It was still dark as I began my hike into the mountains, but I could tell the first day of October would be cool and clear in Montana’s Madison Valley. With no desire to surprise any bears as I picked my way through the black morning, I hollered “Hey bear!” every 30 seconds. I didn’t want to use the bear spray or the 10mm i had with me. The plan was to scout for elk before the season opener in a few days. About 3 miles in and just after daylight, I stepped out of the trees. Instantly, I spotted a grizzly and her cubs at a fork in the trail at the end of the meadow. The sow noticed me in that same moment and ran away with her cubs along the western trail and out of sight over the ridge. I waited a minute before deciding they had left the area and that it was safe to continue along the eastern trail, in the opposite direction.
I had only taken a few steps when the sound of a branch snapping over my left shoulder made me turn my head. The grizzly bear had just busted over the low ridge at 40 yards, and was barreling right at me.
This charge was nothing like the slow, rambling gait of overweight, trained bears you see in movies. This sow was no Bart the Bear from The Bear or Legends of the Fall—she was the very wild, very real deal. She closed the distance quickly, pounding fast and low to the ground. I could see her ears laid flat against her blocky head, both eyes on me.
Instinct made me pull the bear spray from my chest holster, and I slipped out the safety clip, yelling all the while so the bear would know I was a human. I hoped she would draw up short or turn.
Instead, she blazed through the waist-high grass with a speed I had never imagined possible. I smashed the trigger on the spray canister and unleashed a full blast toward her face at 30 feet. Her momentum carried her right through the orange cloud of pepper mist.
I dove to the ground with my face in the dirt, wrapping my arms around the back of my neck and locking my hands for protection. I expected her to run over me and vanish, but she was on top of me now, repeatedly biting my arm, shoulder, and back. I could hear the crushing and tearing of muscle as her long canines buried deep into my right arm with each fresh bite. After what seemed an eternity but was perhaps only a few seconds, she disappeared, the acrid scent of bear spray still lingering in the air.
Stunned, I carefully picked myself up off the ground. I was extraordinarily lucky not only to have survived a grizzly bear attack but also to walk away from it. I took inventory: substantial injuries, but nothing life-threatening, and isolated to my right arm, shoulder, and upper back. After looking around to reassure myself the sow was indeed gone, I picked up my cap and the almost spent can of pressurized capsaicin and started back down toward the trailhead and my truck.
I kept up a steady pace, slowing only once for a second brief survey of the damage. My backpack had absorbed the brunt of the attack, but I had sustained several deep puncture wounds on my arm and shoulder from the sow’s powerful jaws. Blood soaked both of my top layers, but at least the bleeding seemed to be slowing.
I was glad to put distance between the sow and me before tending to my wounds. I knew I could hike the remaining distance, and thanked God for seeing me through the ordeal. My adrenaline subsided after five minutes of hiking, once I thought I was clear of danger.
A sudden noise from behind me sent it skyrocketing again. I turned to find the grizzly bearing down on me a second time. She had either followed me back down the trail or had cut through the trees and across the ridge, randomly emerging on the trail just above me. Whatever the case, it happened so quickly I had no time to use the bear spray or my pistol. Again, I dropped to the ground to protect myself, the bear almost on top of me. I shielded my neck and head with my arms and pressed myself tight to the trail, trying to protect my face, eyes, and vitals.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around what was happening: What had I done to deserve this? I was so lucky to survive the first attack, but had no idea if I could survive another.
The sow slammed down on me and ferociously bit my shoulder and arms again and again, with much more aggression than before. The force of each bite felt like a sledgehammer with teeth. One bite on my left forearm went clean to the bone, and I heard the crunch of something breaking. My hand instantly went numb, the wrist and fingers falling limp and useless.
A sudden flash of pain made me flinch and gasp aloud for breath. That slight movement and sound triggered a frenzy of bites to my shoulder and upper back. I knew I must avoid any further movement or sound, or the bear was going to tear me to pieces. I focused all my strength on remaining huddled in a ball, motionless. Another half dozen bites. A swipe from her heavy claw opened a huge gash above my right ear, nearly scalping me. A large flap of flesh flopped down the side of my head, and blood gushed over my face and into my eyes, blinding me. Yet I didn’t move or make a sound. By this point, the adrenaline had blocked the pain, and it heightened my other senses. I could feel and hear the pressure of each tearing bite as her teeth sank deep into my muscles. She would lift me up off the ground and slam me back, only to bite again, over and over.
Truly, this must be the end, I thought. I expected she would soon strike an artery in my neck and I would bleed out on the trail. Or maybe she would flip me over and savage my face, eyes, and throat. But I knew that any movement would trigger more bites, so I lay motionless, hoping the attack would end before she killed me. She would surely leave to check on her cubs’ safety—if only I could hold on until then.
And then she was still.
