A detailed account of the bear attack at Spence Field

On April 30, 2016, I started a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I hiked from Amicalola State Park to Fontana Dam shelter in 10 days, covering 15 to 20 miles per day.

On May 10, I hiked from the Fontana Dam shelter to the Spence Field shelter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a distance of about 17.3 miles. On the way, I passed seven or eight hikers who planned on staying at the same shelter as I was. Just before reaching the shelter, I met three AT trail maintainers, who said that the shelter was overcrowded, and I should pitch my tent if I had one. They suggested the field above the shelter (about 200 feet away) as a spot with flat spaces and a good breeze.

The field mentioned by the trail maintainers was a truly beautiful camping spot, and I decided to set up my tent there. The trail maintainers passed me when I set up my tent. Once my camp was made, I went to the shelter to get water, eat dinner and hang my bear bag (food, toothbrush, dental floss, etc.) from the shelter’s bear cables. At the shelter, the trail maintainers mentioned that I had a “cozy spot” for my camp.

After hanging my food bag, I walked up to my tent and fell asleep around 8pm feeling tired but happy.

Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my right calf and an agonizing sensation like my calf was being squeezed in a vise. Sure that it was a bear, I sat up and screamed, “No, bear! Go away!” The bear let go of my leg, and I noticed that it was dark outside. I later found out that it was about 10:30pm. There was a large hole in the tent next to where my calf was, and I drew my legs up in case the bear tried biting through the same hole.

The tent wall started bulging in at upper-body level, and I punched the bear as hard as I could and shouted, “No, bear! Back off!” at the top of my lungs. The bear moved to the top of the tent and attacked the vestibule. I shouted, and the bear backed off. Three more times, the bear attacked the vestibule and backed off when I shouted as loudly as I could.

Then there was stillness for about a minute. Hoping that the bear had gone away, I slowly started reaching toward the vestibule zipper. Just as my hand was about to close on the zipper, the bear attacked the vestibule again, narrowly missing my hand. Another loud shout from me, and the bear stopped the attack.

I could hear the bear move to the place where I’d hung the socks that I’d put out to dry. The bear sniffed loudly at my socks for at least a minute, sounding like a very big dog, before the most vicious attack on the vestibule yet. Seeing that the vestibule was becoming badly shredded, I yelled loudly, starting to feel panicked. Since the smell of my own blood was so strong to myself, the bear must have been driven crazy by the scent.

There were another three attacks on the vestibule, then silence. I waited about ten minutes before deciding that I had to move before the bear came back. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where the bear was. Was it just outside my tent? In the clearing nearby? On the way to the shelter? Just returning? I desperately needed to reach the shelter, because the vestibule was in tatters, providing little further protection.

I put on my shoes and a warm jacket, and I grabbed my sleeping quilt. Then I parted the shredded vestibule (no need to unzip), and I stepped out of the tent.

It was an overcast night with very little light to see by. I limped toward the shelter, looking every direction, but I couldn’t have seen a black bear on such a dark night. Nearly hitting a tree as I scanned all around me, I decided that I had to focus only on looking forward. In some ways, that was worse, since I was sure that the bear would pounce on me from behind, pin me down, and start feeding. I had just seen The Revenant a few months before, which left a vivid picture in my mind.

I was terribly afraid that I would miss the shelter and get lost, wounded and bleeding in the dark. While stumbling down the slope, I saw a faint line on the ground that seemed smoother to walk on. Following the line, I was relieved to realize that it was the trail to the shelter.

Once I was close to the shelter, I cried out for help and asked where the shelter was. An annoyed tent camper told me it was, “Right over there”. I told him that I was attacked by a bear, bitten and bleeding. Then I limped into the shelter. A girl in a tent nearby had heard my remarks about the bear attack, and gathered her things. She followed me into the shelter. The next morning, her tent was found to have been shredded by the bear, even though it was only about forty feet from the shelter. The bear must have followed my blood trail from the field.

In the shelter, first aid was applied by a very kind hiker, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park rangers were notified. The rangers said that they could come out by horseback and help me to Maryville, TN the next day.

In the morning, three AT hikers staying at the shelter went up to get my things. The bear had returned to my campsite during the night and moved my things 100 yards from my camping spot. It had chewed everything that I had left behind (tent, tent poles, backpack, water filter, water bottles, phone, book, etc.). With extremely lucky timing, I had made it to the shelter after the initial attack and before the bear returned.

The park rangers and an EMT arrived around noon. The rangers kept everything that had been bitten, including my tent. They wanted to use the bite marks and saliva to identify the bear. I assume that the bear was put down, which is unfortunate but necessary.

One of the park rangers was the park’s bear expert. I asked him if the bear would have pulled me out of the tent if it could have seen me, and he said that was almost certain. If the bear had penetrated the tent and pulled me out, I wouldn’t have been found until morning, and I probably wouldn’t have lived.

