Sutton after the attack, back at their hunting cabin, keeping himself hydrated with a blue camel back water bladder, hanging on the right. The bladder came from his Cabela's Alaskan Outfitter Frame Pack. For two and a half days, he sipped warm sugar water from bladder. In this photo, Sutton's alert and fairly lucid. Yet, for much of the 2.5 days after the attack, Sutton was in a semi-conscious haze of fear and worry. The pain drove him to distraction. Pain meds? A bottle of aspirin. The warmth inside his body told him he had an infection--and it was getting worse. He tried to keep up his spirits, but the reality that he might die was very strong. October in Alaska, the dark comes early and stays well into the morning, and the dark became oppressive to Sutton. "I kept asking Bill, What time is it?" Sutton says. "He'd pick up the lantern on the table and come over to me. That light in my eyes--I felt I was being interrogated.".
Matthew Sutton survived a horrific bear attack while hunting on Kodiak Island. He was mauled multiple times and had to wait for days before being rescued. This is a recount of his story and the surgery that saved his life.
A lifelong hunter, Sutton grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. After high school, he joined the Air Force in the mid-1990’s, rising to the rank of Technical Sergeant. He also got married during this period, and became a father–to five daughters! But Sutton hunted as often his duties–military and family–allowed. Here, he shows off a nice pronghorn he took in Montana in 2007.
But Sutton’s love was and is Alaska. He was stationed in Alaska for several years early in his Air Force career, then got assigned to Malmstom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana. He returned to Alaska for hunting trips as often as he could, usually at least once a year, including this one, a sheep hunt in the mountains near Tok, in August 2006.
In October 2008, Sutton retuned to Alaska to hunt for deer on Kodiak Island, with his good friend Bill Bush. Here’s Bush, dockside, ready to load their gear into a bush plane just minutes before their flight to Viekoda Bay, about 30 rugged miles west of the town of Kodiak. The plan was to hunt for Sitka deer for a week or so, then finish with several days of Kodiak bear hunting. But the bears had a different idea…
October 24, 2008, on the way to Viekoda Bay. The view from the bush plane flown by Dean Andrews, Andrews Airway, based out of Kodiak. “Dean’s the best transporter hands down!” says Sutton.
Bill Bush standing in front of their rented hunting cabin, Viekoda Bay. The pair returned to this one-room cabin after the attack, and it was Bush, 60 at the time, who saved Sutton’s life by getting him to the cabin, tending to his wounds, and, two days later, hailing a passing airplane. As a youngster, Sutton met the Bush family, and became very close with the Bush sons and their father, Bill. The elder Bush moved to Alaska in the 1980’s, working as a carpenter. Sutton and Bush tried to hunt together at least once a year.
Viekoda Bay, Kodiak Island, Alaska. Photograph of the bay taken by Sutton, standing near the top of the mountain side he and friend Bill Bush deer hunted. Their Zodiac inflatable boat is actually pulled up on the opposite shoreline of the smaller inlet in front of and to the right of Sutton’s vantage point. Less than four hours after he took this photo, Sutton was attacked by a Kodiak bear at the bottom of this very slope.
Sutton, 31 at the time, shot a Sitka doe, field dressed it, then dragged it down the mountain side. When he was maybe 100 yards from the shoreline, a young Kodiak bear burst through the brush. At first, “I thought it was just a bluff charge,” says Sutton. “It took it maybe a second, and it closed the distance about halfway. He jumped once more, came right through the air, and he was on me.” At the time, some media reports referred to the bear as a “cub.” Technically correct, as the bear was probably no more than two-and-a-half years old. But Sutton estimates this “cub” was also about six-feet long and weighed 250 pounds! These are Sutton’s wounds.
Sutton turned away just as the bear hit him. “I felt instant pressure on the back of my neck,” Sutton remembers. He was lifted up off the ground, feet dangling in the air like a kitten hoisted by its mother. He channeled his Air Force survival training to keep calm. Don’t resist, he told himself, even as he was being tossed and twisted. Play dead. You’ll be okay. “I could feel branches whip across my face. Then I’m laying on the ground, facedown. There’s a paw on my back, holding me down, and another paw’s clawing at me. I could hear the sound of its teeth clacking. It’s woofing. I wasn’t sure if it was done with me or not.” At the back of his neck, skin and muscle were ripped down to the bone; large chunks of tissue were simply gone. Doctors later told Sutton they could see the top of his spinal cord through the long gash. After the attack, friend and hunting partner Bill Bush found Sutton walking on the shoreline. “I had to lie to him,” Bush says. “I said, It’s not too bad–a couple deep cuts. You’ll be okay. But, my God, his head was half severed off. I still don’t know how he was able to hold his head up.”
