Camper recounts close bear encounter at Great Smoky Mountains shelter

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials temporarily closed the Le Conte Backcountry Shelter Thursday, after several close bear encounters.

Kyle Sargeant, 23, of Atlanta, was trying to sleep Wednesday night before witnessing the most recent close call with the animal.

“I start hearing this rustling behind me … I sit up and about 8 feet away swinging at this backpack with its paws is this about 300-pound black bear,” Sargeant said.

Sargeant and a friend traveled to the mountains for a two-day hiking trip.

He said that around 5 p.m. Wednesday, he saw park rangers trap a bear at the main Le Conte Lodge.

The rangers collared the bear, tazed it and let it go nearby, according to Sargeant.

He said that bear was not the bear that visited the backcountry shelter several hours later.

Around 1 or 2 a.m., Sargeant was awake, having a hard time sleeping.

That’s when he heard rustling noises coming from behind.

The only person out of seven others awake, Sargeant turned to see a giant bear pawing at one of their backpacks.

“(The bear) was on his hind legs and he would be swinging at the backpack trying to knock it down. I mean, he eventually succeeded. He was swinging back and forth by the end of things. He just kept pushing it, trying to get it down,” Sargeant detailed.

He said the backpacks were hanging on a ‘bear cable,’ which was supposed to keep food and other items out of bears’ reach.

It seemed as though only one bag attracted the bear, Sargeant said.

“He was aggressive towards that backpack for sure,” he said.

After the bear snatched the backpack, Sargeant said it dragged the bag about 30 feet away and stayed there for about 15 minutes.

Once the bear left, the group learned what the bear was after: Slim Jims.

“He wasn’t going to return. It was very obvious he was there for the Slim Jims. He only went for one backpack. He didn’t go for anyone else’s backpack,” Sargeant said.

He said what made the encounter even scarier was that the shelter had only one way in and out way out.

“We’re walled on three sides. I mean, he would’ve had us cornered if he wanted to,” Sargeant explained.

He said they were able to go back to sleep, but not until the adrenaline ran through their systems.

Of course, he said, that the two campers sleeping on the bottom floor stayed asleep nearly the entire time the bear was there.

Park officials said they closed the backshelter temporarily due to aggressive bear activity.

“Since Oct. 5, we’ve had a series of incidents in the area involving property damage where young male bears have attempted to enter buildings associated with the lodge, and also the backcountry shelter in search of food and garbage,” Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the GSMNP, said in a statement.

She said rangers first placed a warning notification on the trail, in the developed area, and also trapped two suspect bears and applied adverse “conditioning techniques.”

“Out of an abundance of caution, following this series of bear incidents in the area, we decided to temporarily close the backcountry shelter at this time. Our staff and the LeConte Lodge staff will attempt to capture the bear responsible for this latest incident and we will continue to monitor the situation and reopen the area as soon as feasible,” Soehn wrote.

On a separate note, Soehn said that the park has reported fewer bears killed by vehicles so far this year.

She said a female bear was hit and killed on Laurel Creek Road this week, making it the fifth roadkill for the park this year. 

Soehn said that usually when acorns are abundant, bears don’t travel as much, and that seemed to be the case this year.

The average amount of bear roadkill in a year is 11, according to Soehn.

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