1997 Bear Attack at Philmont

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Date: Sat, 17 Jan 1998 12:49:32 -0500
From: Donald Miles <donmiles@enter.net>
Subject: Selden's Philmont Web Pages: "Preparing for Philmont - Bears"
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I thought that the following post to rec.Scouting.usa, which I made today after reading your "Preparing for Philmont - Bears" section of your Philmont web pages, might be something you might want to add to that section on your page, to set the record straight about Philmont's most-recent bear incident:

My posting to rec.Scouting.usa:

Just read various August and September 1997 postings to rec.Scouting.usa, collected on Selden's Philmont web pages, about the bear attack on the Scout this August at Philmont. Much of what was said in them is wrong:

I was an advisor with our Philmont crew (731-X, Boy Scout Troop 318, Bethlehem, PA, Trek 28, July 31-August 12) this summer. Our crew unfortunately witnessed the bear attack commented on in rec.Scouting.usa.

The attack occurred at Copper Park camp, just below Baldy's summit, about 1:30 pm on August 5, 1997. Our crew had just returned from climbing Baldy, had lunch, and while doing cleanup (in preparation for an afternoon nap, after 3 days of difficult, rainy uphill trekking on Trek 28) one of our Scouts noticed a small bear coming toward our campsite from the wooded hillside of Baldy. The small black bear was slowly ambling towards our tents, eyeing us with interest from about 50 yds. away, and, while most of our crew quickly gathered our food and smellable to hoist into the bear bag, the other two adults and I walked a little towards the bear and yelled and generally carried on to persuade him to leave us (2 years ago our Troop had its campsite attacked at dusk on an Appalachian Trail backpack in E. PA, we lost all 7 tents to the critter's curiosity (no injuries) -- and our food, which was "safely" stored in a 15 ft. high bear bag at the time -- and since then we take no chances with bruins).

We believed we were the first of about 10 crews on Baldy that morning to return to the campsites and that everyone else was still on the mountain.

The bear reluctantly ambled away from us and it took us a moment to realize that it was headed for an adjacent campsite, about 200 yds away, which had no visible crew but did have visible packs and tents present. By then our entire crew was assembled, along with a few of those from the crew from Arizona we had been trekking with for days, about 15 people. When the bear entered the other campsite and headed for the nearest backpack, we all began hollering and jumping around, trying to distract it. As we stood about 75 ft. away, he rose on his hind legs (at which point I said to my companion, a Bethlehem Police officer who was with me during our PA bear attack, "Mark, this is NOT good") and glared at us. We all stopped yelling and, without warning, the bear leaped into the middle of the nearest tent, about 6 ft. away from him.

Immediately screams emanated from the tent and we realized with surprise that someone was asleep inside the tent. As we ran toward the tent, a man stumbled out of the next tent in his underwear and, apparently half asleep, screamed, "There's kids in there ! There's kids in there !" One of us yelled at him to stop running -- he was only 20 ft. from the bear -- but he kept on going until he was about 6 feet from it.

Meanwhile (as we learned later), the bear, being surprised by the boy's screams, lashed out and bit him in the back (the bear's initial collapse onto the tent had hit the boy in the right arm, causing a shallow 6 inch gash). The crazed onslaught of the man in his underwear -- who turned out to be the Scoutmaster of the crew, which was from Iowa -- startled the bear, who slowly backed out of the campsite and stood glaring at us. My policeman friend, angry, picked up a rock and hurled it at the bear, hitting it in the butt as it climbed up the hillside and into the woods of Baldy.

The entire sequence in the Iowa crew's camp took about 2 minutes.

The Iowa Scoutmaster was somewhat in shock and partly asleep, while the injured Scout staggered around the campsite in his underwear, bleeding slightly and hysterical. My 15 year old son, Stephen, our crew leader and a certified lifeguard, went over to the injured Scout and helped his dazed crew give him first aid while we awoke the rest of the sleeping Iowa crew.

One of our crew's advisors and one of the advisors from the Arizona crew, along with 3 older Scouts, then ran 3 miles down Baldy to BaldyTown camp (Copper Park is not staffed) for Ranger help, in a downpour. About an hour later 2 Rangers with a large First Aid kit arrived on foot, followed about a half hour later by more Rangers in a 4 wheel drive. By then all 10 crew were down from Baldy, the rain and cold had intensified, and the advisors from each crew notified the Rangers that none of us was willing to camp that night again in Copper Park, under the circumstances. Although BaldyTown is not usually a campsite, the Rangers agreed to let us all hike down there for the night, which all 100 or so of us did, in a hypothermic downpour. Our crew camped at the worst wet rocky campsite (not really a campsite at all) for the worst night we had ever spent outdoors.

