The father, sleeping in a hammock of his own about 10 feet away, woke up to the sounds of his son screaming. The father leapt from his hammock as the bear drug the teenager into the woods by his head.
“This a very isolated, rare incident,” said Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “It is very rare, but a very serious violent bear attack.”
The father chased after the bear, hitting it until it let go of his 16-year-old son and ran off. Now what?
They were camping in the wildest and most remote region of the park in Swain County. Cell service is non-existent. By foot, it would take a day-and-a-half of hard hiking in any direction to get out of the woods.
And in the heart of the Smokies deepest backcountry, the closest campers were miles away as well. But there was no choice. They had to hike out. The father bandaged his son’s head with clothing and they struck out into the pitch dark woods.
The son could walk, as the injuries were mainly to his head and face. The son never lost consciousness, even when the bear’s mouth was around his head, dragging him along the ground, Soehn said.
The going was slow as the father and son picked their way down the trail, in the dark, the father no doubt leading the injured son whose head and face were wrapped up.
They hoped to find help from other campers, but finding other campers was the trick. Backcountry camping is only allowed in designated spots in the park, scattered miles apart from each other — a system aimed at ensuring a solitary wilderness experience.
Hemmed in by the long, snaking channel of Fontana Lake, the park’s wild north shore is the largest roadless area in the eastern U.S., and even if they found other campers, they would still be far from civilization.
By 1:30 a.m., after hiking 4.5 miles, they finally reached a known campsite along the shore of Fontana Lake, and their luck turned.
One of the camping parties had a boat and ferried them to the other side. It’s still a remote area within the Nantahala National Forest. But they were finally able to pick up a cell phone signal and call 911.
The teenager was airlifted from the Cable Cove boat dock in Graham County to Mission Hospital in Asheville around 3 a.m.
The teenager, Gabriel Alexander, and his father, Greg Alexander, are from Ohio. Gabriel is in stable condition and expected to recover, despite what Soehn described as serious injuries.