Tossed aside, Sutton lay still–and watched in horror as two more bears came onto the scene. The first was a young Kodiak, about the same size as his attacker. Then, he caught sight of a huge swatch of brown fur moving through the alders. “I saw the sow come in,” Sutton says. “Oh, man, I freaked out. The size of her. Just enormous–like eight or nine feet long.” As the bears began tearing apart the deer carcass, panic engulfed Sutton. Deciding he had to do something, now, he started yelling and waving his arms. One cub leaped across the deer carcass at Sutton, knocked him on his back, a heavy paw on Sutton’s chest. “I reached up to punch it in the face or do something, I don’t know what.”
The bear bit down onto his left hand, but suddenly withdrew. Sutton thinks the bear’s teeth glanced off his wedding ring, and the strangeness of tooth on metal made it pull away. “I looked the bear right in the eyes,” Sutton says, the huge head not two feet away. “I was waiting for the lights to go out. I was sure it was going to bite my face.” (This photo shows Sutton’s bloody shirt after the attack)
And yet, strange to say, though he fully expected a death clamp from those viscous, open jaws, all the terror inside Sutton suddenly disappeared. Calm washed over him. “I had peace that I was going to be with the Lord,” is the only way Sutton can explain it. “In that moment, I just prayed to God to take care of my wife, Holly, and our five girls.” Fortunately, the bear rolled him over, and headed back to the deer. From 2009, Sutton and his wife Holly, outside their home in Great Falls, Montana. Sutton’s holding their youngest daughter Lacy. In front, from left to right, Makenzie and Sarah. Back, Madison on the left, Brianna on the right.
As the bears were feeding on the deer, Sutton heard his friend Bill Bush yelling his name. The yells got closer, and the bears soon fled. Sutton got to his feet, stumbled down to the shoreline and met up with Bush. Bush got him into the boat, and back to their cabin. Sutton’s clothes were shredded. His left arm looked like fresh ground hamburger, including a wicked cut at the top of his bicep. Warm blood trickled down the back of his neck. A slash across his abdomen threatened to spill open, and shiny grey-white tendons peeked through two gouges on his left leg. But he was alive. “I can remember laying on the cold aluminum floor of the Zodiac, looking at the outline of the mountains,” as they made their way to the cabin, Sutton says. “I could feel every wave hitting the boat. Not quite in shock at that point, but I was fading.”
Sutton after the attack, back at their hunting cabin, keeping himself hydrated with a blue camel back water bladder, hanging on the right. The bladder came from his Cabela’s Alaskan Outfitter Frame Pack. For two and a half days, he sipped warm sugar water from bladder. In this photo, Sutton’s alert and fairly lucid. Yet, for much of the 2.5 days after the attack, Sutton was in a semi-conscious haze of fear and worry. The pain drove him to distraction. Pain meds? A bottle of aspirin. The warmth inside his body told him he had an infection–and it was getting worse. He tried to keep up his spirits, but the reality that he might die was very strong. October in Alaska, the dark comes early and stays well into the morning, and the dark became oppressive to Sutton. “I kept asking Bill, What time is it?” Sutton says. “He’d pick up the lantern on the table and come over to me. That light in my eyes–I felt I was being interrogated.”
Pilot Steve Larson in his Devahilland Beaver. Larson heard and responded to Bush’s Mayday, a day before the two were scheduled to be picked up. The attack happened on a Sunday, yet the air service which dropped the off wasn’t due back until later on Wednesday. They didn’t have a satellite phone, and their VHF radio was too weak to reach beyond Viekoda Bay. After two sleepless days and nights, Bush heard the rumble of an aircraft while he was outside, spotted a small plane in the distance. “It was just a little dot,” Bush remembers, “getting ready to head behind a mountain.” Bush fumbled for the VHF radio and called out a mayday. He knew it was their one chance: Sutton simply didn’t have much more time. The pilot answered. Within a couple hours, a Coast Guard helicopter was whisking Sutton to a hospital in Kodiak.