Our sleep was not enhanced by the realization that, had we returned from climing Baldy 30 minutes soonerand begun our planned naps, the bear would have blundered into Scouts asleep in one of our crew's tents, rather than the one in the campsite next door, and then no one would have been awake to help us out, as we were able to do -- because we were awake -- for the Iowa crew that was attacked.

Next morning, as the NM Game Commissiion readied a crew of bloodhounds and hunters at BaldyTown, our crew was debriefed by Philmont Staff about the incident, to assure that the bear had not been provoked. Only if there was no excuse for the bear's behavior would it be hunted. Based on the reports from the Iowa crew and ours, they hunted the bear down 3 days later near the top of Baldy and killed it.(It was a 2 or 3 year old male, about 250 lb., with a radio collar -- that was broken, making its location harder.)

We were to told that it was the first unprovoked attack by a bear on an occupied tent at Philmont in over 10 years.

The Philmont Staff investigating the incident told our crew that they had behaved exceptionally well during the incident and, without our intervention to drive the bear from the Scout's tent, he might have been much more seriously injured or killed. Our guys were proud to learn they did the right things.

The other posters to the rec.Scouting newsgroup who stated that the Scout was just "scratched on his cheek" or that he had been "eating Lifesavers in his tent" or that the bear smelled "toothpaste", don't know what they're talking about.

I was the adult who searched the collapsed tent 5 minutes after the attack (the boy's Scoutmaster was somewhat in shock and asked me to check it out) and there was NO FOOD whatsoever in there. Nor had he eated any food in his tent, the boy and his tentmater confirmed. The only smellable item in the tent was a small, tightly-closed tube of acne cream. So, when they tell you at Philmont to get rid of anything that smells, they mean even tightly-sealed non-food items, folks ! Also, I found in the boy's pack outside the tent (which originally attracted the bears attention, as noted above) a very-smelly bottle of sunscreen, which the Scoutmaster told us they had repeatedly told the boy to get rid of as too smelly.

The various posts to rec.Scouting.usa that purported to tell the facts of this incident based on what they "heard" at Philmont last summer are examples of how rumors build. Two nights after the incident, the Scouts in our crew were amused to learn at another camp that the crews there had "heard" that the bear attack had resulted in the Scout's "arm almost being ripped off". Like I said ...

Also, the post to rec.Scouting.usa that said the boy returned to his crew and continued his trek were, unfortunately, also wrong: the boy and his Scoutmaster spent 3 days at Philmont base camp health lodge and when the boy returned to his crew on the trail -- our crew was with them -- he went into his tent for the night and was emotionally unable to sleep there -- who can blame him -- and he returned to base camp and did not continue his trek, unfortunately.

Those are the facts, folks: I didn't "hear" them, we watched it happen.

The Philmont Rangers told us the bear had been a problem bear before: a youngster who apparently had never learned to hunt properly and repeatedly tried to scounge for food at campsites near Baldy. When he came into Copper Park in broad daylight he was starving. They also said that the summer of 1997 was a particularly bad year for bears in Northern Philmont.

(And other animals: at Ponil, we entered our campsite to discover 10 feet away a decapitated deer carcass that the Rangers said had been killed the night before by a 180 lb. mountain lion who lived near the camp. However, we also walked within 100 feet of a very beautiful and peaceable 500 lb. cinnamon bear on Wilson Mesa who calmly ate grubs from a log as we snapped photos.
Moral: it's the animals we've tempted with civilization, not the wilderness ones, you have to worry about.)

Philmont Moral: bear bag your smellables, don't even carry really smelly stuff like unduly odiferous sunscreen, know your first aid, and have an emergency plan.

And don't tell Scouts/Scouters animal stories about wilderness stuff you didn't witness yourself.

Don Miles
Asst. Scoutmaster Troop 318 (Scoutmaster 1993-97)
Bethlehem, PA
("I used to be a Fox ...")

See also:

This Web page is maintained by Selden Ball at Wilson Lab.
Please send any comments or corrections to seb@lns62.lns.cornell.edu