A Woman Was Bitten by a Bear on the AT Last Month. Here’s What Happened

Brigid “Purple Haze” Bell’s AT thru-hike took an unexpected turn on May 9, 2023, when she was bitten by a black bear while exiting a privy in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Since then, a lot of false speculation has been circulating on social media. This story is intended to tell what really happened on that fateful day—directly from the people who experienced it.

A few weeks after the incident occured, I arranged to meet up with Bell at the Trail Days Festival in Damascus, VA. The two of us sat down at a picnic table beside a lovely mountain stream behind the vendors booths to talk about this traumatic event.

At first, Bell was hesitant to agree to the telling of her story because the last thing she wanted was a lot of attention focused on her. As she told me, “it was a group effort.” This is a story of group survival in which no one person stands out.

First Things First: Who Is Brigid Bell?

From the safety of that picnic table in town, surrounded by festive hikers, Brigid Bell’s terrifying story began to unfold.

She made it to Trail Days, safe and sound. Photo: Arnold Bloodhound Guzman

The 54-year-old Bell, of Indian Harbor Beach, Florida, recently retired from a 15-year career as a 911 dispatcher. It was through her work that she got the idea to thru-hike the AT.

According to Bell, “not much happens” most of the time as a 911. dispatcher. But when it does, it all happens fast and she’s relied upon to make good, quick decisions. This skill would come to aid her well during the attack.

The large amount of downtime between calls gave her plenty of spare time to read, and she gravitated to online trail journals. This is where she first became intrigued with the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Before she retired, Bell purchased most of her hiking gear from Zpacks. When it came time for her to retire, she took a job with the company’s nearby production facility. She started out working a sewing machine and eventually worked her way up to line lead.

Brigid “Purple Haze” Bell and her husband, Eric. Photo: Brigid Bell

She met her husband, Eric, ten years ago, and the pair married in 2018. “My husband is not a hiker and does not like roughing it,” she said. Eric, a police officer, did not understand her desire to go live in the woods 24 hours a day, but he was OK with her doing day hikes. Although against it at first, he finally came to accept the idea of a thru-hike and suggested that this year would be a good year for her to do it.

On March 27—her 54th birthday—Bell embarked from the sign atop Springer Mountain, GA, and began walking toward her dreams.

Becoming a Thru-Hiker

The first few hundred miles of Bell’s hike was much like any other thru-hiker’s: learning how to use her gear and deal with inclement weather, all while her body gradually adjusted to the physical demands of hiking up and down mountains all day.

Looking more like a thru-hiker every day! Photo:Brigid Bell

Though she started out with a hiking partner, her companion was unwell and had to end her hike at Neel Gap.

Bell proceeded alone until she reached Unicoi Gap, where after a day of slipping and falling on the muddy trail, she emerged into the Gap—head-to-toe muddy—and met up with a hiker named Boots. The two soon became friends and shared the cost of a shuttle and a hotel room in nearby Hiawassee, Georgia.

The pair continued together until that fateful day at Cosby Knob Shelter (northbound mile 231, according to FarOut), where their lives would be forever changed.

READ NEXT – A Preeminent Bear Expert Explains Bear Safety Best Practices for Hikers

The Day of the Attack

Purple Haze

The morning of May 9 started like so many others: hikers were waking up, having breakfast, packing their gear, and attending to bodily functions.

Around 8 a.m., Bell, who was in the privy, heard a hiker who had left the shelter a few minutes earlier, coming hurriedly back down the trail, loudly warning everyone about a big black bear he had just encountered.

Always lurking. Photo: Brigid Bell

When she exited the privy, she unwittingly stepped right out in front of the animal, which was walking ponderously up the trail toward the shelter. Even as she registered shouts coming from the shelter (“BEAR! BEAR!” “DON’T RUN!”), she simultaneously heard a huffing sound coming from behind her and cocked her head just enough to see a large male black bear moving toward her.

Bell told me that, at that moment, she was not afraid in the least. “It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to be afraid.” Knowing that it would be a mistake to run, Bell said she involuntarily picked up her walking pace. It was then that the bear lunged forward and bit her on the upper buttock.

Instead of crying out in pain, she said she simply jerked her body forward and pulled away from the bear’s teeth while walking calmly toward the safety of the shelter, where at that time, the other hikers were screaming and throwing rocks at the bear, causing it to retreat momentarily into the woods.

Bell said her emergency training as a 911 dispatcher kicked in, allowing her to remain in control of her actions. She said she was probably the calmest person in the camp. So calm, in fact, she had the presence of mind to take a few pictures of the bear.

From this point on, the attack transitioned into a group survival situation.

READ NEXT – I Survived a Bear Attack on the Appalachian Trail


Hiking partner, Boots. Photo: Emily Moffett

When Emily “Boots” Moffett left Amicalola Falls State Park on March 29, she had no idea what was in store for her just 235 miles up the trail.

