As Brad Veeder limped through the dark forest bleeding and scared, his one thought was about the graphic bear attack scene he had watched months earlier in the movie “The Revenant.”
“What kept going through my mind is that it’s following me and it’s going to pounce,” he recalled. “It certainly could have finished me off. I was not looking forward to being eaten alive.”
In the movie set in the early 1800s, actor Leonardo Dicaprio’s character is mauled nearly to death by a grizzly bear in a scene that some reviewers called disturbingly lifelike. In contrast, Veeder was the victim of a black bear attack that was not nearly as vicious but was real — real blood, real pain and visceral fear.
Yet the May 10 attack in Great Smoky Mountains National Park seems a world away on this day. The 49-year-old Veeder sits on an ottoman in the living room of his parents' home. He’s at ease talking about the incident, grinning so often that he feels compelled to note that even before the attack he was a person who smiled easily and often. Now he has even more reason to be happy.
“I have so much relief and gratitude to be alive.”
Although the former Billings West grad’s puncture wounds from the bear’s bite to his calf are now mostly healed, covered only by Band-Aids, he thinks the next time he sleeps outdoors in a tent he will be a bit nervous.
“I was shocked,” said Jolane Jones, Veeder’s older sister, about hearing the news from her mother. “I think it’s totally a miracle that he ended up as unscathed as he was after a bear attack.”
Although there are an estimated 1,500 bears spread across Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s more than 522,000 acres, black bear attacks are fairly rare, according to Jamie Sanders, park spokeswoman.
The park advises hikers, which number in the thousands since the Appalachian Trail passes through the Smoky Mountains, to hike in groups, carry bear spray, hang their food out of a bear’s reach and even provide shelters to sleep in and cables to hang food on.
Having grown up in Montana and backpacked across the West in regions occupied by grizzly and black bears, Veeder was familiar with the drill: don’t leave food in your tent, hang your food away from camp, etc. He wasn’t even using a cook stove, deciding instead to avoid the hassle and just eat cold foods.
“I was very careful,” he said, even keeping his food in an odor-proof sack.
His attention to detail may come from his former career as a computer network engineer. Yet Jones described her brother as “awfully adventuresome,” evidenced by a stint as a teacher in Southeast Asia and extended bicycle trips in Korea, Japan and Taiwan after leaving the computer business.
“He’s not afraid of taking risks, and he’s pretty smart,” she said.
The trip he had started on April 30 was meant to be a hike along the entire distance of the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail, a walk from Georgia to Maine. Unfortunately, he only made it about 180 miles.
Night of the bear
Veeder arrived at the Spence Field Backcountry Shelter at about 11 a.m., exhausted after a lengthy day’s hike of about 17 miles. But the shelter and even the overflow camping areas were full of hikers. Park trail workers suggested a field about 200 feet farther up the mountain as a good place to pitch his tent.
Another shelter located about 3 miles before Spence Field had been closed because of bear activity, perhaps leading to congestion at Spence Field.
So Veeder pitched his lightweight tent in the field, pumped some water, ate and then hung his food, washed his feet and socks and hung them out to dry, before crawling under his sleeping quilt.
He guesses it was around 10:30 that night when he was awoken by a crushing pain in his left leg, which was resting against the tent fabric as he laid on his right side.
“It felt like it was in a hydraulic press,” Veeder said. “It was a frightening deal.”
Immediately upon waking and sitting up, Veeder realized what was happening and yelled at the bear, whose ear must have been fairly close to Veeder's mouth at the time.
“No bear! Go away!”
The bear retreated, leaving Veeder wondering if he was simply having a nightmare.
But then the bear attempted to walk into the tent. Veeder punched the bear as hard as he could, possibly hitting it in the shoulder, which he said felt like “a rug with meat behind it.” At the same time he continued yelling.
“No bear! Back off!”
The cloudy night was so dark that Veeder couldn’t see the bear, and the bear probably couldn’t see Veeder in his thin-walled tent.
“Which is fine,” he said. “I didn’t want to see it.”
