Sam and the Bear



Dale Fehringer


Copyright 2014 by Dale Fehringer 

Old newspaper photo of Sam.

It was early morning and Sam McClure, a curly-headed blond teenager from Menlo Park, California was sound asleep in his tent. He had done a lot of distance running and was in good shape, but he was worn out after the day’s 20-mile trek. This was Sam’s first attempt to complete the Tahoe Rim Trail and it hadn’t been easy, but he had persevered through severe foot blisters, insect bites, and sleepless nights. The 165-mile trail, which circles the mountain ridges of the Lake Tahoe Basin is difficult for anyone, but there are special challenges for a teenager hiking it by himself.

Suddenly, Sam felt a huge “thump!” HIs tent collapsed and something hit him in the face, nearly breaking his nose. Two heavy weights pressed on his torso, knocking the wind out of him. He woke up, unable to breathe, with the tent ceiling pressed against his face. At first, he thought it was a dream, but it continued, and he shook himself awake and looked around. The moon cast a silhouette against the tent and outlined in the shadow was a bear – a bear that was trying to get in Sam’s tent! It was swiping at the tent walls, and its front paws were on Sam’s stomach.

He gathered his wits and lay perfectly still, hoping the bear would go away. But it continued to paw at his tent. Sam had no food, because he had planned to meet his mother the next morning to re-supply, so the bear wasn’t after food. It must have just been curious.

Sam remembered reading that one way to discourage bears is to play dead, so he curled into a fetal position and lay perfectly still. The bear continued to swipe at the tent, and the claws of one paw tore through the tent wall and into Sam’s sleeping bag, leaving bloody scratch marks on his back. The bear opened its jaws and tried to get a grip on Sam’s neck.

At that point, Sam realized he was in serious trouble. He was in a vulnerable position, with his back and neck exposed to the bear. He had to do something. He gathered his courage and swung at the bear, punching it in the face. He screamed at the bear: “Go away!” he shouted, “Get out!”

The bear, caught unaware, was startled. It hadn’t expected a response, and it grunted, backed away from the tent, and prowled around the perimeter of Sam’s camp.

Sam crawled out of the ruins of his tent and got his first good look at the intruder. From the color and size, he estimated it was a medium-sized black bear, around 250 pounds, possibly a teenager.

After a little shuffling near the trees, the bear made another pass at Sam, running toward him on all fours. Sam considered trying to escape, but decided against it. He knew bears are fast, excellent at tracking their prey, and able to climb trees. There was nowhere to go! So he did the only thing left to him – he shouted at the bear at the top of his lungs. “Go away!” he screamed. “Get out of here!” Over and over he shouted at the bear, as loud as he could.

The bear, startled, retreated into the trees.

Sam took inventory of his condition. He was bleeding from his nose and back, but in the dark he couldn’t tell how badly he was injured. Neither the scratches nor his nearly-broken nose were severe, but he was shocked that the bear’s claws were able to scratch him – they had to go through a rain-fly, a tent wall, a sleeping bag, and a thick shirt. His tent was torn and partially down, his sleeping bag was ripped where the bear had clawed through to get at him, and he was alone in the dark.

Sam was amazed at how quick the bear had been. He had always thought of bears as lumbering bozos, but he now knew they were more like enormous cats: quick, strong, and absolutely terrifying in close quarters. He realized that if the bear had been more than just idly curious, or if Sam hadn’t been protected by several layers, the scratches would have been huge gashes, and he could have bled out by now.

He looked at his watch. It was 4:15 a.m., which meant the sun wouldn’t be up for another hour, and he knew it wasn’t safe to hike in the dark. So, he reluctantly sat down, took out his tape recorder, switched it on, and began talking. He described the attack and said goodbye to his mother and friends – just in case. He was concerned that the bear (or its mother) might come back and finish him off.

Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, daylight broke, and Sam gathered his things and headed down the trail, toward the spot where he was to meet his mother. He walked as fast as his legs would safely carry him, covering ten miles in about two hours. He needed to put as much distance as possible between him and the bear, and he needed to do it quickly. As he saw his mother’s car come into view, he finally relaxed, for the first time in hours. He was going to make it!

His mother gave Sam a hug when he arrived at her car and asked him how his hike had gone.

Great!” he replied, “Except I was attacked by a bear!”

Yeah, right,” his mother said.

No, really!” Sam told her, and he showed her his torn shirt and the scratch marks on his back.

Sam and his mother found a Park Ranger and told him about the bear. The ranger told Sam he had done everything exactly right, and that he had been lucky. He would let everyone know there was a bear in the area coming into camps, and he put out an alert.

When Sam told us this story several weeks after the attack, we were mesmerized, and we hung on every word. He was calm as he rolled the story out – until he got to the part about recording his “goodbye” message for his mother. At that point, he must have been reminded of his mortality and his love for his mother, because I heard his voice crack.

As I heard Sam’s story, I was impressed by his poise and his courage. It had been a close call, and Sam had handled it well.

In July of 2008, 16-year-old Sam McClure became the youngest person to solo thru-hike the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), completing the 165-mile journey around Lake Tahoe in ten days.

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