On May 9, she awakened at about 7 a.m., atypically late for her. She’d had a bad night’ sleep and was slow in getting started on this otherwise routine Tuesday morning. Right before she was going to retrieve her food bag from the bearproof cables, the action started.

Moffett’ first “oh shit” moment came when she saw the bruin lumbering down the trail and realized that Bell could be in danger. “My friend was in the privy and didn’t know what was going on,” she recounted. Moffett knew that her hiking partner was hard of hearing and might not have had her hearing aids in place yet.

Her second “oh shit” moment came when she saw, as if in slow motion, the bear closing in on the privy and the privy door opening at the same moment. Like a car perfectly merging into a line of slow moving traffic, Bell seamlessly stepped right into the path of this enormous beast.

Just as Moffett was about to shout, “THERE’S A BEAR!” the words froze in her throat. She feared that if she said anything, Bell would start running, causing the bear to attack.

A few eternal moments later came Moffett’s third “oh shit” moment. She saw the bear lung forward and bite her hiking partner.

Moffett recalled Bell continuing up to the shelter once the worst of the attack was over and the bear was in retreat from the noise and rock-throwing of the other hikers. “She was as cool as a cucumber, didn’t lose her cool, and remained calm and collected, more than anyone else.”

Then she saw a fellow hiker, Robert Mullins, yelling and charging toward the bear, which was still wandering around camp. Upon being charged by the six-foot tall Mullins with his grizzled grey beard, the bear quickly turned tail and ran back into the forest.

Mullins then slipped into his tent and retrieved his can of bear spray. I was to later learn that retrieving the spray—the group’s most potent means of defense—was Mullins’ main rason for charging: the bear had been nearing his tent, and Mullins feared the animal would destroy the tent and the bear spray along with it.

With the bear gone, Moffett said she walked over to the food hanging area to get her food bag, which was suspended from a park-provided system of cables and pulleys. Just as she approached the cables, she saw the bear’s big black shape reemerge from the woods. When the bear suddenly turned and walked directly toward her, she had yet another “oh shit” moment and hastily retreated to the relative safety of the shelter.

The bear silently walked past the shelter and its noisy denizens, continuing up the hill behind it and into one of the tents of a couple hikers, Shiner and Retro, who had moments earlier grabbed their packs and exited the area via a different path than the one the bear was walking up.

Though Shiner had left her fanny pack behind, which contained packages of Nerds and Gummy Clusters, the bear ignored it and tore into her water bottles instead.

The destroyed water bottles. Photo: Roxanne Lashley

After losing interest, the bear returned to camp and Robert, armed with a can of bear spray, chased the bear again, this time firing a cloud of spray at him. This seemed to deter the bear long enough for everyone to pack up and leave.

Foxy Roxy

Roxanne “Foxy Roxy” Lashley, a native of Guyana, moved to the United States nearly 40 years ago at the young age of 27, and currently lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

Foxy Roxy doing what she loves best. Photo: Roxanne Lashley

When Lashley announced her intended thru-hike, she noticed that all her white friends cheered her on while most of her black friends told her not to go, warning her of all the dangers of wild animals—namely bears.

At 66 years of age, Lashley believes she’s the oldest black woman to ever thru-hike the Appalachian Trail and wants to use her experience to inspire other black women to ignore the negative comments and get out and enjoy hiking.

She happily added, “in August, I’m going to be the same age as Grandma Gatewood when she did her hike!”

Before departing for the trail, Lashley’s mother gave her a Miraculous Medal on a chain that had been blessed by a Catholic priest and made her promise to always wear it around her neck for protection against danger. Lashley would hold the medallion and say a prayer for her safety each day on the trail.

By the time she reached the Smokies, Lashley had lost her fear of bears. In fact, she hiked alone for three days in the Smokies, not fearing bears at all. This all changed on her fourth day, when she caught up with her friends at Cosby Knob Shelter.

When the melee began, Lashley recalled being filled with terror when she saw the size of the bear that entered their camp; she believed in her heart that this bear had gone rogue and was going to kill them all, one at a time.

Panicking, she tried to climb the ladder to the shelter’s upper deck while the other hikers shouted and threw stones to deter the animal. Lashley observed a a bunch of throwing stones left in a neat line along the back wall of the shelter, suggesting that hikers have had to chase off bears from this shelter in the past.

Lashley considers Mullins a true hero: she was amazed at his courage in chasing the bear back into the woods, fending it off long enough for the first group to escape down the trail.

When the worst of the attack was over, Lashley remembers fellow hiker Retro running back up the hill yelling, “That’s a new tent! That’s a new tent!”, and he yanked the tent out of the ground, dragging it and all its contents back down to where he could repack everything.

