This post details a bear attack I was involved in during the summer of 2020. It's very light on the pictures and heavy on the words. I hope you'll stick with it, as I think it's an instructive incident even for those who never venture outdoors.
“But what about bears?” It’s probably the second most-common question that hikers get, trailing only “do you carry a gun?” While bears are certainly a real danger in the outdoors, they’re not even close to the top of the list. Lightning strikes, drowning, getting lost, or getting hit by a car on a roadwalk are all far more likely to happen than a bear attack.
Reliable bear attack statistics are really hard to come by. One study I found noted about 14 brown bear attacks per year in North America. Brown bears (of which grizzlies are the primary subspecies) are distributed throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and Cascades, large swaths of Canada, and most of Alaska. While I couldn’t find any good black bear statistics, black bears tend to be more timid than their bad-tempered grizzly cousins. Though their habitats are more extensive, they pose less of a threat to humans than grizzlies do.
When you consider the number of recreation-hours spent in bear habitat each year in North America, and the tiny number of actual bear attacks, it becomes clear that bears hardly ever attack humans. But on July 21, 2020, I was attacked by a grizzly bear.
The attack happened at about the midpoint of a self-supported 800-mile loop hike I was doing through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I had staged food and supplies beforehand at various road crossings so I wouldn’t have to go into town and risk contracting covid-19. This was a remote hike, full of off-trail mountain ridges, scrambling, bushwhacking, and all sorts of high adventure.
As I descended an off-trail pass in Wyoming’s Absaroka Range, I picked up a nifty elk trail that wound through a cliffy area. I was singing, as I often do while in the backcountry, especially in grizzly bear territory. I ended one verse and paused to recollect the words to the next verse just as I rounded a corner.
“Instantaneous” doesn’t do it justice. The grizzly, camouflaged behind a scrubby pine, immediately charged from about 7-8 feet away. He swiped at me, spinning me around as he passed me, slammed on the brakes, and charged again from about 4 feet away. I jabbed with my trekking pole, catching him square in the eye as he came toward me.
At this point my memory is a little hazy, but somehow he knocked me down, and I rolled under a tree. Recognizing it as a defensive attack, I played dead, covering my neck with one hand while deploying my bear spray with the other. I aimed it behind me, ready to give him a face full of spice, but by that time he had huffed over me twice and took off. The whole incident took no more than five seconds.
|Boonie hat is no match for a grizzly claw|
I laid there, remaining motionless, bear spray at the ready. But as the sounds of bear faded away, I could hear him whimpering, presumably from the eye injury. I looked at my watch: 9:46AM. I resolved to lie there for a full ten minutes to make sure he wasn’t waiting for me to get up. I also took stock. I could move all my limbs. I was bleeding from the chest. Disgustingly, I could see flesh hanging out of my shirt. The wounds were deep, but I didn’t think I was in any danger of bleeding out. As I laid there waiting for my ten-minute probation to expire, I contemplated three options:
1. Activate my Personal Locator Beacon, aka my “Helicopter Button”. I figured this wasn’t necessary. My walking ability wasn’t compromised, I wasn’t going to bleed out, and I felt confident I could improvise a bandage. Still, it was an option for later on – at any sign of trouble, I wasn’t going to be shy about hitting it. I’ve been crystal-clear with my emergency contacts that I will not hit activate it unless it’s a matter of life-and-death and I need an actual, literal helicopter sent.
2. Clean out the wound, stitch myself up, and keep going. I was only about 40 trail miles from my next resupply point – a remote guest ranch along a major paved road. I considered this option for a moment – until I dared take a second look at my chest and saw how deep the wound was. I felt confident that I could stitch myself up, but wanted the wound properly sanitized by medical people with medical knowledge. If you think I’m crazy for even considering this possibility, I agree with you. More on that later.
3. Bail out a side trail and get to a hospital ASAP. After thinking for a minute, this became the obvious right answer. Not only did I have maps for the entire area on my phone, I had actually gone down a nearby trail a couple of years ago when Yogi tried to steal my pic-a-nic basket and ended up ruining all my food. I knew the trail was obvious, well-trod, and popular with horsepackers – who frequently carry satellite phones. And I had downloaded cell coverage maps before my trip, which showed I’d have cell service as I approached the trailhead.
I chose Door #3. My ten minutes expired and I got up, bear spray at the ready, hollering the whole time so my grizzly adversary would maintain proper social distancing. He was nowhere to be found thankfully, and I backtracked along the elk trail, back up to the off-trail pass, and downhill to the maintained trail I intended to bail on.
Once I reached the trail, I finally allowed myself to sit down and do some first aid. I figured that if I was going to pass out, it’d be better that I pass out on a well-used trail rather than off-trail where I’d never, ever be found. I stopped the bleeding, cleaned the wounds as best as I could, and squirted most of a tube of Neosporin into them. I changed from my completely-saturated orange shirt into my long-sleeve “bug shirt”, just so I wasn’t quite so bloody. As I climbed over Deer Creek Pass, I made sure to walk slowly, keeping my heart rate under control so I wouldn’t bleed too badly.
