That’s getting off lightly, for sure, but Sam McClure’s predawn encounter with a black bear while hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail two years ago was a frightening experience.
McClure, then 16 and an experienced backpacker, had set up camp near the trail south of Tahoe Meadows on a Monday night in July. He was awakened shortly after 4 a.m. by a heavy animal “falling” across his tent.
Its silhouette in the moonlight made clear what the animal was — a bear. Not a big bear, but big enough.
The bear threw its bulk across the tent again. McClure stayed still in a fetal position in his sleeping bag, hoping it would go away.
It didn’t. Next McClure felt the bear scratching at his back, then begin to bite at his neck.
“I was obviously scared. At the time, I pretty much thought it was the end,” McClure said.
He knew he had to do something. McClure made a sudden lurching movement, at the same time yelling at the bear to go away.
It did, loping off about 20 yards before stopping. The bear then started to walk back toward McClure. He yelled at it again, and it disappeared for good.
Now 18 and a resident of Menlo Park, Calif., McClure believes the incident was a “rough play, probing-type event,” not an aggressive attack.
A close encounter
“I think if it was, I wouldn’t be here,” said McClure, who remains an active backpacker. “It was just one of those freak things that happens.”
Nevada bear biologist Carl Lackey, who took a report on the 2008 incident, agrees. While McClure didn’t have food inside his tent, he did have a cookie wrapper and strawberry toothpaste — items likely producing scents that attracted the bear.
“I would not classify this incident as an attack but rather a case of mistaken identity,” Lackey wrote in his report. “The bear was looking for food. The bear did not display behavior that could be construed as aggressive toward the victim although there is a very thin line between the bear’s behavior in this incident and what could have happened had Sam not yelled at the bear when he did.”
No one has ever been killed or seriously injured by a bear in the area. In 1995, in an incident similar to McClure’s, a 13-year-old boy camping with two friends near Meeks Bay suffered gashes to his head when a bear tore through his tent in search of food. California Fish and Game officials reported at the time that Richard Warf was the first human injured by a bear in the Lake Tahoe area in 25 years.
Lackey has heard of an undocumented incident reported to have occurred in the Hunter Lake area in the early 1990s. A man allegedly was tossing cookies at a bear from the bed of his truck and paid the consequences, Lackey said.
“About the time the bear got up to him the guy ran out of cookies,” Lackey said. “The bear swatted him.”
Will someone, some day, be seriously injured or killed by a bear here? It’s certainly possible, Lackey said. He cited the 2007 case of an 11-year-old boy who was fatally mauled by a black bear after being pulled screaming from his tent in Utah. Last year, an elderly woman in Colorado was killed by a bear she was feeding, Lackey said.
And just last Sunday, a hiker in Kentucky was mauled by a black bear in the first such incident recorded in that state. He survived the attack.
Lackey is particularly worried over risks posed by aggressive bears increasingly breaking into sometimes-occupied homes in search of food.
“The potential is always there,” Lackey said. “It only takes one to ruin your day. Who cares about statistics?”
But statistics should mean something, argues Ann Bryant, founder of Lake Tahoe’s Bear League.
“Your chances of being killed by your neighbor’s dog are 147 times greater,” Bryant said. “They’re not an aggressive, man-eating monster.”
It's best for a man to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open his mouth and remove all doubt.