But his wounds were so extensive, medical staff at Kodiak had Sutton transported to Providence Alaska Medical Center, in Anchorage. Doctors operated on Sutton, more than once, inserting 140 staples to close up his many wounds.
The physical rehabilitation took many months, but Sutton would eventually pass his Air Force flight physical and return to active duty. “I have full movement back,” Sutton says. “It just took a lot of time to get it back.” Sutton was very lucky. Had he stayed in that cabin another day, his doctors told him, his already massive infection would have gone septic. At that point, there would have been nothing they could have done. “I believe God definitely had his hand on me that day, protecting me from worse.”
Sutton celebrated his 32nd birthday while recovering from his wounds. “My brother Chris and my Mom Phyllis flew up from Pennsylvania, along with my wife, Holly,” says Sutton. Sutton has nothing but praise for the staff at Providence Alaska Medical Center. “They saved me. They did everything. You couldn’t ask for better.”
The back of Sutton’s neck, stitched up and with drain tube in place. Some days, the back of Sutton’s neck aches or it suddenly feels like dozens of pins are being stuck into the skin around the healed-over wound. The memory of the attack is still pretty close, though he feels no hatred of bears, no fear of life or living. True, Sutton gets a little fidgety back in the woods, but he still hunts and fishes as much as work and family obligations allow. “When I’m in bear country? My head’s on a swivel, that’s for sure!”
Once his enlistment was up, Sutton left the Air Force, mostly so he and his family could get back to Alaska. He joined the Alaska Air National Guard in April 2010, and is currently stationed near Fairbanks.
Sutton on the Kenai River, dip netting for Red Salmon with Bill Bush, July 2009. Today, gratitude is the center of Sutton’s life. Gratitude to God, to Bill Bush, to his wife, children, friends and family for their support through this ordeal. And he’s darned grateful to be back in Alaska, raising his children here, exposing them to the bountiful hunting and fishing this wilderness has to offer. “I’m definitely living the dream,” says Sutton. “What more could I ask for?” Read Sutton’s full story in the April Issue of Outdoor Life.
BACKCOUNTRY GRIZZLY ATTACK
Ron Leming Jr. and his Dad survived a harrowing bowhunt for elk. Instead of a trophy bull, the duo encountered a huge boar grizzly bear. We went bowhunting for elk outside of Cody and took the horses about 15 miles back in to setup camp. It had been four days and Dad had missed two bulls during the last two days. The plan was to ride about two miles from camp on horseback and then hike in to spot about a quarter-mile further in. When we left camp that morning Dad held out an arrow and said “God, guide my arrow today and let it find its mark.” It was a small prayer meant for an elk but little did we know that the arrow would find a very different mark- and more than likely save my life. Outdoor Life Online Editor
When we got to the spot I set up about 30 or 40 yards on a hillside above Dad and started calling. A nice bull came right in and started thrashing around and raking a tree, but it didn’t offer him a shot. I sat above the action watching and calling when needed when I thought I heard something behind me and turned around- nothing but green forest waved in the light breeze. It must have been my imagination, I thought. Slowing turning back to my Dad, I could only watch as the elk we were working took off down the mountain. I couldn’t figure out why; the wind was right and it couldn’t have seen us- I was baffled as to why it bugged out for no reason. Then I heard it. A noise that definitely wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Outdoor Life Online Editor
Turning around I saw a grizzly staring back at me from only 15 feet away. Now here in the West, we encounter bears quite often and most of the time it’s no big deal, but I was pretty sure something bad was going to happen this time. I stood up, waved my arms and yelled at him. All that bear did was lay his ears back and charge. He covered the distance between us in about a second and a half. In that moment my brain raced, conjuring up escape plans. At one point I thought I might be able to raise my bow and get a shot off, but then realized I didn’t even have an arrow nocked. Scrapping that idea with the bear nearly on top of me, I followed the most basic response to danger- flight. I took off running straight downhill toward my Dad. Outdoor Life Online Editor
As I was running toward my Dad with the huge grizzly right behind me, I saw a yellow streak fly right past my leg. Two steps later I was on the ground. I don’t know if I fell or the bear took me down, but I found myself wrestling the bruin. A voice screamed in my head, KEEP IT OFF YOUR HEAD! DON’T LET IT GET A HOLD OF YOUR NECK! Outdoor Life Online Editor