I will never forget that moment. I could feel the 3-inch claws on her front paws digging deep into my lower back, just below my pack, pinning me to the ground. I could smell a terrible, pungent odor clinging to her fur. The woods were dead silent except for the sound of her huffing and sniffing. Her breath heated the back of my neck, just inches from my spine. I tried not to breathe, afraid she would bite a final time and put an end to me.
For 30 long seconds she stood there, motionless, crushing me with her weight and claws. My chest was smashed into the ground and against my knees, and my face was ground hard into the rocky dirt of the trail.
And then the enormous weight lifted from my body, and my lungs slowly filled. I wanted to take in a deep gulp of fresh air but didn’t know if the bear was still nearby—watching me, waiting. Had she gone to check her cubs? I waited, listening, but still—nothing.
Then it occurred to me: If she returned, I would not survive a third attack. I must do something, immediately. I had dropped the bear spray during the attack. My gun was my only defense now. Staying in the huddled position, I eased my right arm from behind my head and slipped it under my chest to where the handgun had been holstered, along my left side. But it wasn’t there. Impossible. I hesitated, focused, and then groped again for the gun. It was definitely gone.
My eyes were filled with blood, and I couldn’t see. I carefully wiped the stream from one eye, then the other. I gently raised my head to look around, fearing the bear was close. To my surprise, I did not see her, although I spotted the holster and pistol 10 feet to my left, lying beside my GPS, binoculars, and cap. The ferocious biting and pulling had broken the webbing and ripped the holster from my body.
I dove for my 10mm and thumbed back the hammer. Still no bear. I grabbed the scattered gear and a second can of bear spray from the holster and began my descent again, head still spinning and terrified the bear would return. Blood was still dripping from my head and both elbows, and my shirt was soaked in blood, which was now seeping into my pants. But an assessment revealed the bleeding was not life-threatening. I knew I could reach the truck without major blood loss.
Out of the Woods
I continued at a fast walk, wanting to put more distance between the bear and me. More than once I tried to jog, but the motion was too painful to my injured arm. Besides, I didn’t want to raise my heart rate and incur further blood loss. I kept my shredded left arm pulled tight against my body to minimize movement and prevent further injury to the crushed nerves and bone. I wedged the pistol between my arm and chest for easy access and kept the second can of bear spray, with the safety clip out, in my right hand.
After 45 minutes of painful hiking, during which I paused only twice to check my wounds, I finally reached the trailhead and my truck. There was only one other vehicle parked in the lot. I hoped whomever it belonged to wouldn’t encounter the same bear.
It was only 8 a.m., and I was concerned bowhunters might decide to hunt the same area over the weekend. I attempted to retrieve paper and a pen from my truck to write a warning note for the bulletin board at the trailhead, but it was too much to dig through my truck with an injured arm. The note probably wouldn’t have been legible anyway, with the constant blood dripping from my writing hand. I would just have to contact the authorities as soon as possible to close the trail.
At last, I felt completely safe. I documented my wounds with my smartphone, laid some jackets over the truck seat to keep the blood off it, and headed toward town and the hospital, about 30 minutes away.
I stopped a rancher at his mailbox along the road out and asked him to make a call to the hospital to let someone know I was en route. He offered a ride, but I wasn’t concerned about going into shock or my driving, and I didn’t want to bleed all over his vehicle. So I thanked him and continued on alone.
The Emergency Room
When I finally reached cell service, I called my girlfriend and asked how her morning was going, easing into the news of the attack. Next I called 911, giving the operator a brief assessment of my injuries to pass on to the hospital in Ennis. Ten minutes later, a doctor, a nurse, and a local sheriff’s officer met me at the emergency entrance. I had to ask the officer for help opening my door and unbuckling my seat belt. (He was just impressed I had bothered to buckle it.) My left arm was completely useless, and the deep tear in my right deltoid—along with a dozen puncture wounds to the biceps and triceps—made it difficult to use my right arm. My girlfriend said later that it looked like I had gutted an elk in the driver’s seat.
X-rays of my forearm revealed only a chip out of the ulna. Eight hours of stitching to close all the puncture wounds and tears followed. Most of these lacerations were in my arm, shoulder, and upper back. I was lucky the bear had released my torso instead of tearing through it—I only had four punctures above my right hip. Two tendons had been ripped from the muscle in my left forearm—surgery was required to repair the shredded muscle tissue and reattach the tendons. Numerous nerves had been damaged. Many months of physical therapy and exercise to recover full use of my left hand would follow.
The 5-inch gash along the side of my head, however, will leave a nasty scar. It’s a small price to pay, though, for escaping with my life and my wits. When my hairline eventually begins to recede, I’ll have a daily reminder of the one very bad day I spent in bear country.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team visited the area the next day, but they did not encounter the sow. The trail was closed for three weeks until the general 2016 hunting season opened. To the author’s knowledge, no one has crossed paths with the bear since.
Editor’s Note: This story ran as an extended “This Happened to Me” comic in our October 2017 print issue under the title “A Bad Day in Bear Country”