Unprovoked black bear attacks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) are very rare, especially when the person who was attacked was so even though they were following all the recommended black bear safety rules.
Unfortunately for a 16 year old boy Gabriel Alexander from Ohio camping with his father Greg Alexander in a primitive backcountry campsite in the Hazel Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains national park, rare doesn’t mean never.
The site where the ”bear incident” occurred is backcountry campsite 84 also known as Sugar Fork which has a capacity of 6 campers and is located 4.5 miles North from the shoreline of Fontana Lake near Hazel Creek in North Carolina.
At around 10:30 last night the black bear attack in the GSMNP occurred as the son Gabriel Alexander was sleeping in his hammock and his father Greg, the only other camper in the campsite, was sleeping in his own hammock about 10 feet away.
Awakened from a deep sleep by intense pain in his scalp, the bear attack victim never knew what was attacking him and thought perhaps it was a dog. He received multiple serious injuries including severe lacerations to his head as the bear violently pulled him from his hammock and dragged him screaming in the campsite toward the bushes.
While Gabriel Alexander was being attacked by the bear, his father woke up when he heard his son screaming for help. There was just enough moonlight so he could see the bear was dragging his son across the ground by his head.
Barefoot, Gregg tried kicking the bear which had no effect on him. He then jumped on the bears back and started punching the bear in the face at which point the bear finally let go of Gabriel. The bear then backed off a few paces and then moved again towards father and son. Being hit hard at least once with a rock thrown by the father the bear finally moved further away but could be heard circling the two in the brush.
After being attacked and injured by the black bear, the victim and his father quickly packed a few things and bravely hiked the approximately 3-1/2 miles in the dark down the Hazel Creek Hiking Trail to the next backcountry campsite number 86 where they were lucky enough to find campers that had a boat at shore of the lake close by.
After the Father Greg, son Gabriel and other campers made it down to shore, they took a boat ride in the dark across Fontana Lake to the Cable Cove boat dock where Graham County Rescue EMS transported them at about 3:00 am to a landing zone where they were then flown by Mountain Area Medical Airlift to Mission Hospital in Asheville NC.
The 16 year old victim remained conscious throughout the entire bear attack and remains in the ICU at Mission Hospital where he is in stable condition at this time and was able to get up and walk around Monday afternoon.
The father and his son were hiking and camping for days and had already completed 40 miles into what was going to be a 50-mile backpacking trip. All of their food, equipment and packs were correctly stored by being hung up on bear safe aerial food storage cables so as not to attract wildlife to an easy meal.
Proper storage of food, trash and camping items great reduces the number and severity bear encounters if bear cannot receive any rewards of human food. While you may do everything correctly during your stay in a campsite, bear or other wildlife may be habituated by other less careful campers before your arrival.
Though there were other issues in the past year in that area, there were no prior black bear problems reported in the past few days at that backcountry site or at ones close by promoting any sort of warning. There have been black bear issues above that campsite at the Derrick Knob Shelter on the Appalachian Trail which may be related to the same bear.
There are reports that in the same campsite last fall, a black bear grabbed a chunk of an air mattress from underneath a camper. Other campers have claimed at around the same time they had water bottles clawed at in Bone Valley, and a bottle of liquid soap with a strong scent was bitten into at Hazel Creek.
Park rangers and wildlife biologists used boats and then have hiked into the campsite where the bear attack occurred as well as surrounding campsites to investigate the attack and clear the area of other campers and hikers until it is safe again for public use.
If they can determine which of the parks many black bears initiated the attack, the animal will be destroyed. Due to extensive forensic evidence collected, if the bear is found in short period of time, national park officials can be sure they did in fact get the right animal or not after the bears necropsy.
Even though Gabriel, a straight-A student, track athlete and member of the marching band at his high school went through a terrible ordeal due to the aggression of this a predatory bear, he expressed mixed feelings about the national parks protocol to put down such an animal. While he did not want the bear to have to be euthanized, he also did not want anyone else to go through what he has.
For now the following backcountry campsites are closed: 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, and 88 and the following hiking trails are closed to all use until further notice: Bone Valley Trail, Cold Spring Gap Trail, Hazel Creek Trail and Jenkins Ridge Trail. As a precaution Derrick Knob shelter along the Appalachian Trail has also been closed to camping and there is a park representative there right now.
Our new park superintendent Cassius Cash stated ”While incidents with bears are rare, we ask park visitors to take necessary precautions while hiking in bear country and comply with all backcountry closures,” and went on to say ”The safety of our visitors is our number one priority.”
Other recent bear attacks that occurred around the United States this month were a 55 year old hunter in New Mexico who suffered deep flesh wounds from scratches on his chest and a bite to his leg by a black bear who was startled by him, and 2 people camping in Colorado who were bitten by a bear one of which was first tackled by a bear which then started biting a him in the back of the neck and head.
Recent Bear attacks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Bear Attacks Camper at Campsite 84 Hazel Creek NC 6/7/2015
- Hiker bitten by black bear at Laurel Falls Hiking Trail TN 5/17/2010
- Child attacked by black bear at Rainbow Falls Hiking Trail TN 8/12/2008
- Woman Killed by 2 black bear at Little River Hiking Trail TN 5/21/2000
Update 6/7/2015 7:43 pm
At 7:32 this evening there was a report made of numerous people being chased by an aggressive black bear, one of which was a women claiming she was chased for a mile on the popular Laurel Falls Hiking Trail between the Sugarlands and Elkmont.
This hiking trail is already under an aggressive Bear Warning as well as Mount LeConte.
Update 6/9/2015 1:43 pm
It is believed that the bear that attacked Gabriel Alexander has been captured by park service personnel. We are awaiting positive identification at this time.
Update 6/9/2015 5:38 pm
Official park statement in regard to the bear captured this morning:
This morning, we captured, tranquilized, and humanely euthanized a male bear with potassium chloride at Campsite 84. Based on our experience and training, the bear exhibited the behavior pattern we expected. It returned directly to the site, within feet of where Alexander's hammock was strung. Due to the seriousness of the attack, our staff acted swiftly and did not take any chances.
We have collected bear hair and blood samples from the night of the attack and also this bear. Samples have been sent to the lab for DNA analysis and we expect that report to come back within a couple of weeks.
The trails and campsites will remain closed. There is always a chance that we did not get the right bear and human safety is our number one concern. Our staff remains on scene to continuing monitoring the site for bear activity.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Management Assistant/Public Affairs
Update 6/9/2015 8:12 pm
Hopes are that Gabriel can leave the hospital and head back home to Ohio on Wednesday where after some plastic surgery he is expected to make a full recovery. The bear attack left him with deep gashes on his scalp and face and a wound near his mouth.
Update 6/23/2105 9:04 pm
DNA proves bear euthanized was innocent and another bear was shot.