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October 2006

Survival Story: Surviving a Grizzly Attack in Glacier National Park

On August 25, 2005, Johan Otter and his 18-year-old daughter, Jenna, hiked right into the worst nightmare of any Glacier National Park backpacker: a 300-pound mother grizzly protecting two cubs. Here, in his own words, the 45-year-old physical therapist from Escondido, CA, shares the incredible story of their life-and-death struggle.

Jenna saw the grizzly a second or two before I did. We were on the Grinnell Glacier Trail, and there was a 20-foot-tall boulder sticking out. Jenna was about to walk around it when the bear turned the corner.

She could’ve reached out and touched its snout. It was within 5 feet of her, and she could see that it had two cubs. Jenna’s first response was to run away. She took about two steps back toward me. I was still walking up, unaware of what was happening–until she shouted, “Oh no!”

The first thing I saw was this big furry thing. It was running straight at me. I remember the fangs and the claws. I never even saw the cubs.

I instinctively stepped in front of Jenna. My response was just to stand my ground and not move.

The bear immediately went for my left thigh: whomp, bite. It mouthed right in. I looked down at what was happening; it was just surreal. At first I thought, what is that: a big badger? Then I thought: No, it’s a bear. Some weird thoughts were running through my mind. Like that the bear was not as big as I might have imagined. Then it bit me again in the leg.

We had driven to Glacier from Escondido to celebrate Jenna’s high school graduation. She was getting ready to go off to the University of California at Irvine in a few weeks.

The two of us were pretty serious hikers. We’d often do 10-milers with my wife and younger daughter, then Jenna and I’d go a bit farther. She danced and was really fit, and I was a marathoner. Our goal for this trip was to really go for it.

This day, we decided to hike to Grinnell Glacier; it’s about 11 miles round-trip. We got to the trailhead around 7 a.m. I had wanted to start earlier but my daughter said no, you need to keep business hours when you’re in grizzly country.

There was only one car in the parking lot, but we got the feeling it was a popular trail. We knew we needed to get moving before larger groups started rolling in. The trail starts out as a nature path–the type where you pick up a brochure to learn about the plants around you. We wound through a grove of trees, past Lake Josephine, and started up some switchbacks that took us above treeline. The trail got rocky. We were on a slope, and there were just a few shrubs around. There had been a snowstorm the day before, but skies had cleared and there were just high clouds. It was good hiking weather; I’d guess the temperature was in the 60s after a couple of hours on the trail.

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  1. djrrxx

    With all due respect to the bear defense victims, this is probably one of the worst written stories I have read in a major media. Poor story flow, uneven, jumps all over, but that is the Backpacker writer versus the story’s subjects.

    Additionally, there are some inconsistencies to Otter’s story. Either Otter or the writer should’ve check these details prior to publishing this article. For instance, Otter state he first fell 20 feet, then another 30 and, finally, yet another 30 feet. He stated his daughter fell approximately 50 feet, in the opposite direction from him. Yet, Otter states toward the end of his story he and his daughter (Jenna) ended up only “30 feet apart.” Very confusing.

    While we know this incident did indeed occur, our automatic response is to question the credibility of his details with respect to just those inconsistencies alone. However and once more, it was the writer’s responsibility to notice any inconsistencies and question the subject for clarity and consistencies, prior to publishing this story.

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