The bear that pulled an Ohio camper from his hammock in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was among growing numbers of the state’s largest predator.
By the mid-1900s the few remaining black bears had been driven to the state’s fringes, its highest mountains and coastal plain. Now they number an estimated 15,000 and roam 60 percent of the state.
The paths of bears and people more often cross these days. Backyard sightings and garbage can raids are common in mountain cities such as Asheville.
But few of those encounters, experts say, rank with the terrifying visit in the night Saturday that put 16-year-old Gabriel Alexander in the hospital.
Alexander, of Athens, Ohio, was deep in the park’s back country, a few miles from Fontana Lake. On the third night of a four-day backpacking trip with his father, at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, the bear appeared.
The pair had done everything right, park officials say, including hoisting their food and packs on cables high off the ground. They slept in hammocks 10 feet apart.
“The father woke up to his son’s screaming,” park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said Monday.
Greg Alexander told The Athens Messenger that he fought the bear by hand to get it off his son.
“There’s no choice,” he told the newspaper. “I just hit it.”
Once the bear separated from his son, Alexander said he threw rocks until it ran away. He estimated its size to park rangers at 200 pounds.
The teen had multiple injuries including lacerations on his head. Alexander said he applied compresses to his son’s wounds and the two walked five miles to the lake shore.
A camper with a boat took them across Fontana Lake and the teen was airlifted to an Asheville hospital. Park officials said he was listed in stable condition at Mission Hospital on Sunday. The hospital had no listing for the teen Monday.
Rangers closed campsites in the Hazel Creek area of the park as biologists armed with hair samples from the scene, traps and night cameras tried to track the bear. Soehn said it will be killed when found because the attack was unprovoked.
“This was a very rare and unusual incident,” she said.
The 521,000-acre Smokies park holds an estimated 1,600 bears among its 850 miles of backcountry trails.
The last similar event took place in 2001, when a bear grabbed the arm of a hiker in a hammock. A fellow camper beat the bear away with a broom.
A bear killed a woman on the Tennessee side of the park in 2000. It was the first fatal attack by a bear in a southeastern national park. Rangers killed the bear and her cub as they hovered near the body.
A year ago, park officials closed a number of trails and campsites because of visitor encounters with what rangers deemed aggressive bears. No one was attacked but twice in a week backcountry hikers encountered bears that didn’t back away.
Most encounters, Soehn said, end when people who find bears too close have driven them away by making noise.
“The great thing about black bears is that they’re not grizzly bears,” said Justin McVey, a state Wildlife Resources Commission district biologist for the mountain region. “They don’t act in a predatory manner. And they generally don’t see people as a source of food.”
If you see a bear
Tips from the National Park Service:
▪ Remain watchful.
▪ Do not approach it.
▪ Do not allow the bear to approach you.
▪ If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior, such as changing its travel direction, you are too close.
▪ Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. Slowly back away, watching the bear, and increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same.
Tips for more situations are online at the Smokies website.