A woman who stabbed a bear with a knife in mid-September said three bears followed her for about a mile on the Northville-Placid Trail.
"I would yell at them, and they would keep following," 22-year-old Amy Stafford said, "but if I went around a corner or up over a hill and down again, they would run up to see me again."
Stafford said the encounters occurred near Stephens Pond in the Blue Ridge Wilderness in the town of Indian Lake on Sept. 18, the third day of her attempt to hike the roughly 130-mile trail from Northville to Lake Placid.
(Photo courtesy of Amy Stafford)
One of three bears follows Amy Stafford through the woods near Stephens Pond in the Blue Ridge Wilderness. Stafford took this photo with her cellphone as the bears pursued her.
(Photo courtesy of Amy Stafford)
Stafford is from Pennsylvania and graduated this past spring from the Rochester Institute of Technology. An Army Reservist, she finished climbing the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks in April. This past summer, she lived in Raquette Lake, where she worked as a lifeguard at the state-run Golden Beach Campground.
She said she's familiar with being in bear country and knows that bears very rarely harm people, or stalk them in the backcountry.
"I've seen bears in the Adirondacks," she said. "I'm from Pennsylvania, and we have a cabin up here, and we see bears all the time."
The day of the encounter with the bears, she had hiked about 19 miles, starting at Cedar Lakes that morning.
She first noticed one of the bears at about 4:30 p.m. when she stopped to look at a pink ribbon hanging from a tree. She said it was put up by a hiking group called "Hobo."
"I read it, and it said, 'Cell phone service,'" she said. "That's the only reason why I stopped."
When she checked her phone, Stafford also happened to see one of the bears. She then took photos of it with her phone and yelled at it. In response, the bear ran off.
When the bear returned a short while later, it was with two others. She said they were all about the same size, but she doesn't really remember anything specific about them.
"The second time they came back, I turned on my phone and played music," she said. "I was yelling at them."
Instead of running off and disappearing, the bears stayed nearby and continued to follow Stafford. Often they were trailing her from about 25 meters away, she said. Sometimes they would be off to the side of her; other times they would wind up getting ahead of her.
"If I went around switchbacks, they would cut me off, and then I'd have to yell at them," Stafford said. "They seemed to scare off each time, but they wouldn't stop following me."
Stafford said the bears would bounce on their front feet at times and make "huffing" sounds and blow air in her direction.
"They did that a few times, which was definitely the really big sign that this was not cool."
Stafford said also one time while she was yelling at the most nosy bear, "it put its head down, like if a dog misbehaves and he knows it."
Stafford said the bears weren't "super-aggressive" and compared their actions to "dogs that wanted to play.
"For the most part, they just seemed really curious," Stafford said. "Even when he charged me, like I said, it was like a dog that was like charging you to rough-house. It wasn't like a growling, on its hind legs, claws out thing. It was more, like, just charging me."
Still, the actions of the bears made Stafford uncomfortable and were "definitely way, way, way too close for comfort."
Eventually Stafford pulled out a pocketknife and began holding it in her hand in case a bear got too close. Finally, near Stephens Pond, one that had been more curious than the others approached her.
"I heard it run up behind me," she said. "When I turned around, it was right there."
Startled by the bear, Stafford said she then took the knife and stabbed the bear "right in the side of the face," causing it to bleed.
"It looked down and then looked back at the other two and then took off," Stafford said. "And I pretty much took off from there. It seemed shocked."
Stafford said the stabbing wasn't a "lethal shot," but was enough to "freak it out" and cause it to bleed.
After the stabbing, Stafford walked quickly for about 2.5 miles to the Lake Durant Campground in Blue Mountain Lake, where she told the caretaker about the incident. She also called a forest ranger. Then she went to sleep.
In the morning, Stafford was undeterred by the close call and started hiking again, hoping to complete the entire trail in six days.
About halfway through that day of hiking, she turned on her phone, thinking she should contact her family.
"I kind of wanted to tell my parents I stabbed a bear in the head," Stafford said.
When she turned on the phone, she had a number of voice messages, including some from the Hamilton County Public Health Department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation's dispatch center in Ray Brook. The callers wanted her to come out of the woods because she needed to get rabies shots, due to her exposure to the bear blood. Not wanting to take any chances, Stafford decided to end her trip and arranged to be picked up by a friend.
In addition to getting rabies shots after getting out of the woods, Stafford met with DEC wildlife biologists and environmental conservation officers on Friday, two days after the incident. They returned to the Northville-Placid Trail and determined that the bears had followed her for about a mile. They found scat and bear prints about 3.5 inches wide on the trail from the now-injured bear.
Because of the incident, DEC posted signs warning of the potential for bear encounters on the nearby trailheads and on its website. The advisory warns hikers to stay in groups, make noise and only go out during the day. Campers are told to secure food and other scented items.
The warning also tells people who encounter bears in the backcountry to stand their ground, make themselves appear large and fight back if necessary.
In the days after the incident, DEC spokesman Dave Winchell said his agency wasn't exactly sure what caused the bears to act in the manner they did. He said the bears could have been habituated to human food.
Stafford, who plans to continue hiking and camping, said she doesn't think the bears were attracted to the food in her backpack. She said she doesn't really know why the animals were following her and acting in such an abnormal way.
"It was really weird because I knew if the bear wanted to do something, it obviously could have," she said. "It was almost like they were just tagging along. It was really freaky."
Contact Mike Lynch at 518-891-2600 ext. 28 or firstname.lastname@example.org.