No Way Out!

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Philip Propst couldn’t see his dogs or the bear they’d cornered, but he could hear them. And what he heard chilled his blood. The bear had turned on the dogs, and Propst had only seconds to work his way into the fray to save as many of the pack as he could.

The growls and snarls of his hounds had turned to yelps and shrieks. For Propst, the prospect of losing the lion’s share of his 12-dog kennel bordered on the unthinkable. Like many West Virginians, the young logger so loves the sound of hounds baying that he takes his pack afield at least twice a week.

West Virginia’s bear-hunting season is only a month long in the area where Propst lives, but state law allows houndsmen to train dogs year-round by practicing “catch-and-release” bear hunting. Hunters can turn their hounds loose on wild bruins at any time, provided the dogs are called off after the bears are treed. Like many bear aficionados, Propst chases bears from the time the animals emerge from their dens in March to the time hibernation begins in December.

“I just run the dogs,” he says. “I haven’t killed a bear since–well, it’s been so long I can’t even remember the last time. I don’t carry a gun; that way, I don’t have to kill anything. If you’ve got a gun, you’ve got to shoot if you get into a spot.”

Propst’s fondness for bears and chasing them with hounds dates all the way back to when he and his half-brother Wally Starks were children.

“Dad did a lot of raccoon hunting,” Propst says. “Wally and I hunted coons for a long time. Then we started heading out with guys who were after bears. One thing led to another, and pretty soon coons just weren’t good enough anymore. We were hooked on bears.”

Since switching to bears, Propst and Starks have accumulated a sound, reliable pack of bear dogs–redbones, Walkers, mountain curs and black-and-tans. They’ve kept the hounds fit and finely tuned by regularly loosing them on the abundant black bears of nearby Cheat Mountain, a soaring semi-wilderness ridge located deep in the 900,000-acre Monongahela National Forest.

Chasing a Scent

The brothers’ bear-running trip last August 2 began much like most of their others. They rose at 5 a.m., loaded 10 of their 12 dogs in the back of a pickup truck and headed up U.S. 250 toward Cheat Mountain’s summit. When they reached the U.S. Forest Service road that leads to the old Gaudineer Knob fire tower, they followed the time-honored practice of chaining their keenest-nosed “strike dogs” to the top of the kennel box mounted on the truck bed. Slowly, they drove up the dirt road in the hope that one of the dogs might catch a whiff of bruin.

“We hadn’t gone very far when a dog struck a scent,” Propst recalls. “We turned two dogs out, and after they got started on the trail, we turned the rest of the pack loose to catch up with them.”

The unseen bear led the hounds on a lively half-hour chase across the spruce-forested slopes of Gaudineer Knob before it looped south back toward the highway.

“We heard the dogs coming, and we actually watched the bear cross the road and head up the hill on the other side,” Propst says. “We could tell it was a pretty good-sized bear, at least two hundred and fifty pounds. Judging from the size of its head it was probably a male.”

That wasn’t exactly good news for Propst and his pack. Male bears of that size tend to run farther before being cornered or treed, and they have the size and disposition to attack and kill dogs that get too close. In addition, the bruin was heading into a part of the mountain covered with young red spruce trees so closely spaced they made foot travel nearly impossible.

Cornered by the Bruin

Propst and Starks watched from the highway as the bear rocketed up the steep slope that leads to the head of Fish Hatchery Run. “The dogs got up there and got out of earshot. I went up the mountain after them and sent Wally around with the truck to try to head them off,” Propst says.

Propst found the going nearly impossible. The land was logged heavily in the first half of the 20th century but has been out of use for several years. The red spruce trees that sprang up after logging operations had ended formed nearly impenetrable thickets.

“Second-growth spruce is nasty,” Propst says. “You can’t really walk through it; you have to tunnel your way. Just about the time I got into the edge of the spruce, I heard the dogs barking. I thought they were barking ‘treed,’ but I couldn’t see anything.”

After an hour of “half-walking, half-crawling through that mess,” Propst finally emerged into a recent clear-cut choked with thick underbrush. Two huge surface boulders towered above the head-high growth. The bear stood on one rock, growling and snarling at the baying hounds below.

“About the time I looked over and saw the bear, the bear looked back and saw me,” Propst recalls. “He jumped off into that real thick brush, and that’s when the fighting commenced. Dogs were squalling, and I knew that bear was going to leave a bunch of them lie. The dogs pushed the bear back into a V-shaped funnel between the two rocks and went in after him.”