Retro’s account of the incident. Photo: Roxanne Lashley

Robert Mullins: The Reluctant Hero

Robert “Bear Chaser” Mullins. Photo: Robert Mullins

In a recent phone call, Mullins told me his account of the incident. Although he was instrumental in handling the situation, he did not consider anything he did as heroic.

Bears are a common sight in his hometown of Leavenworth, Washington, which is surrounded by many square miles of wilderness. Over the years, residents have learned how to deal with the animals encroaching on human developments. So when the black bear came into camp that morning, he knew what to do.

After the bear attack, Mullins insisted the park officials get up there quickly and euthanize the bear. He knew that because it had actually bitten a human, it would be much more likely to bite another.

He wants hikers to realize is that the shelters are NOT part of a bear’s habitat; they don’t belong there. He said that people need to use rocks, sticks, or preferably bear spray to haze the bears and drive them away from the shelters. Though it might seem cruel, bears are good learners, and he believes it is the best way to save them from attacking people and having to be put down.

Mullins strongly believes that all hikers on the Appalachian Trail need to carry bear spray for defense and to keep their food in bearproof canisters, so that an attack like this never happens again.

The group assembled for a quick selfie before hiking away from the shelter. Photo: Rob Bear Chaser Mullins

Though the 911 operator told them to all leave as a group, the group at the shelter thought it best to split into two groups: one to stay behind with Mullins and his can of bear spray to keep the animal at bay while another group escorted Bell down to Davenport Gap, where a hostel owner was waiting to shuttle her to the nearest hospital.

Trail Angels Everywhere

The Discerning Hiker

Not far from where the Appalachian Trail crosses Davenport Gap is a hiker hostel by the name of The Discerning Hiker, built and operated by a tophat-wearing man: the eponymous Discerning Hiker.

The Discerning Hiker in front of his hostel, wearing his trademark leather top hat. Photo: Arnold Bloodhound Guzman

A retired master electrician from North Texas, the Discerning Hiker has been hiking since the 1970s and fell in love with the southern Appalachians in 2011 when he led a group of Boy Scouts through the Smokies.

Upon his retirement several years ago, he began searching for property in the region, and in 2016 he finally found a nice piece of land a short 14-minute drive from where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Pigeon River.

He’s proud to claim that his quaint log cabin is the first AT hostel in over 40 years to be built from the ground up for hikers.

When the Discerning Hiker got the call that a bear-bitten hiker needed a ride to the hospital, he jumped in his truck and waited for Bell at Davenport Gap, where the AT emerges from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Park employees were also there waiting to meet the group when they arrived.

When Bell and her friends showed up, the park biologist asked for her hiking pants so he could use the biological material on them to match with the DNA of the bear. The Discerning Hiker graciously allowed her to change in the privacy of his truck.

After Bell was interviewed by the Park Service about the details of the attack, the Discerning Hiker transported her and some of her hiking partners to the nearby hospital. He dropped the others off at the local Walmart while he waited for Bellto receive rabies and tetanus shots at the local emergency room, a standard practice for wild animal bites.

Afterward, though they asked to stay in a hotel, the Discerning Hiker insisted the group stay at his hostel free of charge—something he believes a trail angel ought to do in such a situation.

Lemon Gap

After receiving medical treatment, Bell and her tramily got back on trail and resumed hiking north. By the time they reached Lemon Gap (northbound mile 260), she was due to receive her next round of rabies shots and was contemplating getting a shuttle to Asheville, NC, 90 minutes away. But she ended up meeting a husband and wife at the gap, and when she told them of her experience, they were so moved with compassion that they volunteered to drive the party the whole way, free of charge.


While in Asheville after receiving her second round of rabies shots in Asheville, Bell and some of her hiking partners were apporached by a former thru-hiker while eating dinner in a restaurant. The hiker, Ox, asked if they were thru-hiking and, after hearing Bell’s story, offered to drive them back to Lemon Gap so they could resume their hike.

Purple Haze, smiling after receiving her second round of rabies shots. Photo: Roxanne Lashley

A Fed Bear Is a Dead Bear

Although black bears tend to shy away from humans, bears that have had access to human food can lose their fear of humans and learn to associate hikers with food. Human-bear encounters can be very dangerous, so “problem” bears that approach humans and are not easily deterred have to be rehomed in more remote areas or, in the case of bears that are especially aggressive, euthanized.

Wildlife experts say “a fed bear is a dead bear” to remind recreationists that feeding bears (and leaving food unsecured where wildlife can access it overnight) harms not just human welfare, but that of bears as well.

Human-bear encounters have been on the rise on the Appalachian Trail. Sections of the trail are periodically closed to overnight camping in response to reports of aggressive bear behavior, including one seven-mile stretch near the North Carolina-Tennessee border that has been closed since last month. In April, the USDA Forest Service issued a food storage order requiring AT hikers south of Shenandoah National Park to store their food in bear canisters, vehicles, land-manager-provided vessels like bear lockers, or properly hang them to prevent bear encounters.

