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.