A father and his son were camping at a backcountry campsite in the Hazel Creek area, according to a park press release. Around 10:30 p.m., a bear approached the campsite where the men were sleeping and pulled the 16 year-old-son from his hammock until the father drove the bear away. The campers were identified as Gabriel Alexander and Greg Alexander from Ohio.
Musetta Cary works at Fontana Village’s marina, which runs boat shuttles across Fontana Lake to the park on the other side of the lake. She said the only other similar occurrence she has heard of happened 10 or 15 years ago by her estimates.
“This is really rare,” she said. “I mean we have a lot of bear sightings and that type of thing, but to actually have somebody attacked like this — unless there is food involved maybe — but no, this is very rare.”
Tony Sherrill owns Alarka Boat Dock, which is located on the other end of lake, and has been operating it for almost 40 years. He said he has recently seen bears swimming in the lake — an unusual occurrence — but he was surprised to learn of the attack. He said when he first heard of the incident, he pictured a short skirmish before the bear retreated. This, however, was not the case.
“I have never heard of a bear attack like that in our area,” he said. “If somebody gets too close, they might get bit or slapped, but I have never heard of anything like that.”
Fontana Lake stretches 26 miles bordering the Smokies and snakes into various coves. Hikers going into the backcountry can catch boat rides across the lake to shorten what would otherwise be a two-day journey through the wilderness.
The campsite where the bear attacked is 4.5 miles from the lakeshore. After the father drove the bear away, he and his son hiked the distance to the shore where they found other campers with a boat. The campers ferried the father and son across the lake, and Mountain Area Medical Airlift flew the son to Mission Hospital. He suffered multiple injuries but remained conscious and is stable, according to a park spokesperson.
Olga Pader, president of the Nantahala Hiking Club, has covered 648 miles of trail in the national park and estimated she has seen bears only five times while hiking. She said the attack was most likely an isolated event that should not give the park’s visitors any reason to fear further danger.
She said this situation was especially unusual. Most bear activity happens in the campground and picnic areas where people are more likely to leave behind food that may attract bears.
But in this case the victim and his father had properly stored their belongings, and there was not any food left out, according to the press release. Pader said bears usually do not approach people unprovoked, as appears to be the case here.
“When you’re in the backcountry the bears are as afraid of you as you are of them,” she said.
Although she noted the highly unusual nature of the attack, she suspects that’s not what people will focus on, and she worries they will have exaggerated fears of bear attacks.
“Because it’s a rare occurrence, we hear more about it,” she said. “We don’t hear about all the auto accidents that happen daily.”
She said lack of familiarity with nature might also contribute to these fears.
“We come to fear the things that we do not know, and it’s like when you go to a strange city, to a strange place,” she said. “If you go totally without knowing anything about it, you are more concerned, more anxious.”
The attack has already impacted business at Fontana Village’s marina. It offers boat shuttles across the lake to the Hazel Creek area of the park, where park officials have shut down trails since the attack. As of Monday afternoon, Cary said three different groups had contacted her to cancel their shuttle service. She said she thinks news of the attack will only hurt the shuttling and not the rentals and resort business at Fontana Village.
Park rangers are still searching for the bear that made the attack. Sherrill said he hopes they find the bear but thinks it will be difficult.
“It is full of bear over there,” he said.