A YOUTH counsellor has described the night a bear attacked his campsite as “the most terrifying experience of my life”.
Nick Meeks, 21, from Spalding Road, Deeping St James, was working in the USA as a counsellor for the New Jersey-based Trail Blazers, a non-profit outdoor adventure programme for inner-city youngsters.
The former Deepings School pupil and a fellow counsellor had taken a group of nine boys, aged 11 to 13, on a two-week camping trip on the famous Appalachian Trail.
The campers were sleeping in Stokes State Forest on the morning of August 3 when a hungry black bear attacked.
The bear was trying to get into the tent and drag two children outside. Nick and his colleague charged at the animal, following their training and trying to appear as large as possible and making plenty of noise.
The bear eventually moved away, allowing the two children to run to safety.
The campers gathered together and continued to make as much noise as possible but the bear would not give up and kept charging at the group until they managed to scare it away.
One camper had been swiped at and had a ripped shirt, and another had been bitten on the foot. Luckily they had not been seriously injured.
Nick made an emergency call to the camp office who called the park rangers, but the bear was not finished yet.
Nick added: “At about 5.10am the bear arrived back at our site, creeping and then charging at our group as we desperately tried to keep the campers safe and make noise as before.
“Myself and my co-leader found ourselves a stick’s length away from the bear, which seemed completely unfazed by our attempts.”
The bear continued to tear through the campsite until senior Trail Blazers staff arrived in a minivan and were able to take the campers to safety.
Nick remained at the site with some staff members, who had been told by park rangers to try and contain the bear.
Officer Joe Burke, from the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, arrived shortly after 6am and managed to shoot the bear, which had by this point climbed a tree.
But the animal escaped and was not found by rangers until a week later.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection praised Nick’s actions and confirmed the trail had been closed until the bear was found and killed by a state Division of Fish and Game Wildlife officer.
Department spokesman Lawrence Hanja said: “By gathering the children together and making loud noises, the counsellors did everything exactly as we recommend people do when encountering an aggressive bear.
“The bear was considered a threat to public safety because of its behaviour during the initial incident.
“It is possible that the bear was looking for food in the camp.
“Bears in that area depend heavily on acorns, but the acorn crop this year is low.”
The campers’ food and waste had been secured in a bear-proof container.
According to the department, this was the first black bear attack against humans in New Jersey this year and such attacks are rare.
Nick has now finished his work as a counsellor and is travelling in North America before returning home to complete a sport and exercise sciences degree at The University of Leeds.
He hopes to become a teacher and has taken something positive from the bear attack.
He said: “Being responsible for nine inner-city children can be challenging at the best of times.
“But the children came together, understood the risks and did exactly as instructed by me and my co-leader.”
“It has to be said we followed all procedures as trained to do so, it was just unfortunate the bear acted completely out of the ordinary.”