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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.

We were talking loud. I’d been taking my time filming a golden eagle, but Jenna kept nudging me to keep on pace. We were hoping to hike to Iceberg Lake later that afternoon.

Right before the attack happened, we were debating how much farther we had to go before the turnaround. It was right around 9 a.m. Jenna was a few steps in front of me.

After the bear bit me, I didn’t fight back. I couldn’t. There wasn’t half a second. It was just impact. Plus, I got thrown off my feet. I knew the smartest tactic was to get into the fetal position, but there was no time. And then I thought: Shoot, my vital organs are totally exposed.

The bear was throwing me around. I looked down the trail and decided the best thing to do was to get myself off the slope. And that’s what I did. I ripped my body free from its jaws and then rolled down a steep embankment over rocks and bushes. I tumbled about 20 feet.

I came to a stop and took a breath. Then the realization came: OK, I’m here. There’s no bear, there’s no Jenna. Those two are together. That’s not good.

I was carrying a daypack with a camera, water, and snacks. There had been bear spray in the loose mesh side pocket, but it was knocked out of my pack when the grizzly first struck.

Later I learned that Jenna had seen the bear spray on the trail and picked it up. She didn’t know she had to release the safety lever before she sprayed. While she was looking at it–we’re talking just one or two seconds–the bear started running at her.

She’s pretty sure she fainted at that point. It was the shock of I can’t get this thing to work as fast as I want it to and this bear is running at me. She passed out and fell about 50 feet off-trail in a different direction from me. She woke up halfway through the fall and hit her butt and head on rocks. That woke her up. That’s also when she broke her back. It wasn’t a bad break, thank god.

I yelled, “Jenna, come down here! It’s safe!” She never heard me. But the bear did. The minute I yelled, I saw the bear looking down. It started running right at me.

It’s unbelievable how fast grizzlies barrel up and down slopes. I went into a fetal position, and the bear latched onto my pack, lifting me up and down like I weighed nothing. I’m 6 foot 1 and 185 pounds.

All I could think was: This is bizarre. But Jenna later told me I was screaming. Then I remember thinking, Jenna doesn’t have a backpack. If this happens to her, she’s dead. That’s when the realization set in: I needed to keep this bear with me. I can protect myself, but Jenna doesn’t have this extra protection. I think my screaming kept it on me.

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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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