If you hike long enough in the Trinity Alps or anywhere else in the mountains of Northern California, you’ll see a black bear. In my several dozen backpacking trips and day hikes in the Trinity Alps, I’ve probably seen a black bear about a third of the time, always with no problems.
In this post, Ken DeCamp writes how he was attacked by a black bear while hiking near East Fork Lakes in the Trinity Alps, and what he did to survive in the aftermath of the attack.
Normally, you don’t have to be very concerned about a black bear attacking you. Black bears shy away from humans, and they’ll usually run or at least shamble away as soon as they notice you, especially in the Trinity Alps where they are not as acclimated to human presence as bears elsewhere are, such as in Yosemite National Park.
However, that doesn’t mean bear attacks don’t occur. Ken DeCamp’s story…
Prior to the Bear Attack: Hiking a Remote Trinity Alps Trail
Nobody wakes up on a Saturday morning thinking “this is the day I might not survive — that I might never see home or family again.” In all my years, it’s a thought that has never crossed my mind: not even a whisper of “maybe — it could be.” We go about our business as if we are immune from the dangers that surround us, never giving survival a second thought — until in an instant we find ourselves entirely at the mercy of things totally out of our control.
On Saturday, August 15th 2020, I found myself in one of those situations. Fortunately, all the stars lined up for me on that day and I can honestly say I am VERY happy to be sitting here relaying my story from the relative comfort of my studio.
East Fork Lakes Trail: Where the Bear Attack Happened
So, on that Saturday morning, I stuffed everything I’d need for the day in my day pack, grabbed my camera gear, said my goodbyes and headed for the East Fork Lakes Trailhead in the Trinity Alps, which is located in the Canyon Creek Lakes drainage. My aim was to re-visit this pretty and somewhat isolated basin, maybe find some new wildflowers to photograph, and then spend some time documenting a beautiful relict population of quaking aspen found not too far below the lakes.
The East Fork Lakes Trail is not for the faint of heart. Most casual hikers avoid it because, after leaving the trailhead, it quickly turns straight uphill and remains steep for a couple of miles until it breaks out into the country around Buck’s Ranch and then flattens out a bit in the area below East Fork Lakes.
At 10:30 a.m. it was already 97°. I was hot and thirsty, so I stopped on the far side of the last creek crossing below East Fork Lakes. I dropped my pack and camera in the shade of some willows, grabbed my water bottle, and then stepped down to the edge of the creek to fill it with cold water. I took a long drink, re-filled my bottle, replaced the cap, and stepped back up onto the bank next to my pack. I put the bottle back into the side pocket, hoisted the pack onto my back, and then stooped down to grab my camera.
The Bear Attacks
It was at this point that, in an instant, my day came crashing down around me. As I turned to start back up the trail, I found myself face to face with a juvenile black bear. It was a shock to me and I believe the same for the bear.
In the moment it took for the bear to react and take a swipe at me, all I remember is that I ducked. A paw caught me above my left eye: a claw ripping down through my forehead and eyelid. The force of the blow spun me around and threw me down into the creek head first. I vaguely remember the blow as my head hit the rocks. I was knocked unconscious.
Bear Attack: Immediate Aftermath
I am not entirely sure how long I laid there in the creek — maybe 10 or 15 minutes. But when I finally came to, I found myself almost entirely in the water where it was actually washing over my eye and part of my mouth. Two inches lower and I could have drowned.
At first, as I struggled to sit up, nothing registered except the pain in my head and all the blood pouring from the wound. I also had a major concussion, which made it hard to come to grips with the seriousness of the situation.
When I was finally able to gather myself together, I crawled out of the creek and up the bank on my hands and knees, soaking wet, my left eye bleeding profusely and my head pounding. Survival mode set in and all I could think about was trying to staunch the bleeding and get on my feet so I could get back to my truck.
I pulled a handkerchief out of my camera bag and held it to my eye and started back down the trail. Even with the handkerchief and pressure, I could not stop the flow of blood, which had me very concerned because I am on blood thinners.
Once on the downhill side of the creek, I saw signs that the bear had walked right over me and headed down the trail for about 20 yards before moving down into the brush along the creek. It dawned on me that the bear hadn’t even messed with me while I was out, and to this day I consider myself very lucky that it wasn’t hungry!
Getting Back to the Truck
With my limited vision I struggled to follow the East Fork Lakes Trail back to Buck’s Ranch. It was extremely difficult and at about this time my headache grew significantly worse and I began to get very dehydrated. I stopped long enough to drop my pack and dig out my water bottle. I drank maybe 1/4 of the water, slung my pack back up and continued on.
It was only about ten minutes later that tremendous waves of nausea overtook me and I had to sit down. I remained seated for a few minutes and then it hit me. I threw up until I experienced nothing but dry heaves.
I sat there for several minutes trying to stop the blood flow and regain a little composure before I stood up and started walking again. Just past Buck’s Ranch the trail disappeared into the trees and deep shade. It was at this point that I lost the path because I just couldn’t see through all the blood and sweat. Everything was swimming before me, even in my good eye.
It is fortunate that I know this part of the Trinity Alps so well because, even with the condition I was in, I knew how to get back to my truck, trail or no trail. Since I couldn’t see very well and had lost the trail, I knew I had to take the route of least resistance, which meant sliding on my back side down the steepest parts of the ridge through any opening I could find, all the while fighting nausea and a severe concussion headache.
It took me almost six hours to get back down to the road. By that time, I was beyond exhausted and very sick. At one point I laid down at the edge of the road and nodded in and out of sleep for about half an hour before I finally got up and started up the road to my truck.
Over and over again I could walk only 25 or 50 yards before the headache and nausea overtook me and I would have to rest. I don’t know how many times I had to throw up on the way out, but it was at least several dozen. It took me over an hour to walk the quarter-mile to my truck.
Getting Medical Attention
In my state of mind all I could think about was getting to a hospital before it became impossible for me to keep moving. I set my sights on Mercy Hospital in Redding and after about two hours finally made it to the emergency room parking lot. I got out of my truck, began walking towards the entrance, and pretty much collapsed.
Excellent emergency room doctors and nurses took me in immediately and for three days initially and several days afterwards took excellent care of me. They stitched up my wound, settled the pain to manageable levels, and monitored me closely.
Long-Term Effects of the Bear Attack
It is now almost five months later and I am still dealing with slight vision problems in my left eye. I’ve been fitted with new scleral contact lenses that have helped immensely, and I’m doing recommended eye exercises designed to alleviate my problems with depth perception.
All-in-all, things are pretty much back to normal. I count myself very fortunate and I can deal with the vision problems. In the end I survived, and that is what really matters.
Bear Attack: Key Takeaways
There is no way to prepare properly for the possibility of something like a bear attack happening to any of us, but what it all boils down to something my Dad told me many years ago: “You do what you have to do — no matter what the situation — because you ALWAYS have to come home.”
An experience like this won’t keep me from returning to my backcountry adventures, in the Trinity Alps or anywhere else. Life is too short and there is too much to experience to ever be fearful of something like this happening again.
If there is a lesson to be learned it is this:
Always be aware of your surroundings and never take your safety for granted.
About Ken DeCamp
Ken DeCamp had a 38-year career in Fire, Land Management Planning, and Public Affairs with the USDA Forest Service. He’s the author of Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps: Including the Marble Mountain Wilderness, Russian Wilderness & Trinity Divide, which is available at select bookstores in Northern California and Southern Oregon. You can also order directly from Backcountry Press, or you can buy it on Amazon. Read my interview with Ken about his book.