Fighting to keep my throat from the grizzly’s jaws, I felt him clamp down on my forearm. The force was amazing; it felt like my arm was being crushed. It wasn’t the pain you’d expect; the teeth didn’t hurt, it was more of a crushing pressure that I’ll never forget. As I fought to free my arm, flashes of dark brown fur, blue sky filtered through treetops and scarlet blood screamed past my eyes like a slideshow on fast-forward. Blood was flowing as if sprayed from a garden hose. I didn’t know if it was the bear’s or mine. A moment later I was somehow on my feet, I honestly don’t know how it happened but I was standing upright, covered in blood… and face to face with a grizzly that wanted to kill me. Outdoor Life Online Editor
Looking into the eyes of the bloodied grizzly, I turned and ran for two trees that formed a fork about 10 feet from me. Jumping as high into the forked trunks as I could, I tried a vertical escape but my nightmare continued. The grizz wouldn’t let me go that easy. He grabbed me from behind, pinning me to the tree before trying to pull me back down. I clung to the tree, hoping to stave off another mauling. That’s when I heard it. My Dad. He was yelling at the bear and hitting it across the back and shoulders with his bow. Outdoor Life Online Editor
That’s when the physical and mental pressure lifted for the first time and I thought that I might actually survive this encounter. The respite lasted less than a heartbeat as I realized that the grizzly turned his attention to Dad. Covered in blood, the grizzly glared at Dad and took a couple of steps toward him. “KILL IT! KILL IT! KILL IT!” I screamed. And then just as quickly as the grizzly released me and focused his rage on Dad, he changed course again and started downhill, leaving us as if nothing had happened. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“I shot him and I think he’s dying,” said Dad as we watched the bear lumber down the forested hillside. The yellow streak that whizzed past my leg as I initially ran from bear was my Dad’s arrow and it had apparently found its mark because now the grizzly took its last steps, stumbling about 80 yards before stopping and toppling to the ground dead. Outdoor Life Online Editor
After watching the bear drop dead, I went into shock. My vision began to blur, I felt nauseous and went cold. My Dad built a fire and as I laid by it he check my injuries and watched me trying to figure out how badly I was hurt. After 45 minutes or so I began to feel better. Dad hiked back to the horses and led them back to the site. Because of my injuries- my right arm that the bear chewed on was torn to the bone just below the elbow and my left hand had been bitten completely through, leaving the main nerve which controls all the fingers completely exposed- I was unable to climb on the horse, so we walked them more than the two miles back to camp. Once there I was able to climb on top of, ironically enough, the bear-proof food-storage locker and get in the saddle. After the 15-mile ride to the trailhead, we loaded the horses and drove to the hospital in Cody. I spent the night there, where they cleaned my wounds, stitched me up and pumped antibiotics into me.
The next day, Sept. 13, Dad headed back to our camp with local Game and Fish officers and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent. They investigated the scene and discovered that Dad’s arrow had hit the grizzly at the base of the neck and the expandable broadhead cut a major artery and then slid down into its chest cavity. Nearly all the blood covering me had belonged to the bear. Outdoor Life Online Editor
The agents said the bruin was an 11-year-old male that was 500 to 600 pounds and was undoubtedly the king of the area. The boar had been trapped as a nuisance bear near South Fork Road in 2003 for getting into area outbuildings. It was relocated to Grand Teton Park and hadn’t been a problem since. Considering that we were 15 miles in the backcountry and elk were in the area and we were actively calling, he probably though he was stalking an elk when we first met. Outdoor Life Online Editor
More than the actual attack, the thing that sticks in my mind most about the incident is my Dad and that instantaneous decision he made. He had missed two elk in the days leading up to the attack but when it mattered most, he launched an arrow within a couple of feet of his son and made an impossible shot. When I asked him what was going through his head, what he said was: “All I could think of was that bear getting a hold of you and possibly killing you, my son.” Outdoor Life Online Editor
GRAPHIC IMAGE WARNING! While hunting on Kodiak Island Matthew Sutton stumbled into an outdoorsman’s worst nightmare: a mother bear and her two cubs.