The ominous and imminent danger to the pack of dogs spurred Propst into action.

“I was in the wide end of the V, and I thought the bear had enough room to squeeze out the other side,” he says. “When I saw him start to move away from me I thought it was safe. I jumped down between the rocks and started crawling to get through the thick stuff to the dogs. It was a nasty few feet.

“As soon as I went to reach for one of the dogs, I looked up and saw the bear coming right toward me, his mouth wide open. He hit me head-on. I was on all fours and there was no way to get out.”

The bear bowled Propst over backward, and the encounter degenerated into lopsided hand-to-fang combat.

“He was growling and I knew he was going to bite me, so I put my hands up to defend myself,” Propst recalls. “I felt his teeth bite into my hands, and I screamed and kicked. It seemed like it took forever, but it was probably only seconds.

“As soon as I started screaming, the dogs lit into the bear again. They jumped off the rock and landed on top of us. The bear let go and began running, and the dogs went after him.”

Stunned and shaken by the attack, Propst rolled over onto his stomach and attempted to rise.

“I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what was going on. I went to push myself up off the ground, but my hands wouldn’t work.”

The meat off the outside of his right hand was mostly missing; it was barely hanging there by a flap. He couldn’t move any of the fingers on his left hand. There were tooth marks where the bear had bitten through one side of the hand into the other. Propst figured some tendons were bitten in two.

Waiting for Help

The injuries to his hands kept Propst from using his two-way radio to call Starks, so he began yelling in the hope that Starks might hear him. After 15 minutes of yelling, he got an answer.

“Wally came in, took my shirt off and wrapped my hands up with it,” Propst says.

Though both men realized Propst’s injuries were serious, they also knew they weren’t life-threatening. Starks got on his radio and called a friend, Gary Arbogast, to come up the mountain and drive Propst to a hospital while he finished rounding up the dogs.

“Gary is never far from his scanner, so we were able to contact him easily,” Propst says.

But to reach his rendezvous with Arbogast on U.S. 250, Propst had to retrace the tortuous mile-and-a-half trek through the spruce thicket.

“That was one long walk,” he says. “I tried to run, but my hands hurt so bad I had to walk. Gary was waiting for me at the road. We called a cop in Mill Creek, and he gave us an escort to the hospital in Elkins.”

Propst, Arbogast and the policeman covered nearly 40 miles in just 35 minutes. Surgeons at Davis Memorial Hospital immediately went to work on Propst’s most obvious injuries, and in the process found even more damage.

“They cleaned out the hole where the bear had bitten away the outside of my right hand, and they took X-rays of my left hand and found out that my wrist and all the bones across the palm were broken,” Propst says.

Nurses found yet another injury when they put a hospital gown on the chewed-up houndsman.

“I felt something wet start trickling down my right leg,” he recalls. “Turns out it was blood. The bear had bitten my leg, probably while I was trying to kick him.”

Twelve stitches closed the fang marks on his leg, but Propst’s surgeons had to do some serious knitting to repair his hands.

“They had to put pins in my left wrist and the last two bones of my left hand, and they had to sew back all the meat the bear had torn away from my right hand,” he says.

The only lingering effect of the attack is likely to be a loss of function in the little finger of Propst’s right hand. The bear severed a nerve when it chewed away the flesh on the outside of the digit.

The First Attack

News of the bear’s attack on Propst created a stir in West Virginia, where bears are abundant but attacks on humans are nearly unheard of. Officials of the state Division of Natural Resources believe the attack on Propst is the first fully substantiated account of a bear attack in the state.

“There might be something out there we don’t know about, but this is the only confirmed, documented attack of a human by a black bear that we’re aware of,” says Lt. Col. Bill Daniel of the agency’s Law Enforcement Section.

Propst hasn’t allowed the grisly encounter with the bruin to dampen his enthusiasm for the chase. Within a week of his discharge from the hospital, he was out with his dogs again, hot on a bear’s trail.

“I had a bandage on my right hand and my left arm in a sling, but I was back out there,” he says. He readily acknowledges that the attack was his own fault.

“I never should have climbed in there, but the bear was going to kill all of my dogs. The dogs had him to a point where he had to do something. Wally and I weren’t going to kill him, but he didn’t know that; he figured he had to fight his way out or die trying.

“When he started coming out of there, I was in his only escape route. He was just trying to get away,” says Propst. “But he didn’t have to bite so hard. He could have run right over me and I wouldn’t have minded a bit.”