I descended the other side of the pass, still on excellent trail, and met a group of horsepackers after about an hour. They looked at me in sheer horror, suddenly reconsidering their stance on the reality of zombies. I asked them to borrow their satellite phone, but owing to the narrow canyon, it had no reception. I assured them that I was fine-ish and kept hiking, meeting another group of horsepackers about 2 hours later.
Finally, a few miles before the trailhead, I ran into day hiker named Dave. Like the others, he looked at me wide-eyed and asked what happened. When I briefly shared the story, he decided that it was probably turnaround time for him anyway and offered me a ride from the trailhead to Cody, where I knew there were medical facilities. I gladly accepted and we hiked together back to his car.
While we were en route to the hospital, we were pulled over by a Wyoming Game & Fish officer, who’d been paged after one of the horsepacker groups got out of the canyon, got sat phone service, and called 911. He took one look at me and told us he’d follow us to the hospital. So we all caravanned to Cody where Dave, my good Samaritan, dropped me off. Thanks Dave!
Five hours, a blizzard of tests, and 37 stitches later, I was released from the hospital, very grateful to God for sparing my life, to Dave for the ride, and to the wonderful hospital staff for their hard work in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Almost immediately, I received a huge outpouring of support from the hospital staff, long-time friends, and people I had literally never met before. By hook or by crook, people pulled strings to make sure I had places to stay while I mended up, and one incredible person – former stranger and now treasured friend – even drove me 5 hours round-trip back to my car when it became clear that my injuries would be incompatible with wearing a backpack for a few weeks. Thanks Barb! I can’t possibly credit everyone here – either because I never caught their name, don’t want them to get in trouble with their bosses, or whatever, but you know who you are. I thank God daily for his wonderful providence and you were key parts of that. Thanks, more than I can even express.
Only time will tell. I’m healing nicely, and the risk of infection has subsided (something the doctors were very concerned about, given that grizzlies dig around in rotting stuff all day). I still can’t carry a backpack quite yet, so I’m taking some time off and just letting my body heal.
Somebody must be watching out for you.
Indeed. There aren’t too many people who are able to literally walk away from a grizzly bear attack. I believe all things come to us not by chance, but as a result of God’s providence – and this is no exception. I am very grateful for him sparing my life and further injury – and for all the wonderful people he put in my path when I needed help. God is good!
So, why did the bear attack you?
Simply put: wrong place, wrong time. “Personal space” is a big thing for grizzlies, and I was in his. He was just surprised and cornered on the edge of a narrow ledge, so he attacked. When I played dead, demonstrating that I was no longer a threat, he got out of Dodge in a hurry. Other than not forgetting the words to my song at that one very precise moment in time, I don’t think I could have done anything differently to prevent the attack.
And you got him in the eye.
Well, yes. That certainly didn’t hurt my cause, as he didn’t press the attack after the exchange where I got him in the eye and he knocked me down, but it’s tough to say if that helped discourage him from harming me further. The Game & Fish guy didn’t have a clear answer for me on the question either. I have a sneaking suspicion that it did help in the very specific circumstance that I found myself. It seemed like he was more interested in licking his wound than inflicting more wounds on me. But I certainly wouldn’t advocate, in general, fighting back during a defensive attack. I think this is the point at which general principles start to break down and the details start to get murky.
You should have had a gun.
A gun likely would have resulted in a claw gash to my chest and a bullet wound in my foot. He slashed me near where my holster would have been, and if he had gotten me while I was drawing a gun, I almost certainly would have shot myself. More generally, study after study has shown to bear spray to be a far more effective deterrent against bear attacks than a firearm.
My driver Dave was carrying a rifle for protection on his hike. On the way back to his car, he asked me if he would have been able to stop the attack with his gun. I told him that if he had coincidentally pointing it in the exact right direction, and if he had been hiking with the safety off and his finger already on the trigger, then maybe he could have stopped it. Maybe. But nobody does that, because it’s incredibly dangerous.
What did you do right?
I’m generally pretty pleased with how I reacted to the attack. I attribute my responsibility in a good outcome to three key factors:
1. Get the right equipment. I had bear spray. And although I couldn’t have possibly deployed in time to stop the initial attack, I had it out and ready in case he followed up once he had knocked me down. There’s a good chance that, if he had continued to maul me, I would have been able to dissuade him with some good old-fashioned capsaicin. More generally, I bear bag assiduously. I had my Personal Locator Beacon. These things didn’t necessarily help in this particular situation, but had circumstances been slightly different, they would have been key.
2. Get the information. This is often more important than equipment. In this case, I knew how to diagnose a defensive versus predatory attack, and knew what to do in each situation. I had a huge swath of maps downloaded on my phone, so when I had to bail down a side trail, I knew which way to go. I knew that Cody was a town with medical facilities. I knew that I’d have cell service as I approached the trailhead. All of this helped me make a good decision and execute on my plan relatively quickly.