Then the bear began attacking the small tent’s vestibule, an enclosed area near the head of the tent where gear can be stored overnight to keep it dry. Veeder yelled as loud as he could again, thinking that maybe someone at the nearby shelter would hear him.
The bear would back off, then attack again. Veeder said it happened about four times before everything went quiet. That’s when the bear apparently found Veeder’s socks hanging nearby and gave them a thorough and loud sniffing.
Then the bruin hit the vestibule harder than any of the previous attacks but again backed off.
“I sat there holding my leg,” Veeder said. He’d been sleeping in long underwear bottoms that were now soaked with blood from the calf down. “I waited about 10 minutes and finally realized I have to go. I put on my shoes, coat and grabbed my quilt.”
That’s when Veeder began limping back toward what he thought was the shelter, hoping that he could get help. But it was so dark that he almost walked into a tree. Not only was he worried about the bear attacking again, but he also feared he might get lost in the thick, dark forest and wander around bleeding and confused.
Luckily, he stepped onto the smooth surface of the trail. As he got closer to where he thought the shelter was located he began yelling that he’d been attacked by a bear, been bitten and was bleeding. He cried out for help asking where the shelter was.
“It’s right over there,” a man’s voice yelled in irritation, as if it was too obvious to miss.
A female camper heard his pleas and joined him in the shelter. Her tent was only 40 feet away but in the morning had also been shredded by a bear. Another hiker wrapped up his leg. One camper was able to get a cellphone signal and call 911. The trail workers also had a radio on which they called park rangers who appeared in the afternoon on horseback.
While waiting for the rangers to arrive, fellow campers retrieved all of Veeder’s gear from his campsite.
“The bear had chewed everything, even my aluminum tent poles, my smartphone, book, plastic water filter,” Veeder said.
Three days later park rangers trapped a 400-pound male black bear in the area and euthanized it based on a comparison of its bite and the marks on Veeder’s phone. Unfortunately, a later DNA test comparing saliva on Veeder’s shredded gear to the bear’s revealed it was the wrong animal. Another black bear trapped in the area on May 20 also failed the DNA test but was released alive with a GPS collar. The first bear’s neck was so big a GPS collar wouldn’t fit.
“While human injury is rare, we have recently had multiple incidents of bears ripping into tents in the backcountry,” the Park Service said in a press release following Veeder’s attack. “The months of May and June are particularly difficult for bears due to the lack of abundant natural foods. Summer foods, primarily berries, will begin to ripen over the next several weeks and we historically see less aggressive bear behavior after that point.”
Yet only last June, a 16-year-old Ohio boy was dragged by his head from his family’s Great Smoky Mountains’ campsite by a black bear. His father had to jump on the bear’s back and punch it repeatedly in the face before the bear released its grip on his son.
In 2000, the park recorded its first lethal bear attack when a sow and yearling female attacked and killed a 50-year-old Tennessee woman. She was the first person killed by a black bear in a federal park or reserve in the Southeast, according to news accounts.
Despite the incident, Veeder said he plans to return to the Appalachian Trail, this time hiking from the north to the south. He won’t be doing any camping off by himself, though.
“I’ve slept really well since the attack,” he said, with no nightmares or post-traumatic stress. “But out on the trail I think it will take me a few nights to settle down.”
Although the two puncture wounds in his left calf missed his shin bone and never severed an artery, he’s hoping the injuries are big enough to leave marks.
“I hope I have a scar,” he said and smiled. “I want to have something to back my story up.”
It’s become a cautionary tale for Veeder, because even though he thought he had done everything right, he was still attacked.
“Even if you’re really careful and use best practices, you can still get a rogue bear. And if it does happen, you just fight.”
At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Veeder is no bantamweight bear fighter, but bears are incredibly strong with a bite force that’s been estimated at 700 pounds. Still, one of the common instructions given to people who run into a black bear is to appear big and fight back.
The attack may have frightened Veeder’s family more than it has him.
“I will never spend a night in a tent again,” said his older sister. “It’s too scary.”