In the end, I survived the bear attack with minor puncture wounds to my right calf (1″ to 1.5″ deep), a very hoarse voice, and slightly swollen knuckles on my right hand.

I’d like to say thank you to all of the people who helped me. I’m extremely grateful for everyone’s efforts, and I’m grateful to be alive.

I’ve included some photos below. If it looks odd to see me smiling, I felt such a warm feeling of gratitude to be alive that I couldn’t possibly have frowned. 🙂

IMG9552881
Posing with what was left of my tent the following morning.
IMG9589981
My bandaged leg after first aid.
2016-05-14 07.17.50
Front puncture a week after the attack.
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Rear puncture a week after the attack.
2016-05-20 20.23.26
Front puncture as of last night (May 23). No infection, thank goodness!
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121 thoughts on “A detailed account of the bear attack at Spence Field”

    1. Ha! Like most thru-hikers, I was hungry all the time, and I would have loved eating a subway sandwich.

      Of course, I would have eaten it at the shelter and hung the wrappers in my bear bag.

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  1. Of all the times I and countless people like me have slept solo deep in the woods and mountains it had to be you who become that rare statistic.

    I’m glad you got away relatively ok and that the experience is not keeping you off the trail

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  2. Peachpeak, Day hiker from Asheville here. #1 I am so glad that you are OK. I was bitten by a small dog in my calf in 2015, and I can still feel the pain of those sharp animal teeth. I can’t imagine the pain of a bear bite. #2 Thanks for sharing your story. I think there are lessons to be learned here. The most important one is that hikers are not following best use practices regarding food. The shelters with their delicious food odors must drive the bears nuts. #3 After two attacks in the last two years, you couldn’t pay me to sleep outside in the Smokies. #4 Good luck on your South bound hike. Lastly, I can see this story published in Readers Digest which loves those “I almost didn’t make it” stories.

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  3. Glad you recovered. Close call. I’m sorry you had to go through that. I’m curious, now that you have experienced an attack first hand, what you would change or do differently? What would you recommend to other hikers to deal with such an encounter? What equipment would you keep with you in the tent? Did the rangers or the bear expert comment on what choices (likely) saved your life, and what they recommend for others or for future encounters? Are there group practices, emergency code words, or safety responses you would recommend for the shelter? What first aid equipment was critical in this case?

    And…my number one question…how did you (or, anyone else) contact the rangers?

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    1. Actually, now that I found the “older comments” button, I see that you have answered most of my questions. Sorry for the hasty post.

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    2. These are great questions, Stephen. I don’t mind answering some of them again.

      I do think that there are lessons to be learned/relearned:
      – Do everything that you can to minimize an attack. (hang food, cook away from camp, camp with a large group)
      – An attack can still occur, even if you have a clean camp.
      – If an attack occurs, fight with all of your energy and intelligence.
      – Carry bear spray in areas with significant risk.

      I will be carrying bear spray in the future for protection in open areas.

      Luckily, I didn’t need extensive first aid, just antibacterial cream, gauze and a bandage.

      As far as contacting help, a few people had a single bar of reception on their phones. One hiker called 911, while the trail maintainers called the ranger station.

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  4. I’ve been wondering, did you change out of the clothes you ate in and hang them before getting into your tent? And is this usually an important thing to do in areas where bear activity is high, like GSMNP?

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    1. I was hiking cook-less, meaning that I didn’t carry a stove or cook my food. Instead, I ate tortillas, peanut butter, dried fruit and granola bars. I washed my hands and brushed my teeth afterwards.

      I was hiking ultralight, so I didn’t have a spare set of clothing (except socks). I washed myself and my clothing at the previous shelter (Russell Field Shelter), then I wore my wet clothing while hiking. My clothes took about 20 minutes to dry. I washed my feet and socks at Spence Field shelter, and I hung my socks to dry outside my tent.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I interviewed some hikers down at my sister Maria’s hostel’ Standing Bear, who go by trail names, “Dawdler and Flannel Heart” and also another over the phone, trail name “Rocky”, who were there in the shelter that night. I wrote an article in my regular column, “Tales From The Trails” in my local newspaper, The Newport Plain Talk. I’m glad to hear the story as told from your perspective, as there were many details that I was unable to get from the interviewees. There was some speculation that your application of strong smelling coconut oil infused sunblock on your legs earlier in the day may have been the reason the bear bit your leg through your tent. However, although this is mere speculation on their part, I had to include it in my article as possible motive for the attack, as statistically, bears practically never attack anyone in the southern Appalachians like you were.

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    1. The false “Coconut Oil Rumor” keeps being retold.

      I didn’t use sunblock or insect repellent on the AT. I did have an unopened, unused tube of sunscreen in my pack. The GSMNP rangers determined that it was “unlikely to be an attractant”.

      The only people who were not surprised by the attack were the park rangers. They said that the park bears are opportunists that constantly search for food. When unsure, bears bite things to see if they are food.

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