3. Practice. It’s incredible how fast the whole thing happened. There’s no time to fumble with bear spray, try to figure out how to remove the safety, which way it squirts, etc. I’ve practiced drawing, arming, and aiming it hundreds of times over the years. Similarly, I’ve visualized defensive bear attacks many times over the years, and visualized myself getting on the ground and playing dead. When the real thing happened, my reactions had to be instantaneous - and they were.
So basically, you survived because you did a lot of things right.
Not at all. I survived because I did a lot of things right – and because God saw fit for me to keep living. The grizzly slashed my chest/shoulder and my hat. If he had split the difference and slashed my neck, I would have done a lot of things right and still bled out within minutes. Doing things right increased my odds of a good outcome, but they didn’t guarantee my safety.
What did you do wrong?
Like I said, I’m generally happy with my actions and attitudes throughout. But this incident definitely showed me one of my blind spots: I slightly downplayed the severity of a bad situation.
I know exactly why I did this: it’s a survival mechanism. In order to buckle down and focus on what I need to do, I can’t focus on how bad it hurts, how deep the wound is, or how much medical care will be required to fix me up. I just need to focus on the important thing – bandaging myself up, getting out of here, and getting help. But sometimes, not dwelling on the severity of the situation has its downsides. I offer three examples:
1. When I was playing dead and considering my options, I seriously thought about just stitching myself up and continuing on as planned. A stupid, ludicrous idea, but one that I didn’t dismiss as quickly as I should have. I made the right decision, but shouldn’t have even considered this option.
2. While hiking out, I was debating whether, once I got into cell range, I should call 911 or just call a local rafting company or outfitter to see if they could pick me up. I reasoned that I could walk; this was not a true emergency, even though it was urgent. I didn’t want to cause trouble, didn’t want to waste the time of emergency responders, typical Midwestern diffidence, blah blah blah. DUDE. YOU WERE ATTACKED BY A BEAR. It’s okay to call 911.
3. When I got to Cody, Dave wanted to take me straight to the hospital, but I insisted that he take me to Urgent Care – cheaper, quicker, and less Covid-y. He thought I was crazy, and I was. Urgent care took one look at me and told me to go down the street to the ER immediately.
I told myself I was fine so I could do what I needed to do. But in the future, I need to watch out that my “I’m fine” line doesn’t interfere with me actually getting the help I need to be fine.
I bet you’re emotionally scarred from this
Time will tell, but I really don’t think so. I’ve always known that it was possible (albeit extremely unlikely) that something like this can happen. And I’ve visualized it happening, visualized my reactions, just as basic preparedness that comes with being a backcountry user. I think an honest acceptance of catastrophe as a remote possibility makes us better able to deal with such catastrophes when they arise. And frankly, a firm faith in the providence of God really helps as well. Whatever happens to me – whether I live or die, I belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). That gives me great comfort in a time of great uncertainty.
Let’s talk Covid-19.
Uh, okay. There are a lot of similarities between what I’ve gone through and what we are going through as a species right now. Allow me to share a couple parallels:
1. We need to trust the experts, even though they’re fallible. I listened to expert advice (play dead in a defensive attack, fight like a hellbeast in a predatory attack) and it likely saved my life. But bears are individuals with their own proclivities, and expert advice may in some cases be the exact wrong advice. Nonetheless, the advice that they’re giving out is a lot more informed than your opinion or mine, and is certainly more informed than the drivel that Great Aunt Edna reposts on Facebook. Trust the experts, because they might be wrong, but you and I are almost certainly wrong.
2. We should ignore those opinions that need to be ignored. There are going to be people who read this post and still tell me that I need a gun. Or I need two guns, or bigger guns. Or that I shouldn’t hike alone. These people are not worth listening to – the wise-in-their-own-eyes types. The same thing applies to the coronavirus – whether it’s people saying that “mask requirements infringe upon my liberty” on parts the political Right, or the parts of the Left that demand we abstain from having fun because This Moment That We’re Living In necessitates that we be somber and morose.
3. Habits are important. I always make sure my bear spray is oriented the same way within its holster so it’s easy to pull blindly. I always sing when going through narrow defiles, thick brush, or other places where bears might be chillaxing. Do we keep our mask laying on the dashboard so we never forget it? Is there a bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it? Have we trained ourselves to just skip the busy aisle at the grocery store and come back to it later? Perhaps these little tiny habits will never change a dang thing. I don’t even know another human who’s been attacked by a bear. But it’s an easy change to make, costs nothing, and could save your life – like it saved mine.
Any final thoughts?
I want to reiterate my gratitude to Dave, Dan from WY Game & Fish, each member of the hospital staff, each person who picked up (or offered to pick up) part of my various tabs, those who gave me a place to stay, and most of all to Barb, who went above and beyond to help me when I needed it most. I thank each person who’s written a note of encouragement or prayed for me. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:16). Without a doubt, I was spared by the grace of God.