I would have continued running as well (but obviously not toward the bear) without thinking. I can’t fault the runner for that. But being a poor tree-climber, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. But she did what she did, and spent an uncomfortable night in a tree.

    Lessons learned?

    1. If you intend to be on the trails at dusk, take a flashlight and/or cell phone. Take one regardless if you are in the backcountry – for safety’s sake.
    2. If you are hiking/running in bear habitat, learn the proper responses for encounters.
    3. Make sure people at home know your backcountry route and your likely return time.

    Luckily this encounter turned out to be a learning and teaching encounter and nothing more serious. I probably would have risked death before running away because I couldn’t run away from a toad, let alone climb a tree!

  9. Jeep says:

    Wear a string of bells and carry pepper spray!

  10. Smitty says:

    The real danger out in these woods is a Bull Moose during the rut, which by the way is gonna be on the way very soon. Hell they’ll charge a locomotive!

  11. Walter Wouk says:

    My first encounter with a black bear was on the Murphy’s Lake trail. I moved a discreet distance off of the trail to answer a call of nature and, as I’m standing there, I heard a scratching sound above my head. I looked up to see a bear cub which caused me to move away quickly — but not running — from the area, As I rejoined my fellow hiker we heard a commotion of sorts in the bush where I had been standing. We moved off the trail to hike around the area where I saw the cub and passed by the the route mama bear had rushed through the brush to get to her cub. It looked like a small dozer had just blazed a trail. Dodged a bear paw that day.

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