READ NEXT – Black Bears and Thru-Hiking: Your Questions Answered

And they all hiked on happily ever after (fingers crossed).

With her wound healing nicely, Bell resumed her hike and was later informed by the Park Service that the genetic material on her pants did in fact match up with the bear they euthanized but that the bear tested negative for rabies—to her relief—so she could safely discontinue the rabies shots.

Surprisingly, Bell’s husband did not insist on her getting off the trail after the attack and is still supportive of her hike. In fact, Lashley told me that during a recent meet-up with his wife, Eric Bell gave her a purple tee shirt that he had custom made for her that reads “Purple Haze” on the front and has the outline of a bear on the back with the words “Honey Buns” printed on it.

Still loving her hike. Photo: Brigid Bell

Though this story has a happy ending—at least for the humans involved—I asked Lashley, “If Purple Haze had been alone at the shelter, do you believe the bear would have killed her?” Without hesitation, she replied with a sober, “Yes.”

Robert Mullins, who went on to earn the trail name Bear Chaser, told me that he can’t overemphasize the need for everyone who enters the forest, from thru-hiker to day hiker, to be aware of their surrounding at all times—not to fear wild animals, but to respect and interact with them as safely as possible. And, as he emphatically states, “carry bear spray!”

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Comments 7

  • 007 : Jun 13th

    typically, a lot of stupid stuff in this article.

    • Snowcrab : Jun 14th

      What a helpful and insightful comment. Thanks.

  • Spud : Jun 14th

    I understand that bear canisters are bulky and add weight but as the article says ‘bears are good learners’, if they know they can’t get into the food they’ll stop coming.
    My gf was in a group of 20ish hikers, she was the only one of the group carrying a bear canister like the ATC suggest.

    Food hangs still attract bears.

    • Ridgerunner Chris : Jun 14th

      Food in bear canisters does not necessarily deter the bears in the Smokies. In fact a couple of weeks ago at Double Springs Gap Shelter during the night bears removed two bear canisters that had been left under the bear cables. One was found later a distance away and it had damage from where the bear tried to get into it.

  • Drew Boswell : Jun 14th

    I was at that same campsite the prior night when a bear entered the camp about 8:30pm. Two other hikers and I yelled and threw rocks at the bear for about 5-10 minutes before it finally decided to leave. I want to emphasize that we did not drive the bear away; it left when it wanted to. The bear we saw Saturday night was completely unafraid of us and persisted in trying to enter the camp, circling around and probing the camp as we threw rocks and yelled.

    News that someone was bitten at Cosby Knob Shelter the next night traveled up and down the trail over the next few days and I’ve been wondering about the exact circumstances. No doubt it was the same bear we saw Saturday night. It seems like the worst possible luck for Purple Haze that she happened to step into the bear’s path at exactly the wrong moment. Very glad to find out that she’s okay.

    The suggestion that bear cans might have mitigated the issue is a good one, but the regulations in GSMNP are somewhat counter productive and don’t allow hikers to place the canisters on the ground as designed. The regs require ALL food to be hung on the bear cables, even canisters, which negates their value. Bears have learned to shake the cables which often dislodges food bags. That’s why the bear was in camp – to shake the cables. Perhaps the management of GSMNP could update their requirements to allow bear canisters to be used as the manufacturer intends. Then the bears won’t be rewarded for their efforts and both bears and hikers will be safer around each other.

  • Greg : Jun 16th

    I appreciate your going directly to the source but the sources are the folks who screw up – they’re not good sources of objective truth. – The moral of the story is always the same but not written because its judgy. I’m sure she’s a lovely person but she absolutely screwed up. She ran. and she got bit. period. You know how I know….because they ALWAYS qualify the things they did to mask what they really did. “I hurried my pace” away from the bear and exposed my ass – a clear sign to a preditor that you are in fact prey. I remained calm because I listen to 911 calls – remaining calm is NOT chasing. Theres two choices no matter how its characterized. You either are running or you are chasing….anything and everything other than chasing that bear like she was going to kill it and eat it, no matter the descriptive words, is running. The element of surprise was certainly not in her favor but reading between the lines and reporting that would again remind people how to deal with black bears. In the end the man did exactly what he’s supposed to do and the bear left immediately. She may not have had time to react as such but if all those hikers charged the privy no one would have gotten bit. But those weren’t experienced backpackers, they were social media driven adventurers going from hostel to hostel with a few nights in a shelter. Black bears don’t eat people unless they hide food or are running. I’ve yet to hear a story where that doesn’t apply.
    Everyone be safe and if you encounter a bear thats bold – be bolder and have a better story to tell.
    peace – signed: a guy who has never chased a bear (Bears in Ca. are happy bears….they don’t pay mortgages)


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